The Complex Value of Alewives

by Bailey Bowden

The value of the alewife is almost as complex as the role alewives play in the food web. Let’s start with the economic value. Alewife harvesters get paid for their catch – whether the fish are sold as a food product or bait for commercial fishermen. Smoked alewives and commercial landings turn a few more dollars.

Tax relief – most Towns lease the right to a commercial fishery so the Town gets paid – either flat rate or percentage. Some towns hire employees and the Town keeps all of the money.

The historic value is why this area was settled – fish as food. Cod was king but any fish that could be salted, dried, or smoked were valuable to Europe. We lost our connection to sea run fisheries when we gained food security – primarily thru electricity and refrigeration.

The cultural value is appreciated by the families that have harvested these fish each spring for centuries. The Bagaduce region is ancient and Europeans were here long before the Mayflower landed.

Closely related is the social value, which does not depend on a 400-year love affair with these fish. These fish are the common denominator for photographers, bird watchers, seal fans and fishermen. It doesn’t take long for the newly arrived to connect the spring appearance of osprey and eagles to the alewife migration. This is the buzz at the post office and store for a few weeks.

For some the connection is spiritual as these fish usher in the spring season. Smelts and alewives are the first signs of life to appear once old man winter releases his grip.

Their ecological value is incredible. From egg to adult, the alewife is something’s lunch. However, there are other benefits like: alewives bring nutrients/minerals from the ocean to the pond and take phosphorous from the pond to the ocean. Phosphorous leads to algae blooms. A freshwater mussel attaches to the gill of an alewife and hitches a ride around the pond until it drops off – spreading these filter feeders over a broad area. These are called Alewife Floaters – no kidding – Anodonta implicata is the Latin name. Fish that die during the migration return nutrients to the waterway.

I am beginning to think that the educational value might be the most important. Kids today are plugged into electronics and have little idea of what is happening in nature. Being able to provide an interactive experience along with an educational discussion is highly effective. By targeting the 4th or 5th graders – the girls are still tomboy-ish and are happy to touch the internal organs when dissected. These are memories that last forever. These kids respect and appreciate the fish, which is a very good sign for the future.