Alewives Among Us: Stalking the Streams

The fish ladder in Grangebel Park in Riverhead
The fish ladder in Grangebel Park in Riverhead

If you’re unlucky enough to not be a fisherman and you spend time around a lot of salty people, you can get confused pretty fast about just what different fish are out there in the Peconic Bays.

There are just about two or three different names for most of the fish we’ve got out there, and the deeper you go into Bonac territory, the more the pronunciation of those different names will throw a neophyte off.

Take the lowly alewife, a member of the herring family that is a critical fish to the marine ecosystem and is prey to many of the local fish that we eat.

Alewives are distant cousins to our local menhaden, a fish whose name comes from the Native American word “Munnawhatteaug,” which means “that which manures.” They’re the fish that were planted alongside the three sister crops to help them grow.

Out in East Hampton, all kinds of roads are named after alewives. Alewife Brook Road turns into Ely Brook Road, but in meaning they’re closer than kissing cousins.

When alewives are feeling romantic, these salty fish swim up freshwater streams, into ponds where they mate and produce the next generation of alewives, who swim back out into the deep blue sea.

Now out here on the East End, we’re so busy being preoccupied by the great expanses of salt water surrounding us that it’s difficult to even think about freshwater streams. It’s easy to pick out the Peconic River, but few people spend much time staring into Moore’s Dreen in Greenport or Ligonee Brook in Sag Harbor. These little babblers don’t really rate as water bodies in our jaded minds.

The folks over at Seatuck in Islip are working hard to change the way Long Islanders think about alewives and the rivers where they run, whose courses have been shifted and sometimes stuffed with debris that keeps the alewives from swimming upstream.

They’re having success all over Long Island, says Seatuck Executive Director Enrico Nardone. This year, he said in an interview last week, a record three dozen regular alewife monitors have spent the past few weeks staring into streams all over Long Island and recording the alewives they see.

These volunteers have helped to document some new alewife runs on the western end of Long Island over the past several weeks. They’ve found fish running into Mill Pond in Bellmore and others swimming upstream in the Nissequogue River, and sightings in Baldwin for the first time in years.

This year, said Mr. Nardone, his group is estimating that as many as a record 100,000 fish alewives have swum up the Peconic River, swimming up a rock ramp Seatuck helped install in Grangebel Park four years ago.

“They’e coming over the rock ramp. It’s really grown. It does seem to be paying off,” he said.

The majority of those alewives take a small left-hand fork of the river, across Route 24 near the County Center, where they swim up to Woodhull Dam in the Cranberry Bog County Park, across Lake Avenue from the Wildwood Bowling Alley.

There, photographers have been having a field day all spring taking pictures of huge congregations of alewives hanging out and spawning in the deep fresh water.

“If you see pictures of a big group, swimming around in circles, that’s where they are,” said Mr. Nardone.

Alewife monitoring takes a cultivated patience, as I learned earlier this spring when I set off to stare into the small streams out on the forks. It didn’t help that the cold weather made the alewife run about two weeks later than usual.

I started out, accidentally, in the Long Pond Greenbelt in Bridgehampton in late March, where Friends of the Long Pond Greenbelt President Dai Dayton tipped me off that the alewives swim up Ligonee Brook from the Sag Harbor Cove, across the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike and then east through the woods up to Long Pond. Intrepid Sag Harbor Eagle Scout Max Yardley had even helped to rip out an old culvert under the trail through the woods and replaced it with a sturdy wooden bridge to help the alewives cross.

Max Yardley's bridge over Ligonee Creek.
Max Yardley’s bridge over Ligonee Brook.

But this spring, the water level in Long Pond, which is fed by rain, was at a low point, and Ligonee Brook was just a dry brook bed underneath Max’s fantastic bridge. I traced the brook back to Brick Kiln Road where it was still just a trickle, then stared into the water hoping to catch sight of a fish. I saw nothing.

Dai had tipped me off that the best place to look for alewifes is a creek that runs into Big Fresh Pond in North Sea, in the Emma Rose Elliston park. Back in those woods along a sandy path leading away from the bathing area, there was a little trickle of water making its way into the pond. I stopped and watched carefully for the better part of an hour. There were no fish in this water either.

There isn't much water in Alewife Creek, but alewives don't need that much water to swim upstream.
There isn’t much water in Alewife Creek, but alewives don’t need that much water to swim upstream.

Turns out, that creek is actually called Alewife Creek, and it is one of the best runs on the East End, confirmed Mr. Nardone. The trick is that most of the alewives come through when the high tide in the bay pushes them over the lip of a concrete culvert further downstream. The fish congregate at the base of the culvert, waiting for the tide to push them over, like boats waiting at a lock.

“It’s not much of a creek, but they don’t need a lot of water,” said Mr. Nardone.

The key to finding an alewife run is to find a stream, which isn’t very easy in an area where the preponderance of water is mostly in salty form. Now, that stream has to go from a bay to a pond or a lake, where the fish can spawn.

There is just such a stream in Greenport, but it isn’t even called a stream. Moore’s Dreen winds from Pipe’s Cove up to Silver Lake, just west of Fifth Street. I lived in Greenport when I was a kid, but I’ve never heard of Silver Lake. It’s not far from where the little kid train used to go through the woods. But if you didn’t grow up in Greenport, you probably don’t remember that either.

Well, Moore’s Dreen is listed on Seatuck’s list of alewife runs, but I stared into that dreeny water for a while and saw no sign of my mossbunker, menhaden, alewife friends. I trudged home, disappointed.

Mr. Nardone later told me he’s never even heard of Moore’s Dreen, so I don’t feel so bad.

He did say, though, that there are patterns to the way fish travel up these rivers and streams, and many of these patterns aren’t yet known to us.

“Some runs are nocturnal. The Peconic run is almost exclusively nocturnal,” he said. “We find this in areas where there are visual predators, like cormorants, where the fish have really learned to move at night. They do seem to move in with the high tide lifted with the systems, but we don’t have enough data to make good sense of that. We’re still figuring out the patterns. All of a sudden they’re there, and there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason. Finding them is like a needle in a haystack. You need to be there when the conditions are right and they’re visible.”

With more eyes on the rivers, maybe that will change. More information on Seatuck’s alewife work is available online here.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

3 thoughts on “Alewives Among Us: Stalking the Streams

  • May 5, 2014 at 6:11 pm
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    Love Ale-wives as we used to call them.
    When I was a kid and my uncle and I “HAD TO FISH” in January we would drive to Captree and fish for COD or sometimes catch a boat that fished the Ambrose Light Ship – which morphed into the Ambrose Light Tower – and we would catch ALEWIFE. Always loved seeing them come up the streams in the spring.

    Reply
  • May 12, 2014 at 10:29 am
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    Great story Beth. Very well researched. Why not write something equally strong about the menhaden and the importance of them in the food chain-and how they have been almost fished to extinction. They need a champion like yourself

    Reply
  • May 17, 2014 at 6:35 pm
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    Hi David – Beth did write about them last July. You can click on the highlighted “manhaden” in the 4th paragraph above to go direct to that story with its comments – it was one of the top commented-on stories last year. And yes, it’s worth keeping this in focus!

    Reply

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