The St. Croix River in Washington County may host some of the most counted and studied alewives in the country. The controversy over whether to restore alewife access throughout the river has spawned multiple studies, and stakeholders have a plethora of data to crunch about the river’s alewife population.

But just a few miles east on the East Machias River, data is scarce, and management of the alewife there involves a good amount of guesswork, says Dwayne Shaw, Executive Director of the Downeast Salmon Federation.

“Nobody knows how many there are now,” said Shaw.

The federation’s office sits a short distance from the head of the tide where the river’s main alewife run takes place, but no one has done a headcount of the fish there. Instead, the state relies on data collected by an alewife harvester and student-volunteers further north up the watershed on Gardiner Lake. Technically, the numbers compiled for the watershed show alewives are overharvested there, but the state assumes, probably correctly, that the main run near Shaw’s office is strong enough to make the take sustainable.

Maine has had more successes than many other states in maintaining alewife populations throughout its waterways, said Jeffrey Pierce, Executive Director of the Alewife Harvesters of Maine. But Maine is so large and there is so little money out there to monitor alewives that some of the state’s watersheds have too many unknowns when it comes to the fish, he said.

“They’ve done a good job on the information that’s available to them,” Pierce said. “But there are a lot of gaping holes.”  

East Machias officials would like to reestablish a harvest point near the town’s downtown district, but they can’t unless there is an accurate count of how many flow through that point. Such a count would take five to seven years.

Shaw said the watershed has been the victim of neglect. As evidence, he points to the Pokey Dam on the river, which was put in place about a quarter of century ago, with no money set aside for regular maintenance. The fish ladders at the dam, vital to allow safe alewife passage, are in bad need of repair.

“It looks like a bomb blew up in there. It’s just a mess,” Shaw said.

Claire Enterline, an alewife researcher with the Maine Department of Marine Resources, says alewives in the East Machias River represent a significant part of the total alewife population in the state, but the state doesn’t have the resources to be on the ground for all dams all the time. The state tries to check on dams, both public and private, each year, and if there’s a problem that can be a quick fix, it is tackled immediately, she said; bigger problems go on a priority list. She emphasized that if anyone sees a problem with a dam, they should call the state as soon as possible.

“We certainly miss some of them, so that can be a problem,” Enterline said.

The East Machias River isn’t the only river in the area with questions surrounding alewife populations. The headlines have focused on the St. Croix River, where the state has barred access for the fish in key habitat, but the nearby Pleasant River may not even have had an alewife run this year because of beaver dams, said Shaw.

Adding to the confusion, state fish counts only recently have differentiated between alewives and blueback herring, said Pierce. The difference between the two fish can be slight to the untrained eye. Collectively, the fish are considered river herring, and states often group the two together, he said.

Maine is not unusual for having a hit-and-miss knowledge base on alewives in its river systems, said Tom Rudolph, a forage fish research manager with the Pew Environmental Group. Because states don’t have the resources to do counts on all the rivers, they will instead designate “benchmark” rivers and make educated guesses from that limited data, Rudolph said. Also, the knowledge of a river may only come because of the efforts of a handful of volunteers who do fish counts; data on a river may depend on whether there is an active volunteer base, he said.

“The data varies considerably from river to river,” Rudolph said. 

But this method of management may become more of an issue for states in the future as federal regulators begin to assess whether alewives should be classified as threatened or endangered. In May, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) released an alewife stock assessment that, for the first time, factored in alewife mortality rates from being caught as bycatch in the sea. The Natural Resources Defense Council also recently petitioned the federal government to list alewives as an endangered species.

Since the passage of the Clean Water Act, there have been some success stories of alewife recoveries in state waters, but stakeholders believe the fish populations overall are in trouble because they are being decimated by industrial trawlers at sea. Strangely, state officials who have been aggressive about managing alewife numbers in their rivers often sit on federal regulatory boards that have allowed trawlers to overharvest the fish, Rudolph said.

“I don’t know why,” he said. “It bewilders me and frustrates me.”

A ruling on the alewife’s status as endangered or threatened is expected sometime later this year. Regulators could decide to distinguish between populations when making a judgment on the fish’s status. Whatever happens, it seems likely that healthy alewife populations may become more valuable than ever, from both an environmental perspective and an economic one. The growing value of the alewife makes what’s not known about the East Machias watershed all the more frustrating for Shaw. He hopes the Downeast Salmon Federation can fill in the gaps, but it will need more support to do that.

“We need the right equipment and capacity to monitor that run, and manage it,” Shaw said.

Coverage of Washington County is made possible by a grant from the Eaton Foundation.

Craig Idlebrook is a freelance writer living in Medford, Mass.