Bringing alewives back into Alewife Cove
The sun had just dipped below the horizon, bathing the western sky in iridescent streaks of orange and purple, when Chris Clouet and I paddled a tandem kayak from Long Island Sound into Alewife Cove.
The end of the flood tide and a gentle tailwind pushed us into the secluded waterway that forms the southern border between New London and Waterford. It is a serene estuary, where great blue heron stalk the shoreline and osprey dive for fish.
"At times like this, when I'm on the water, it humbles me that we are living on this little planet," Clouet said, pausing to gaze at the tableau.
Alewife Cove is named for the herring species once plentiful throughout North America but now greatly reduced in number, largely because of habitat loss and extensive dam construction that interfered with spawning migration.
Clouet, a New London resident and the city's former superintendent of schools, is co-chairman, along with Edward Lamoureux of Waterford, of the Alewife Cove Conservancy. This nonprofit organization is dedicated to enhancing the cove's water quality, improving public access, and expanding environmental and maritime history programs for students.
In so doing, the group, which has scheduled its first fundraising event at 6 p.m. this Saturday, Oct. 12, at Ocean Beach Park in New London, hopes to bring alewives back to Alewife Cove.
"Legend has it that during the spawning season, one could walk across streams on the backs of the fish," the conservancy notes on its website.
A federal grant approved last year supports a study by the statewide organization Save the Sound that could lead to construction of a fish ladder allowing alewives to swim past a small dam blocking the cove just north of Niles Hill Road. The dam was built in the 1970s to create a pond near an apartment complex.
Before then, alewives could swim all the way from Long Island Sound to the cove's source at Fenger Brook north of the Boston Post Road. As an anadromous species, alewives live mostly in saltwater and return to freshwater rivers to spawn.
The fish, which can grow up to a foot long, are an important food source for larger marine life and many birds, including osprey. Native Americans and colonists also feasted on them.
A 2017 article by Dave Taft in the New York Times reported, "Alewives are bony, tasty, nutritious and relatively easy to preserve; and, in colonial times, they were abundant. The fish could be eaten by humans or fed to pigs or other livestock."
The article also noted, "Alewives were protected by the first known fishery regulations in North America, which date to 1623 in Plymouth Colony. Over time, net sizes, harvest schedules and set locations, as well as catch limits, were all strictly regulated in order to protect these valuable fish."
The name alewife likely was derived from an archaic term for a corpulent female tavernkeeper, because they both had round bellies, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The alewife grows overlapping scales along its stomach and also is known as a "sawbelly."
Some other alewife trivia: Playwright Eugene O'Neill, whose boyhood home was in New London, could be seen rowing lady friends around Alewife Cove in the 1930s; the cove also had been the scene of a pitched naval battle during the War of 1812.
Another conservancy goal is to evaluate the feasibility of dredging sand that had been swept into the cove by Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Parts of the channel are now so filled in that you can stroll between Ocean Beach and Waterford Beach at low tide.
Navigating less than a mile and a half between the sound and the Niles Hill Road bridge can be a challenge, even at high tide in a kayak, as Clouet and I discovered when we paddled through the cove earlier this week. We scraped bottom a few times and almost had to get out and walk.
Clouet, now schools superintendent in Shelton, a city of about 40,000 in Fairfield County, said the conservancy also is working to establish cartop boat launches on both the New London and Waterford sides of the cove. Right now there are no easy, direct access points for kayaks and other small boats; the best public approach is from the sound.
The conservancy and Ocean Beach Park already partner with the New England Sailing & Science Foundation, a Stonington-based nonprofit that provides water-based educational and recreational programs for students across the region. Through NESS and its fleet of kayaks, students have explored the cove by launching from a path adjacent to Ocean Beach Park. Dave Sugrue, the park's general manager, serves on the conservancy's board of directors.
I'm always encouraged by the efforts of groups such as the Alewife Cove Conservancy to promote conservation and appreciation for our region's natural resources. All of us who hike, paddle, or simply enjoy the views of southeastern Connecticut's lakes, rivers, coves, forests and meadows, owe these volunteer organizations a debt of gratitude.
For more information about the conservancy and Saturday's upcoming event, visit the website alewifecove.org.