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Alewife Harvesters as Citizen Scientists
Mid-Coast Maine
by Rachel Feeney, Northeast Consortium Fisheries Specialist

Quite often, collaborative research partnerships are forged after a fishery is declared to be in "crisis," but not so for ecologists and harvesters of the Maine alewife. They were already working on the answers to critical questions when management called for improved stewardship.

Scientists Dr. Theodore Willis and Dr. Karen Wilson began studying alewives shortly after their arrival at the University of Southern Maine from the mid-west in 2005. Inspired by fishermen’s observations that, historically, cod followed (and ate) alewives inshore to their spawning grounds, the science duo were curious about the importance of alewives to today’s nearshore food web.

  Dr. Theo Willis
  Dr. Theo Willis jigging for cod from the deck of the F/V Nordeste. Photo courtesy of T. Willis.

  Dr. Theo Willis
  Capt. Chris Taylor and Dr. Theo Willis choose where to fish using the sonar equipment aboard the F/V Nordeste. Photo courtesy of T. Willis.

The Northeast Consortium funded the scientist and their partnering fishermen to compare the importance of alewife to predators’ diets in Passamaquoddy Bay, Damariscotta River, and the St. George River. They fished for cod and other alewife predators and set about assessing local alewife runs. "The fishermen greatly improved the science," said Willis. "Since Karen and I relied on them for site selection and knowing the physicality of the environment."

Just as soon as the project got underway, the alewife went "center stage," when NOAA Fisheries declared it a "Species of Concern." Total river herring landings on the eastern seaboard had dropped precipitously in recent years and several states had already closed their fisheries. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission began work in January 2008 to amend the alewife management plan.

Although the alewife fishery is relatively small in Maine, valued at about $200,000/year and supporting about 400 harvesters in 25 towns, the potential shut-down took many by surprise and served as a wake-up call. Lead by Jeff Pierce of Dresden, the newly-formed Alewife Harvesters of Maine is helping fishermen be more engaged in the management process. By organizing, harvesters demonstrated a willingness to steward the resource and participate in research, which has helped prevent a management decision to close the fishery.

The research partnerships forged between the scientists, town officials, alewife harvesters, lobstermen, tribal leaders, land trusts, and other community groups have been lasting. "Theo is now the science advisor for Alewife Harvesters," said Pierce. "We had been wanting for years to see if the same fish come back to our rivers, and we’re now getting answers. Research is a great way for us to contribute."

Dr. Theo Willis  
Dr. Theo Willis performing gastric lavage (regurgitation) of a cod to collect its latest meal. Photo courtesy of T. Willis.  
Spawning run counts have occurred on the Damariscotta, St. Croix, and Saco Rivers for over 15 years, but towns, fishermen, and scientists are interested in increasing the data available to management. Work on counting alewives in the St. George River has been funded through a Gulf of Maine Council/NOAA habitat restoration partnership grant. A Davis Conservation Grant funded additional alewife counting in the Damariscotta River, and Merrymeeting Bay Trust contributed funds to tag over 10,000 alewives in the Kennebec River to better identify natal homing, straying rates and inter-year survival.

Alewife harvesters have long considered themselves to be stewards of the runs, but partnership in research is opening new doors to them as "citizen scientists."

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