Environment / News

Little fish signal big changes in Bronx River

Volunteers placing fish from a Connecticut hatchery in the Bronx River in 2006. Their offspring have now returned to the river to spawn.

Environmentalists celebrate return of alewife

By Meredith Goncalves

Here’s what the rebirth of the Bronx River looks like: it’s about 10 inches long with silvery skin and it swims.

In late March, naturalists netted four little fish called alewife in the river, and in doing so won a bet they made on the river’s health three years ago when 200 adult alewife were freed in the river to spawn.

Volunteers from the neighborhoods that border the Bronx River joined Congressman Jose Serrano and staff members from the Bronx River Alliance and the Parks Department’s Natural Resources Group to introduce the fish in 2006, testing a theory developed by scientists at Lehman College and the Natural Resources Group that the river was clean enough to support them.

Members of the herring family, the alewife spawn and live out the summer in fresh water before heading out to sea. Three years later they return to their birthplace to give birth to a new generation.

According to Professor Joeseph Rachlin, an aquatic biologist at Lehman College who consulted on the project, after the initial sighting of the fish by folks at Rocking the Boat, the Natural Resources Group was able further confirmed the alewifes’ return by testing the captured fish and finding that they were three years old.

It’s not clear whether alewife inhabited the river before it was dammed in the 1600s to power mills that manufactured paper, flour, pottery, textiles and tobacco, and before it grew too polluted to support much aquatic life at all. But alewife occupy an important niche in the food chain, and in planting them, environmentalists hope to attract larger fish, birds and animals.

Once established, the herring will provide food for egrets, herons and hawks, raccoons, river otters and even seals, as well as for larger fish, including striped bass and tuna, Marit Larson, a scientist working with the Natural Resources Group, told The Express in 2006.

In addition, the return of the alewife will attract fishermen, environmentalists hope. Families that enjoy fishing will become stewards of the river’s health, they believe.

Knowing that the fish mature in three to four years, this spring workers from the Natural Resources Group, Bronx River Alliance and Rocking the Boat staked out strategic points along the river. On April 7, Rocking the Boat apprenctices Marcus Caceres, 18, Toniann German, 17 , Shaquoia Gulley, 17,  Sabrina Marti, 18, Ashley Quiles, 18, Joshua Santana, 16, Michael Vargas, 17 and Yuritt Zeron, 19, saw the fish in the nets set up by the Natural Resources group and monitored by the volunteers.

They also spotted fish jumping out of the water to snatch bugs from the air. The action is called “popping,” said Rachlin . They looked like “silver dollars jumping out of the surface of the water,” said Linda Cox, executive director of the Bronx River Alliance.

“The fact that they came back is pretty amazing” said Yuritt Zeron, 19, a student at La Guardia College who started as a volunteer with the alewife program and now works with Rocking the Boat.

Once these fish spawn, they will swim downstream to Long Island Sound and out to sea, never to return again. Their offspring will follow them when they are big enough and will return the Bronx River to complete the three to four-year cycle of life. Now that it is certain the river can support the fish, said Rachlin, the dams will be breached to create passageways for the next generation of alewife.

The broad coalition engaged in the alewife project includes Lehman College, the Bronx River Alliance, Wildlife Conservation Society, Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, Rocking the Boat, Sustainable South Bronx, Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice and other community groups, government agencies and non-profit organizations.

Congressman Serrano, who has poured millions of federal dollars into the effort to clean up the Bronx River, exulted, “The revitalized Bronx River is a symbol for the Bronx itself.” The borough, he said, has “come a long way, just like those little fish that we put in our river three years ago.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 2009 issue of The Hunts Point Express.

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