Exeter's Alewives

Written by Carol Walker Aten

From: Cross-Grained & Wiley Waters: A Guide to the Piscataqua Maritime Region, Jeffrey W. Bolster, Editor, published 2002, Peter Randall Publisher, Portsmouth

THE WORD ALEWIFE* (Alosa pseudoharengus) may be a corruption of the seventeenth century aloofe, thought by some, debated by many, to be a Native American name translated as "bony fish." Indeed, the fish was an important source of food and bait to the Wampanoag and Squamscott Indians who inhabited the Piscataqua thousands of years ago, as it was to the early colonists who settled Exeter in the 1630s.

Closely related to herring, the alewife is also known as branch, blear-eyed, big-eyed, wall-eyed, freshwater, glut, gray, or spring herring; golden or green shad; the bang, ellwife, gaspereau, grayback, kiak, kiack, kyak, mulhaden, racer, sawbelly, seth, skipjack, and spreau. Alewives, who eat tiny zooplankton, are in turn consumed by striped and smallmouth bass, salmonids, eels, perch, bluefish, weakfish, terns, eagles, ospreys, great blue herons, and gulls.

Longer than people have lived along the banks of the Squamscott River, the alewives have run its waters, headed upstream each spring during the vernal equinox, when daylight and darkness are evenly split. Anadromous fish, they fulfill their ancient migration ritual, leaving the salt waters of the ocean and bay to spawn upstream of the falls in the fresh water of the Exeter River. Male alewives first enter the river during daylight hours. Females spawn at night, laying as many as 200,000 eggs, only three of which might survive. After spawning, many alewives die. Those that live return to the ocean within a few days. The eggs hatch and the young remain in the fresh water until they are up to six inches long; in late summer or autumn they wind back over the falls and spill into the Squamscott River, riding the tide to the Atlantic Ocean, where they will spend the majority of their adult life. At three to five years old, when approximately a foot in length, spawners return to the rivers of their birth to start the cycle over again. Alewives spawn in the rivers from Newfoundland and as far south as the Carolinas; their numbers plummeted in the twentieth century, however, as did the numbers of rivers to which they successfully returned.

Historically, the alewives' journey has been far from easy. As early as 1640, the town of Exeter ordered that "all creeks are free; only he that makes a weir therein is to have in the first place the benefit of it in fishing time; and so others may set a weir either above or below, and enjoy the same liberty." The weir, an elegant array of several hundred hardwood stakes, stretches across the river as a fence, herding smelt, alewives and other unsuspecting fish into its trap. Fish swim along the weir's nets, which extend from the riverbed to the water's surface, until caught in its terminal pocket. Thousands of years ago, native inhabitants trapped fish in weirs on New Hampshire's tidal rivers in similar fashion.

Within the first decade of European settlement on the falls of the Exeter River, mills were built to harness waterpower. Dams dotted the already rocky outcrops of the river, shaping the waterflow to human needs, but inhibiting the seasonal springtime passage of many fish. By 1888, Charles H. Bell noted in his History of the Town of Exeter, New Hampshire, that "the salmon, for the excellent reason that they can no longer pass the dams to breed their young in the fresh water above, have long deserted the Squamscot [sic]; but the alewives still frequent the river, though probably not in such profusion as formerly."

As the nation industrialized, alewives faced more than physical obstacles. Mills, changing from water-driven power to coal-powered steam, escalated industrial production. Pollution from oil and chemicals increased as well. Yet fishing remained a seasonal occupation for many townsfolk, even during the new era of industrialization. Although not as abundant as before industrialization, the fish still came. S. Roswell Peavey was among the best known fisherman in this area at the end of the nineteenth century. According to Nancy C. Merrill, "In early April several tons of salt were stored in his fish house for the coming alewife catch. The fish were packed in barrels and at the end of the season taken downriver for sale in Boston, New York, or the West Indies. Fresh fish, including bass and perch, were sent to market daily. In 1895, Mr. Peavey formed a fisheries partnership with John Brewster of Stratham. When the alewife season was at its height, the partners caught seventy bushels or more at a single tide, using as many as six weirs."

