Monday, May 5, 2014

Alewife Rescue Squad

A proverb:

Under a hot summer sun, the beach is strewn with seastars stranded by the tide.  Soon, they will die from the heat.  A boy starts at one end of the beach, and slowly but surely moves one seastar at a time back to the water.  A man watches him, unimpressed.  As the boy picks up yet another seastar, the man walk up to him and says "Why are you wasting your time, boy?  You can't possibly save all these seastars.  All your work won't make any difference because most of them will die anyways."  The boy, wise beyond his years and still fresh with optimism, replies "Maybe I can't save them all, but to this particular seastar, I'm making all the difference in the world."

In the face of all the environmental problems of our day and age, this is a great lesson to us. Small actions can make a big difference, if we all make good decisions.  And last Saturday, I saw the proverb in action.

We were down in Massachusetts, so Damon could run a road race on Saturday, and I could run my marathon Sunday.  Between the two races, we did a bit of exploring.  Southeastern Mass is near and dear to our hearts, as we both lived there for a time (and in fact met there!).  We were driving through Middleborough, and passed Oliver Mill Park, where long ago I'd seen my first American eel.  It was a gorgeous day; the sun was out; and it felt like the start to a nice warm stretch.  "Wanna check it out?' asked Damon, noting the many cars in the parking lot.

"Sure," I replied. Is he kidding?  Besides, the dog loves a good walk.

The park on the Nemasket River is the site of an old mill, so common in this part of our country.  These mills brought prosperity to New England, but they also devastated the anadromous fish that plied coastal rivers for millenia.  Often, no provision was made for fish to pass upstream and downstream, so they had no way to reproduce and died out quickly.  Some mills put in fish ladders, some of which were successful in making passage possible, some of which were poorly engineered and did little good.

This site has an amazing fish ladder, with water cascading down a series of steps that fish can shoot up and over.  The water's been very cold in Maine, pushing the migration back*, but in Mass, the water was thick with alewives.  We stood transfixed, watching small schools of fish climb each rung.  Once they were over the ladder, they shot upstream.  Below the dam, there were plenty of gulls waiting for a shot at some protein, as is typical at fish ladders up and down the coast.

The fish ladder, which was teeming with alewives.
Gulls below the dam, waiting for a meal.
Along with the fish ladder, the park has the remnants of dams from its industrial past.  These are impassable for fish, but they don't know it.  They gather below the dams, rushing as far as they can upstream, only to be tossed and tumbled in the rapids under the dam.  These are the lost souls of the alewives, who aren't likely to join their counterparts upstream.

Can you see them all in there?  They'd never get over that dam without help!
The day we visited, though, a good Samaritan was watching over some of these lost fish.  Pants rolled up, barefoot, a boy was standing below the dam, searching through the waters with his hands, looking for fish in need of a boost.  It was tough work, and he struggled to keep his foot hold in the rushing water.  But he was successful -- every once in a while, he'd pull out a fish and toss it over the dam.  He had an audience, and with each fish, they'd applaud and cheer.  His enthusiasm was contagious, and soon he had his little brother helping out, and eventually some adults just had to get in and get their hands on some fish.  Maybe they only helped a dozen or so fish.  Not much in the grand scheme of things, it might not seem like much.  But it was enough to make all the difference in the world for those particular fish.

Searching for herring.

The audience waits with baited breath.

Success!  Nice job.

The grownups can't resist.  Notice the fish tumbling in the backwash.

The herring rescue team deploys.

More luck!

Swim little fishies!  Swim if you can -- and they swam and they swam right over the dam!

* I just learned they're here!  Today's my day to go count too!  Woohoo!


  1. thanks for sharing these photos; this is a sight I've never had the privilege of viewing!

  2. Very cool Janet..I've always wanted to check this out.thanks for taking me there..

  3. This *was* really cool! Sometimes we forget that we live in such an amazing place. This migration, from salt to fresh, rivals that of the wildebeests!