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Juvenile River Herring in Freshwater Lakes: Sampling Approaches for Evaluating Growth and Survival

River herring, collectively alewives (Alosa pseudoharengus) and blueback herring (A. aestivalis), have experienced substantial population declines over the past five decades due in large part to overfishing, combined with other sources of mortality, and disrupted access to critical freshwater spawning habitats. Anadromous river herring populations are currently assessed by counting adults in rivers during upstream spawning migrations, but no field-based assessment methods exist for estimating juvenile densities in freshwater nursery habitats. Counts of 4-year-old migrating adults are variable and prevent understanding about how mortality acts on different life stages prior to returning to spawn (e.g., juveniles and immature adults in lakes, rivers, estuaries, and oceans). This in turn makes it challenging to infer a link between adult counts and juvenile recruitment and to develop effective management policy. I used a pelagic purse seine to investigate juvenile river herring densities, growth, and mortality across 16 New England lakes. First, I evaluated the effectiveness and sampling precision of a pelagic purse seine for capturing juvenile river herring in lakes, since this sampling gear has not been systematically tested. Sampling at night in June or July resulted in highest catches. Precision, as measured by the coefficient of variation, was lowest in July (0.23) compared to June (0.32), August (0.38), and September (0.61). Simulation results indicated that the effort required to produce precise density estimates is largely dependent on lake size with small lakes (<50 >ha) requiring up to 10 purse seine hauls and large lakes (>50 ha) requiring 15–20 hauls. These results suggested that juvenile recruitment densities can be effectively measured using a purse seine at night in June or July with 10–20 hauls. Using juvenile fishes captured during purse seining in June–September 2015, I calculated growth and mortality rates from sagittal otoliths. Density, growth, and mortality were highly variable among lakes, and mixed-effects regression models explained 11%–76% of the variance in these estimates. Juvenile densities ranged over an order of magnitude and were inversely related to dissolved organic carbon. Juvenile growth rates were higher in productive systems (i.e., low secchi depth, high nutrients) and were strongly density-dependent, leading to much larger fish at age in productive lakes with low densities of river herring compared to high density lakes. Water temperature explained 56%–85% of the variation in juvenile growth rates during the first 30 days of life. Mortality was positively related to total phosphorous levels and inversely related to hatch date, with earlier hatching cohorts experiencing higher mortality. These results indicate the importance of water quality and juvenile densities in nursery habitats for determining juvenile growth and survival. This study encourages future assessments of juvenile river herring in freshwater and contributes to an understanding of factors explaining juvenile recruitment that can guide more effective and comprehensive management of river herring.