Concern over degradation of water quality in the Exeter and Squamscott rivers grew through the end of the nineteenth century. Exeter's increasing population of the town, coupled with ancient plumbing systems that emptied straight into the rivers, meant escalating human pollution. The editor of the Exeter News-Letter, reacting to the noxious quality of the tidal river, called for the appointment of a sewerage committee in 1892. Despite political inaction, the alewife remain a revered river creature-so much so that it became the sole star of Exeter's first town seal, designed by Albert N. Dow, who explained his choice of subject in the March 28, 1930 issue of the Exeter News-Letter: The fish on the seal is the alewife, typifying one of the town's most profitable natural resources. The alewife is allied to the herring and the shad, and the latter has no bones on the former. In Exeter's early days the alewife came up river in schools of countless numbers. It was caught in weirs and provided fertilizer for the cultivated lands of the new town, after furnishing all that could be utilized for home consumption. Salmon and bass were also plentiful in the Squamscott, but owing to the damming of the Fresh [Exeter] River, these fish come up no longer, but the alewife still makes its annual appearance in great numbers."

Sentimental regard for Exeter's favorite fish was insufficient to galvanize water cleanup. Attempts to pass town warrants for new sewage treatment facilities were defeated in 1933, 1954, and again in 1959. A mandate from the state in 1961 to force Exeter to confront its sewer problem. Although scheduled to take two years, the cleanup actually spanned a decade; in 1965 the sewer lagoons were completed, and throughout the 1970s pollution in the river decreased, allowing new opportunities for recreational boating and fishing. The "new" sewage treatment plant was upgraded in 1990, and wastewater treatment projects no longer suffer at the mercy of voters-water quality is now a preventative initiative and budgeted annually. Good water quality must be maintained in the Exeter River, as it is the primary source of municipal water supply for the town. Meanwhile, the last working mill, the Exeter Manufacturing Company, ceased operations in 1981, and the historic brick structure was converted to fish-friendly residences. Yet the alewife population continued to decrease during the 1990s. Estimates suggest that only hundreds of alewives were ascending the fish ladders in Exeter, compared to tens of thousands on the Cocheco, Oyster and Lamprey Rivers.

Gillnetting alewives on the Squamscott River for use as lobster bait. Undated photograph from the Exeter News-Letter. Courtesy of the Exeter Historical Society

Gillnetting alewives on the Squamscott River for use as lobster bait. Undated photograph from the Exeter News-Letter. Courtesy of the Exeter Historical Society

Fishermen, like fish, followed ancient ways even though times had changed. As late as the 1970s and 1980s, lobstermen caught alewives using nets from String Bridge, filling fifty-five-gallon drums with the fish. They used alewives as lobster bait, but today most commercial fishermen buy their bait wholesale. The marked decrease in Exeter's alewife population noted in the late 1980s and early 1990s has begun to reverse, although the resurgence of striped bass means alewives have more predators with which to contend.

The restoration of several area fish ladders, including the Great Dam in downtown Exeter, allows more alewives access to their traditional spawning habitat. The Great Dam fish ladder, first constructed in the 1960s, was poorly designed: some fish species could pass through, but alewives had problems finding the entrance. Modifications over the past few years have increased the ladder's effectiveness. A permanent fish trap has been installed at the top, and the fish are counted electronically and monitored daily during the spring, eliminating the need for volunteers to count the fish manually.

In the year 2000, tens of thousands of alewives were counted below the dam, and up to two thousand of them were making it up over the falls, up from five hundred only a few years earlier. The shad count in Exeter has increased from only fifty or so to over two hundred fifty, and fish populations traversing the ladder are expected to increase. The ongoing anadromous fish restoration effort for alewives, shad, and blueback herring will be supported by the fish ladders at Pickpocket Dam and Great Dam, permanently allowing these fish to reach upstream spawning and nursery habitat in the Exeter River. With luck, and barring catastrophe elsewhere, the alewives will continue along their route, which, as John Hay once wrote, "is being followed out with primal grace and power."

Sources: Charles H. Bell, History of Exeter, New Hampshire (Exeter NH, 1888); John Hay, The Run (W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1979); Nancy C. Merrill, Exeter New Hampshire 1888-1988 ( Peter E. Randall, Publisher, Exeter, NH 1988); Interviews with George Olson, Town Manager of Exeter, November 2000; and Doug Grout, Marine Biologist, NH Fish & Game Dept., Interview, Nov. 2000