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Giving the Alewife a Leg Up

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web Fish Ladder 2

By Claire Walla

Alewives are not the most striking variety of fish. Small, narrow and silver-like herring, they are most often pickled before they’re consumed.

But their relevance here on the South Fork is more poignant than simply their role as cuisine.

As Southampton Town Trustee Fred Havemeyer explained, alewives are part of the local food chain, providing nourishment for local raccoons and birds, as well as some of the larger aquatic creatures that form the backbone of the fishing industry here on the East End.

An oddity among local fish species, alewives travel through creeks and brooks to get from salt water to fresh water to spawn. But, Havemeyer said, several impediments have made it difficult for the fish to complete this life cycle. So, the Southampton Town Trustees and other environmental organizations are taking steps to help them survive.

Most recently, the trustees’ efforts led to the creation of a “fish ladder” in Alewife Creek, which runs under Noyac Road and into Big Fresh Pond in North Sea.

The project was put together “on a shoe-string budget,” using 60 rocks, purchased for $150, and cement parking blocks the town obtained from an abandoned building site, Havemeyer explained. To create the “ladder” effect, a crew of about a dozen people — including trustees Eric Schultz and Ed Warner, in addition to Chuck Bowman, a consultant from Land Use — placed the rocks in two lines across the creek with small openings in the center, essentially damning up the creek to increase water flow.

Havemeyer added that the design also gives the fish two pools of water in which to rest during their laborious journey upstream.

“It’s been hard for them to get through,” Havemeyer continued, pointing out that in years past water levels have been low.

He went on to explain that many alewives seemed to find it difficult to overcome the lip near the entrance to the tunnel that runs under Noyac Road, and many were also getting stuck behind embankments on either side of the mouth of the tunnel.

Now, Havemeyer said that after only an hour of having the “fish ladder” in place, the water level in the creek had already risen.

“We’re thrilled with the way it turned out,” he said.

Here in Sag Harbor, plans to restore Ligonee Brook will provide similar benefits for the alewife population which travels every spring from Sag Harbor Cove to Long Pond.

Although, as opposed to the North Sea project, which Havemeyer described as the “down-home, grassroots, simple way of doing it,” the Ligonee Brook restoration project is being funded as part of a much larger grant issued by Suffolk County in conjunction with the state and federal governments.

The project was actually approved last January 2011, although project manager Will Bowman of Land Use Ecological Services, Inc. said the details of the project were just recently approved by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. He said he expects to begin the initial phases of the restoration project in the second week of April.