We don’t eat many of them, although they are delicious. Lobster and other fish love them and they are highly prized as baitfish. These are the many species of herring that live in Maine waters. Herring are a diverse group of fish that are all relatively small and silvery in color and travel together in large schools of – sometimes in the billions. They are filter feeders that eat tiny plankton, making them a critical link in the marine food chain.

Maine herring fall into two groups – river herring and sea herring. They both spend some time in the saltwater, but the river herring, also known as alewives, move from salt to fresh to spawn every spring. That makes them diadromous (one of my girls’ favorite spelling words of late) fish – ones that split their life cycle between salts and freshwater. Specifically, they are anadromous, which means they spawn in freshwater.

Alewives are the herring that are gain our attention each spring as they make their way from salty bays up into small streams and ponds to spawn. On their journey, however, they often face major obstacles beyond the natural ones like predation or starvation. Man-made structures like dams can limit their mobility. Fortunately, dam removal projects along with the construction of fish ladders have helped to reconnect river herring with their spawning grounds.

I recently wrote about citizen science and the various opportunities for people to participate in collecting information important to the management of our ecological resources. Counting alewives is a great example. There’s nothing like watching them struggle to jump up a fish ladder to make you appreciate their strength and determination. “Indefatigable,” said one of my daughters, using another favorite challenge spelling word of late to describe their tirelessness. Alewives are incredibly strong little fish, only reaching 10 or so inches in length. But, their narrow bodies and deeply forked tail help them to leap upstream.

The fishermen who wait in line to purchase these alewives during the brief spawning run are tireless also – some arriving in the wee dark hours of the morning to wait to buy the limited supply and others even spending the night in their truck the night before in order to be first in line. Alewives are rumored to bring in the biggest of the legal-sized lobsters. Nequasset Lake in Woolwich is one of 19 alewife runs where commercial harvesting occurs. They are harvested by hand below the fish ladder and sold from an iconic small red shack that also serves as a smokehouse. A local fish commission tightly controls the harvest to makes sure that enough alewives make it upstream to spawn and replenish the population. The same family has been managing the harvest there for over 60 years.

Their cousins are the sea, or Atlantic, herring, and can get a bit bigger, reaching size of 17 inches. People eat a limited number of the smaller ones, which we call sardines, but they are primarily used as bait. Atlantic herring harvest is much less local. Large boats travel all along the Northeast coast as far down as North Carolina. They often cross state lines and travel further offshore. For this reason, they aren’t

managed locally. In offshore waters, they are managed by a multi-state group called the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) along with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) fisheries. In state waters, they are managed by the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC). Herring boats typically use one of a couple of different types of nets. One is a trawl, which is a cone-shaped net pulled by one boat or between two boats. The other is a purse seine, which is a net set around a school of fish and then cinched up like a purse. This fishery doesn’t depend on a seasonal spawning run like that for alewives, but it is similarly restricted to a certain time of year. This year’s season will begin July 19th and allows a limited number of permitted boats to fish per area for a limited number of days. They have a total weekly catch limit they can’t exceed. There are some additional boats allowed to fish for a smaller amount of herring that is limited per day.

Whether river or sea herring, these little fish that belong to the Clupiadae family are tough. In fact, they are named for the Latin word clupeus, for shield, referring to their shiny scales. Watching them fight their way upstream or rush through the water in giant schools is inspirational, perhaps the definition of indefatigable.

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