Eagles, osprey, gulls, fishermen, minks, cormorants, great blue herons, and human spectators are gathering daily on or in the area of the String Bridge in Exeter. Some are there for a meal and others are there to celebrate a wonderful spectacle… the journey of the alewives to their spawning grounds. We were happy to be a part of the spectator crowd on the bridge today. The alewife (Pomolobus pseudoharengus) is a small river herring that is anadromous, meaning it lives in the ocean but spawns in fresh water. This small fish is so regarded in the history of Exeter that it is featured on the town’s official seal.
Each spring the fish leaves the Atlantic and ascends the salty Squamscott River to spawn in the freshwater of the Exeter River that empties into the Squanscott. Dams have impeded their journey since the 1640s, but in the summer of 2016, the last dam, The Great Dam of 1831, was removed from the Exeter River. The river has been freed to run as nature intended and the alwife is finally able to make the trip upriver.
The fish is described as heavily built with a gray back and silvery on their sides and on their deep belly. No one is 100% certain of the name’s origin. Was it an alteration of Allowes, from the French word for shad, or the American Indian’s Aloofe, meaning ‘bony fish,’ or Alwife, the unflattering Old English term for women who kept alehouses in the 17th century?
This is the sight when we arrived this cool morning under overcast skies. Where were the fish? I thought they’d be jumping out of the water like salmon.
A knowledgeable man who has spent his life fishing these waters told me that my eyes must adjust. Just watch the pools and eddies. I thought I saw some movement below so I zoomed my camera closer. Can you see them? The man said there are thousands of alewives going upstream. Thousands?
I zoomed in closer and could actually see hundreds in this small pool. Yes, I believe there must be thousands of determined fish that are able to migrate upstream.
Zooming in even closer showed me this amazing sight below just in one eddy.
Keeping my eye on the rapids, I witnessed fish after fish slightly broaching the turbulent water. I didn’t see any leaping out of the water like salmon so they were hard to spot. The water was very high and rough.
And, of course, there were those who were there not as spectators, but to take advantage of the alewife run. The man beside me thought the fishermen were probably fishing for striped bass that follow the alewives upstream.
But there were those who were there to dine. We saw a lot of fish that failed to span the rapids, landed on boulders, and died. They won’t go to waste….
Here’s a good video for an up close and personal look at the alewives in the Exeter River: