Alewife, also known as River Herring, were once thick in the waters of upper Narragansett Bay and the Kickemuit River. An important part of the bay’s ecology, they were common before a host of factors, including the construction of a dam at Child Street some 130 years ago, broke one of the main chains in their life and breeding cycle. But for the past several years, biologists and local conservationists have been working to restore their place in the Rhode Island ecosystem.
A new publicity campaign led by the Kickemuit River Council celebrates the steps taken so far, and looks forward to a bright future for the humble yet crucial fish.
Funded with grants from the Rhode Island Rivers Council, Warren’s Kickemuit River Council (KRC) recently produced a five-minute video and brochure on the alewife and, specifically, the Kickemuit Fish Ladder on Child Street. And next week, KRC volunteers will install a large interpretive sign at the ladder. It explains the alewife’s biology and the steps taken to save it here in Warren.
Alewife live in offshore ocean waters but return to their inshore homes to spawn. Thus it was in local waters for millennia, where a large population of the fish returned every year in an unbroken cycle — until 1882. That year, the water company that at the time supplied Warren and Bristol dammed the upper portion of the Kickemuit, turning its upper range into the freshwater Kickemuit Reservoir. The dam effectively cut off the fish’s only route to its spawning grounds.
“It was a great benefit to the town, but it was terrible for the fish runs,” said Rick Greenwood, a historian with the Rhode Island Historic Preservation and Heritage Commission, who was interviewed from the video.
Though more than 120 years passed, the situation never improved until 2006, when biologists built a large metal and concrete ladder at the dam. The structure allows fish to pass over the dam, restoring their historic runs.
Ever since, biologists from the state have been stocking the upper Kickemuit with alewife, in hopes that they’ll return here after swimming out to the open ocean. The fish are typically at sea four years or more before they return to spawn, and biologists are hopeful that they’ll soon see stocked fish returning to their home waters.
“Hopefully over time this will create a self-sustaining river run of herring where stocking will not be needed,” DEM fisheries biologist Phil Edwards said in the video.
Copies of the video and brochure will soon be available at the libraries in Bristol and Warren. In addition, copies will be given to schools in both towns; you can also watch the video online here. Look for the interpretive sign to be installed next week. Billy Black Video helped produce the video, Warren’s Karen Dionne designed the brochure, and much of the behind the scenes work was done by the KRC’s Linda Brunini and other volunteers.