We Count on our Buckies: River Herring Migration 1981-2019

Alewife (left) and Blueback Herring, collectively known as River Herring. Illustrations from USFWS.

Phil Edwards, Supervising Fisheries Biologist with the RI Department of Environmental Management Division of Fish and Wildlife, has been counting the migrating fish for years at Gilbert Stuart stream (the headwaters of Narrow River) and other locations around the state. The attached chart for Gilbert Stuart Stream shows a steady decline in the population due to overfishing from 2001 until a moratorium was declared in 2006. A recovery in herring numbers was seen between 2006 and 2014 from historic lows in 2005. For unknown reasons, 2015 was a poor year for the fish statewide, but there was a bounce back in 2016 which continued in 2017 and 2018.

“Herring runs are naturally cyclical to an extent, and the first thing we look at after a low year is what happened in the previous years.”, says Patrick McGee, Fisheries Biologist with RI DEM’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Although it is not necessarily the sole reason, we can see by the chart that in 2015 we had an extremely low year, and those fish would potentially make up a good portion of the 2019 spawning stock. So a slow year in 2019 wasn’t a complete shock, and we’d hope for a rebound in 2020.” 

Every spring, the alewives and blueback herring migrate from the ocean up Narrow River to Gilbert Stuart Stream and then use the fish ladder to reach freshwater Carr Pond for their annual spawning. Usually a mid-March through mid-May occurrence, in 2017, several visitors to Gilbert Stuart Stream saw (and filmed) migrating fish as early as February 27. Lower Gilbert Stuart stream is accessible from the Gilbert Stuart Birthplace Museum second parking lot on Gilbert Stuart Road. Access to Upper Gilbert Stuart stream and Carr Pond are closed until the Museum’s Annual April Spring Fair, which is also the Museum’s opening day.

River Herring is a collective term for the alewife and blueback herring. The migrating population is predominantly alewife (scientific name Alosa pseudoharengus), with a few blueback herring (Alosa aestivalis), who usually arrive later in the migration.

Locally, the river herring are known by a myriad of names, including bigeye herring, branch herring, freshwater herring, gaspereau, grayback, gray herring, kyak, sawbelly, and white herring. Perhaps most commonly, the river herring are called buckie, also spelled buckey. Both spellings are pronounced buck´-ee, and should not be confused with Buckeyes (pronounced buck´-eye) which are several tree species of the genus Aesculus and the namesake for Ohio State University sports teams. 

Alewife and blueback herring have a similar look. As adults, both are about 10 to 12 inches long and have a maximum weight of approximately half of a pound. The ‘sawbelly’ nickname is earned by the sharply angled bony scutes on the belly of each fish.

As adults, river herring live in salt water and are prey for larger fishes, osprey, seals, otters and whales. The river provides access to the freshwater spawning areas, and the estuary plays a critical role for growing juveniles, who hatch in spring, then mature in the protected area until they move out to sea in the fall.

Gilbert Stuart Birthplace and Museum will offer an up close view of the migration at their Spring Fair and Fish on the Run event on Sunday April 26th from 1-4 pm. At the fair, the fish will be visible from the Museum’s nature trails and bridges at the fish ladder as well as via underwater camera. Come see for yourself how the 2020 migration is doing

Special thanks to Phil Edwards, Patrick McGee, and Charles Biddle for their contributions to this article. Article compiled by Alison Kates, NRPA Program Coordinator

This chart shows the last 38 years of RI DEM counts of River Herring as they migrate each spring through the fish ladder at Gilbert Stuart Stream to spawn at Carr Pond. (Chart from Patrick McGee, RIDEM)
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