Friday, August 24, 2012

Alewife by Douglas Watts


Ordering info for: Alewife by Douglas Watts (hard copy and ebook).

"Alewife" is a personal, biological and historical account of the alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus), one of the (formerly) most abundant sea-run fish of the U.S. Atlantic seaboard. It is the only full-length treatment of the natural and cultural history of this keystone wildlife species ever written.

"Alewife" tells the story of a fish, the alewife, once ubiquitous to the eastern U.S., which is almost gone due to wholly human causes; and a never-been-told 400 year history of many long forgotten people who labored mightily to bring the alewife back. It tells the story of the fish through its own eyes and life, apart from what it 'can do' for us. It depicts a place where cultural, natural, political and legal forces wildly collide. It's about the fight for, against, and over a dimunitive but once extremely abundant fish that still continues today in state and federal court rooms across the states of the eastern seaboard. It is about what nature in our backyards meant to us in the past, what it means today and what it might mean to us 10, 20 or 50 years from now. It's a story about a lot of disparate people over 400 years and how nature and culture provoked them for good, bad and indifferent. It's not nearly complete, there are many stories still untold, but gives a flavor for the battlefield, the stakes to be lost and gained and hints to where the tipping points have been and still are. It's a hybrid, with all the advantages and disadvantages an unorthodox approach entails. Bridging gaps might be its central theme. I wrote this for an adventurous reader who is not afraid to skip a chapter and then come back to it later. It is intentionally kaleidoscopic; a multi-levelled story. The essays owe much to the series of young adult books, "Tell Me Why," by Arkady Leokum. 

The book is in two sections. One section is selected verbatim public domain record excerpts describing the species and its use and abuse by humans in New England from the 1600s to present. Most of these documents were written in quill pen, discovered and hand copied by the author, and have never seen the light of day before. The second section tells, in a personal essay style, the story of the alewife, based mostly on recent efforts in New England to protect and save them. 

The book began several years ago as the historic texts with a short introduction and was originally intended for dissemination to fisheries scientists, environmental regulators and river conservationists as a technical, factual resource. At the instigation of a fellow writer, Kerry Hardy (who wrote the foreword), I loosened up to tell in a first-person voice my many encounters with these critters in the waters of New England since childhood and the obstacles one encounters trying to help them not go extinct. It's a tough racket. These personal stories echo back to the historical texts, which detail how people 50, 100, 200 years ago tried to do the same thing and encountered nearly identical obstacles, albeit time-shifted by a century or three. 

The tone and weight of the text is balanced to make it accessible to an informed and inquisitive lay audience and to a professional scientific audience; and above all, to be fully scientifically sourced. My brother and I's personal travails trying to help alewives survive are deliberately told in a 'camp-fire' fashion and with the level of humor and absurdity the details deserve. 

About the Author

Douglas Watts was born in North Easton, Massachusetts in 1964 a few dozen miles from Cape Cod and the Atlantic Ocean in southeastern Massachusetts and spent most of his childhood up to his waist in ponds and brooks and saltwater. He received his education in journalism and English at the Univ. of Maine at Orono from 1982-1986. In 1986 he began work as a full-time newspaper and magazine reporter, editor and photographer in Maine and Massachusetts for a variety of small and large newspapers and then as a conservation writer for the Maine Sportsman magazine, the Atlantic Salmon Journal, Wild Steelhead & Salmon, and Corporate Challenge News. Since 1999 he has worked full-time as a professional consultant for numerous New England conservation groups, doing ecological and legal research on the history and health of New England's coastal river ecosystems. This historic research forms the bulk and inspiration of "Alewife." Since 1998, he has been a plaintiff and/or principal researcher in numerous legal cases in Maine and Massachusetts regarding restoring native sea-run fish to rivers of the northeastern U.S. His historic research has been used and cited by the United States Supreme Court in a landmark 2006 Clean Water Act case, S.D. Warren v. Maine BEP, and by the National Academy of Science in its 2004 monograph on the status of native Atlantic salmon in the United States. His advocacy on behalf of the American eel is featured in a Sept. 2010 National Geographic story by writer and artist James Prosek and his book on the same topic, "Eels," (Harper Collins 2010). He was a consultant and subject in the 2003 film "Troubled Waters: the Dilemma of Dams" by Beth and George Gage, featured at the Telluride Film Festival and Maine Film Festival.  

1 comment:

David Greeley said...

Hi Doug, Read your Alewife book, loved it, and sent copies to my three sons and others. I live in Jackson in the Marsh Stream Watershed. The Town of Frankfort owns the dam at the head of tide in the village. I am trying to gather local support for dam removal. To have some documentation that people have been trying restore fish passage in the past would really help the cause. Did you ever see references to the Marsh Stream and the towns of Frankfort, Winterport, Munroe, Jackson, Brooks and Knox ?