Ecosystem Targets and Supporting Indicators
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River herring is a collective term for the Alewife, Alosa pseudoharengus, and Blueback Herring, Alosa aestivalis, two anadromous fish species that are related to the American Shad. Anadromous fish migrate from the ocean to rivers to spawn. The coastal range of the Alewife extends from northeastern Newfoundland to South Carolina, while that of the Blueback Herring extends from Nova Scotia to Florida. Both species undertake upriver spawning migrations during spring. The American Shad, Alosa sapidissima, is the largest of the herring family and is a favorite Connecticut River sportfish. It also undertakes upriver spawning migration during spring. The historic range of American shad was from the St. Lawrence River to Florida. Shad are still distributed throughout their historic range but shad are most abundant in East Coast rivers between Connecticut and North Carolina.
This group of streams has one fishway where fish are counted. The amount of available habitat upstream of the fishway is not expected to increase due to future fish passage projects (e.g. no more upstream dams or all upstream dams are currently passable). Because of this, the number of fish returning year-after-year will likely be due to changes in survival at sea rather than major changes in freshwater. These numbers can be used as an index for how the species are doing at sea or in general.
River herring and shad are important to our freshwater, marine and estuarine ecosystems because adult herring and their young provide food for a variety of predators including freshwater gamefish, marine gamefish, osprey, bald eagle, harbor seals, porpoise, egrets, kingfishers, and river otter. Historically, river herring runs into Connecticut rivers and streams numbered into the millions; however, runs have been declining steadily in recent decades. To help restore river herring populations and other anadromous fish, CT DEEP has built fishways at dams, removed dams, and widened culverts to allow fish to bypass barriers to find habitat upstream to spawn.
Mianus Pond Fishway – This fishway was built by the Town of Greenwich in the mid-1990s and is located at the head of the tide on the Mianus River. It provides access to the large Mianus Pond and a short distance of free-flowing stream prior to reaching the next dam. When it first opened, only hundreds of Alewives moved upstream. After years of being able to spawn in the pond, the Alewives now number in the tens of thousands annually. This is one of the strongest Alewife runs in Connecticut and other species like gizzard shad, sea-run trout, and blueback herring also use the fishway. The data on Blueback Herring is relatively recent but it is believed to be increasing. The Town operates an electronic fish counter and an underwater camera to obtain these data. There are also two eel passes at this dam to help American Eels get upstream. The Town provides tours upon request.
Bride Brook – This stream flows out of Bride Lake and enters Long Island Sound about a mile downstream at Rocky Neck State Park. The lake is a natural coastal pond where the alewives spawn. The CT DEEP operates an electronic fish counter and a trap at the head of the brook where it flows out of the lake. The trap is on property that is part of a state prison and is closed to the public. This run has been the subject of research in the 1960s and again in the 2000s, some of which is ongoing. The run is one of the best in the state and the trap is used to capture fish for transplanting into other streams to accelerate the pace of restoration. A project during 2010 at Rocky Neck State Park replaced rusting, inadequate pipes with a new open channel. During the subsequent years, the run size has increased, likely due to the fact that more fish can enter the brook due to the new channel. This site remains the strongest run of alewives in Connecticut.
Latimer Brook – This fishway is one of the oldest in Connecticut and was originally built to trap returning sea-run trout. Small numbers of alewives were transferred from Bride Brook in the 1980s and 1990s and the fishway was modified and a small but stable run of alewife was created. A trap was installed to help biologists capture returning trout and this trap is also used to count returning Alewives, which are then released upstream of the fishway.
Connecticut River – The counts of returning diadromous fish are obtained at the first dam on the river at Holyoke, MA. The dam is 33 feet high (hydroelectric project) and there are two multi-million dollar fish lifts operated by the City of Holyoke. The fish are counted visually by staff of the Massachusetts Division of Wildlife using a window in the side of the fish lift exit flume. There are four additional dams with fishways located on the Connecticut River upstream of the Holyoke Dam as well as others on upstream tributaries. More fishways and dam removals are planned as well as improvements to existing fishways. Therefore, the number of fish returning each year is a function of successful reproduction and survival in the river years earlier as well as survival rates in the ocean.
Run sizes continue to vary from year-to-year and from site-to-site. The Connecticut River counts of Blueback Herring extend back far enough to show the drastic decline after the mid-1980s and show that despite occasional increases in numbers in 2018, 2019 & 2021, the run size is still way below what it used to be. The counts at Mianus River, Bride Brook, and Latimer Brook do not go back far enough to document those ‘better times’ and when those counts increase in a year, the term ‘good year’ must be used advisedly. In the fall of 2018, the New England Fisheries Management Council closed some nearshore fisheries of Atlantic herring, which had been incidentally catching river herring when they were in the ocean. It is hoped that this action may result in some improved runs to Long Island Sound tributaries.