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    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    Council must protect Connecticut’s river herring

    A gull flies off with an alewife that it plucked from a stream May 14, 2021, in Nobleboro, Maine. Gulls are just one of many species that feast on the anadromous fish as they migrate from the ocean to breed in freshwater lakes. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP Photo)

    There was a time when the Shetucket River and all the state’s rivers that flow into Long Island Sound teemed with migratory fish, including salmon, shad, striped bass, sturgeon and river herring. The construction of dams from the late 1600s to the mid 1900s blocked their path and prevented them from spawning. The numbers of these fish plummeted. For the past 50 years, we have made gains in bringing back these fish runs by cleaning up our rivers, removing unneeded dams and building fishways around dams that remain.

    Despite the earlier historical decline, Connecticut streams were still full of spawning river herring each spring as recently as the 1970s. River herring include two species — alewife and blueback herring — which are similar foot-long silvery fish that enter our streams in schools. Streams like the Shetucket and Pattagansett rivers, Latimer, Bride, Trading Cove, Poquetanuck and Anguilla brooks were full of spawning herring up to the first dam. This was also true along the shoreline from Greenwich to Groton; every sizeable stream had river herring runs.

    Stream conditions are now much better than they were in the 1970s, yet the numbers of river herring have been in a downward spiral since then and are now at risk. Fishways have been built at five hydroelectric dams on the Shetucket and Quinebaug rivers, yet the numbers continue to fall. Most of the small streams flowing into the Connecticut River are empty. The blueback herring are more or less extinct from smaller coastal streams. How can this be? About the time when the decline began, large trawlers began harvesting Atlantic herring from the waters off the eastern end of Long Island Sound during the late winter when our river herring were congregating to enter the sound for their spring spawning runs. Atlantic herring and river herring are closely related and resemble each other. The massive nets, often pulled by two huge ships, scoop up river herring along with the Atlantic herring.

    After years of urging by conservationists, the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) amended its Atlantic Herring Management Plan by prohibiting the trawlers in the area of the ocean off southern New England waters when our river herring are mixing in with the Atlantic herring. However, the courts threw out the closure on a procedural issue before we could see any gains. The trawlers have returned and continue to kill our river herring.

    Why do we care about river herring? They are the forage base of both the freshwater and saltwater ecosystems. Everything eats them including ospreys, bald eagles, striped bass, tuna, largemouth bass and great blue herons. If we care about our rivers and the Long Island Sound, we need to have an abundance of these fish, yet we have a history of treating forage fish as trash. Rebuilding the river herring runs will revitalize our waters, support all manner of wildlife, and improve recreational fishing, which is a lucrative industry supporting tourism and contributing to our quality of life.

    It has been said that there are plenty of river herring in Maine so there is no need for concern. That’s because the NEFMC closed their coastal waters to the trawlers. Now the trawlers come to southern New England to catch our fish because the NEFMC has not closed our coastal waters. Is that fair? It is time that NEFMC provides the same protection for our fish that it provides Maine.

    The NEFMC is considering closing that area again or some other protective measures via a proposed amendment to the plan, so-called Amendment 10. The comment period on Amendment 10 is open and letters can be sent to the NEFMC at 50 Water St., Mill 2, Newburyport, Mass., 01950. There will be a public hearing at the Hilton Hotel in Mystic on Wednesday, April 17 and concerned citizens can attend and speak. The people of southeastern Connecticut need to speak up and demand fair treatment.

    Laura Wildman, vice president of ecological restoration for Save the Sound, is a dam removal engineer who has been involved with dam removals in the United States and Europe.

    Long Island Soundkeeper Bill Lucey of Save the Sound has worked both as a fisheries biologist and a commercial fisherman.

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