Sunday, June 13, 2010

Maine Alewife Life Cycle Remains a Mystery

Alewives are currently making their annual spawning runs from the ocean to freshwater lakes. Despite their historical commercial and cultural importance to Maine communities, there is still much to be learned about alewife ecology.

While the alewife run in Maine is in full swing, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) and the University of Southern Maine (USM) are collecting alewife samples as part of an effort to unlock some of the mysteries surrounding this important forage species. Study locations include more than 20 river systems and lakes along the Gulf of Maine coast.

Alewife populations along the Atlantic coast have exhibited dramatic declines over the past 20 years despite efforts to remove dams and restore waterways.

It is unclear where alewives migrate to after leaving freshwater for the ocean or whether the fish born in a particular lake continue to school together or mix with other alewives in the ocean.

Many communities lease permits to alewife harvesters, and most of the catch is sold as lobster bait. The sheer numbers of alewives that run up rivers provide protection for returning adult Atlantic salmon running up these same rivers and for Atlantic smolts that are moving downstream to the ocean at this time of year. Alewives are also a food source for osprey, herons, otters, cod, haddock, and other animals.

Maine's alewife population is relatively healthy compared to other states, but scientists do not know why. Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, North Carolina and Virginia have closed their alewife fisheries, and Maine may be forced to do the same unless the fisheries are proven to be sustainable.

source: Gulf of Maine Research Institute

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