alewives

buckies, ladders, eels & unemployment

Construction at two fish ladders on the Saugatucket River has begun at last. In Peacedale, Narragansett Dock Works has started changing the sluiceway floor height and the pitch in the lift system, which will reduce the occasionally volatile flow of water. As the current design reflects a time when our rivers once were home to fishes like herring, shad, salmon and even sturgeon, the force of water often proves too much for our bluebacks and alewives. Preliminary work has also started at the Main Street site, which is a more extensive renovation. When spring calls river herring back to their natal waters in an unbelievable biological miracle of migration and absolute determination, they must battle their way to the fish ladder then are often too energy depleted to make it past the hard rushing waters.

RIDEM, NOAA and the Town of South Kingstown have made a sizable investment in these two structures. Financially, the costs cover alterations to the both dam sites with the most significant changes coming to the entire ladder system at Main Street. The turns and angles of this Denil-style ladder will be dramatically changed for the better. A resting pool will be installed where the boulder field is now, affording incoming buckies a place to chill before attempting to summit the waterway. The angles of movement will be changed in an effort to reduce water speeds. There are also plans to assist the return of the hard hit American eel at both sites. That part will be covered in the upcoming weeks.

This two phased construction project will similarly present our town with a substantial social benefit, one we will share with all those fish. Historical accounts of great spring fish runs were matched by town wide celebrations in places like Maine and Massachusetts and Rhode Island should be no different. In a 1723, Maine Jesuit Sebastian Rasle wrote of alewives where, “during one month the fish ascend the river in so great numbers that a man could fill fifty thousand barrels with them in a day, if he could be equal to that work.” Men, women and children once lined narrow river banks to take them with dip nets, weirs were constructed for harvesting in great numbers and even a few strong students here in South Kingstown once filled skiffs after school as the incoming Narrow River tide delivered them by the ton. Redesigning and repairing these two ladders is a giant step towards our river running silver again.

Up and down the New England coast, before regulations and depletions, alewives’ value in traps, on hooks and on the dinner table was incalculable. So we took and we took. And after a lean year, we surely took a little extra. On one river in Maine, some good businessmen installed an elevator to lift alewives right from the water to giant iron crates, then directly into the beds of fisherman’s trucks. At some point in the timeline, harvest became destruction, just a few letters removed from devastation. As far back as 1920, David L. Belding, Biologist with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, noted the “The successful re-establishment of this depleted fishery would benefit the shore towns directly, and indirectly would prove of greater value to the fisheries as a whole.” The Native American tradition of using every element of an animal was so easily overlooked in the name of an easy harvest because when you allow yourself to work blind, there is no horizon line.

Many inches of this column have been happily devoted to buckies. They are Nature’s easy meal, consumed by many of species of fish, birds and terrestrial animals. These diverse animals rely heavily on herring for protein, as they provide almost 18 grams of protein and 9 grams of fat for every 100 grams of body weight. Their long chain Omega-3 fatty acids and natural vitamin D are keys to the health and survival of predators and their young. Additionally, there is strong belief that alewives provide cover for returning and spawning salmon; one species in effect is sacrificed for the survival of another.

Much attention has also been given to those volunteers who lined those damn dams, hauling thousands of heavy nets teeming with wriggling herring over the wall. Both fish and man have played important roles in the evolution of our waters and town but now it’s time for the folks in waders to become observers from the sidelines. They are a devoted group of workers hoping like hell to become unemployed. Over the next few weeks or until the ice freezes up this column, we will cover these construction improvements. If so interested, plans for each site in PDF format are available through RIDEM or by emailing me at fishwrapwriter@gmail.com.

Steve Medeiros, President of the RI Salt Water Anglers Association, has announced that his group, along with RIDEM and the Narragansett Parks and the Recreation Department have decided that this year’s Galilee Fishing Tournament & Seafood Festival will be the last. For three years, lots of volunteers have worked hard to create a fun event right in the heart of our fishing village but there were no signs of growth and lots of competition for anglers, considering the many other regional tournaments.  RISAA is a non-profit group, representing 7,500 recreational anglers and certainly a worthy investment of your time and reasonable dues if you care about the joys of fishing, educating others about our resources and offering a voice on regulatory issues that is heard loud and clear by our officials. When most of those seats are empty at ASMFC and RIDEM meetings, you can bet there is at least one occupied by a RISAA member and that alone is worth the annual dues.

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