Historic Abundance, Distribution and Ecological Role of Gulf of Maine Anadromous Fish

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W. Jeffrey Bolster UNH - Department of History Principal Investigator
Karen Alexander UNH - Department of History Collaborator
William B. Leavenworth UNH - Department of History Collaborator
Kate Magness UNH - Department of Natural Resources & the Environment Researcher

We propose to create a time series of historical data on Gulf of Maine anadromous fish, including alewives, shad, and salmon; and other species caught for bait such as smelt and herring. Beginning in 1867, and running well into the 20th century, this time series will illuminate past productivity in coastal and estuarine areas, and contribute to scientists' understanding of the historic relationship of bait fish to commercially valuable stocks of cod, haddock, hake, etc.

Our recent work on cod stocks and the changing nature of the 19th-century cod fishery revealed how demand for bait escalated dramatically in the late-19th century, and how fishermen intensified weir and seine-fishing. Luckily a significant paper trail exists. The Maine Fish Commission published annual reports from 1867 to 1942 assessing marine resources. Quantitative records in the reports show change over time per county with respect to: species of fish landed, amount landed, type and number of vessels and gear, number of men fishing, and location and number of processing plants. Reports frequently include river-specific landings: Kennebec smelts, St. Georges alewives, etc. Good records exist on dams, including when and where built, height, and whether fish ladders were constructed. In addition to information on anadromous fish, these reports contain important data on clams, scallops, lobsters, and other fin fish. Qualitative data from fishermen, engineers, and other experts include data on last sightings, and important contexts that illuminate the state of various marine resources, including hatcheries' attempts to influence the productivity of the Gulf.

The Maine Fish Commission Reports are rare and underutilized. They fill an important gap in our knowledge of Gulf of Maine fisheries. Bill Leavenworth, Research Coordinator for our Gulf of Maine Cod Project, located and PDF'd the only extant copies of the reports. Kate Magness (M.S., Natural Resources, UNH), a member of our group, wrote her thesis on Maine and Massachusetts Fish Commissions. I am requesting NH Sea Grant Development funds for Kate to extract quantitative and qualitative data from Maine Fish Commission Reports and similar contemporary publications with information relevant to anadromous and coastal fisheries, and enter it into databases.

As you know, our group is determined to mine all possible historical sources that illuminate the historic nature of the Gulf of Maine. A study by our group funded by NOAA's Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary examined US Fish Commission reports, scientific surveys and statistical tables for the late 19th-century. But the federal government did not collect data on inshore fisheries—that was left to individual states. We propose to extract all pertinent data from the state reports, and combine it with data from the federal reports for a more complete picture of key species' abundance and distribution in the past. Assembling such a comprehensive set of very long time series is essential to establishing baselines and trends in biodiversity and complexity, and in mapping changes in species distribution and habitat in the Gulf of Maine over the long term. Although in the earliest planning stage, in conjunction with Andy Rosenberg and Andy Cooper, our next project will examine the role of anadromous fish in the Gulf of Maine in light of long-term change in biodiversity, complexity and habitat, and in overall productivity of the system.