PORTLAND, Maine – A small fish that has been the subject of conservation efforts for years appears to be growing in abundance in the east coast rivers.

River herrings are vital to coastal ecosystems as they feed birds and larger fish. Regulators have described the fish population nearing historic lows due to dams, pollution, warming of the water and other factors.

But years of efforts to save them seem to be paying off. Preliminary fish counts from Maine to South Carolina in 2019 showed 2.7 million more fish than in 2015, according to documents from the Atlantic Ocean Fisheries Regulatory Agency. More than 6.5 million fish were found in the 2019 censuses.

River herrings include two types of schooling fish, alewives and blue-backed herrings, which have been caught in east coast rivers for millennia. The fishermen said that conservative management of the fishery in recent years, coupled with conservation efforts such as dam removal, has helped the fish to spawn and their numbers to grow.

“You need to bring parents into the bedroom so the kids can go to school,” said Jeff Pierce, a longtime Alewife fisherman and president of Alewife Harvesters of Maine.

Herring was used as a source of protein long before British colonists hit American shores, and the fish has still been commercially harvested in a handful of states in recent years. They are used as bait and sometimes as food. Herring is often used as bait in big money commercial fisheries such as the lobster industry.

Commercial fishing has increased as the population slowly recovered. Fishermen brought about 2.4 million pounds of the fish to the docks in 2018, increasing that figure to more than 3.2 million pounds in 2019, according to preliminary data from the Atlantic States Commission.

They remain a worrying species in many states, including New Hampshire, which banned the species from harvesting in April. The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department said it triggered the closure due to the decline in spawning runs over the past two years.

But Maine, home to the largest commercial river herring fishery, has seen positive trends in fish populations, said Michael Brown, a scientist with the Maine Department of Marine Resources. He said river herring salvage dates back to the removal of Edwards Dam in Augusta in 1999. That was the first large-scale recovery project, he said.

“Since then, restoration projects on the Penobscot River and many smaller rivers have given river herring access to traditional spawning habitats,” said Brown. “As a result of the restoration efforts, the growing river herring resources we see in Maine today are. ”

Some environmental activists called for the fish to be included in the Endangered Species Act due to the decline in populations, but the federal government decided not to add the species to the list in 2019.

Environmentalists said further dam removals will be needed to ensure the fish continue to recover. River herring is a “critically important fish” because of its place in the food chain, said Nick Bennett, a research fellow with the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

“The fish have made a big comeback,” said Bennett.