The Little Fish That Could
During the past two decades, a cast of thousands has collaborated to bring millions of alewives back to Maine's streams and rivers
At the head of Great Salt Bay at Damariscotta Mills, three streams spill out of Damariscotta Lake and cascade into the estuary below. A hydroelectric dam is at the top of the western-most stream. The middle stream cascades down a rocky channel to a Rube Goldberg–looking contraption built to trap alewives. At the eastern end of the lake is a free-flowing stream bordered by a wooden walkway jammed with visitors. Although the alewife is regarded by freshwater fishermen as a lowly catch, somewhere between a white sucker and creek chub, to conservationists and commercial fishermen this ten-inch fish is a critical link in the food chain for countless birds and other fish.
Each spring, Deb Wilson looks out the windows of her house at the edge of Great Salt Bay, awaiting the telltale riffles on the water’s surface that mark the return of alewives from the sea. In recent years, flocks of wheeling gulls, dive-bombing ospreys, and sleek harbor seals have been waiting for the alewives, alerting Wilson that one of Maine’s great natural spectacles has begun its annual cycle. But just a dozen years earlier, Damariscotta’s alewife run, like most of Maine’s other alewife runs, was on the edge of collapse, and few birds or seals lined up for a meal.
Wilson studied fisheries anthropology at Bowdoin College, and she used to tag along with a local alewife harvester, Frank Waltz, who has harvested alewives at Damariscotta Mills for as long as anyone can remember. Ever since 1807, generations of local harvesters like Waltz have maintained an adjacent fish ladder, a series of manmade pools and small waterfalls that enable free-swimming alewives to get over the dam to spawn in Damariscotta Lake. As the fish ladder deteriorated, the number of returning alewives declined year by year. Each spring, Waltz would show Wilson where large rocks displaced by ice had choked off the natural run. In other areas, the pools had become so shallow that alewives would suffocate while trying to ascend. “I saw how bad it really was,” Wilson says. Fixing the centuries-old fish ladder would take money—ultimately around $1 million, it turned out—but Wilson and a group of neighbors were willing to try to raise the funds.
“The fish ladder restoration project started at my kitchen table in 2007 but has now grown to over 100 volunteers,” says Wilson. The volunteer group started by organizing what has become the annual Damariscotta Mills Alewife Festival. To raise money, they sold raffle tickets every few years, with raffle winners receiving $10,000 and the remainder of the proceeds funding more work. One year the raffle involved Wanda the Cow, who was set loose in a pasture while participants bet on which marked-off square she would leave a cow flop in. All the raffles culminated at the annual festival on Memorial Day weekend, a huge community celebration that has endured. It took a decade for the creative group of volunteers to raise the entire $1 million: a third from public events, including the annual festival, and the rest from foundation grants and individual donations. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provided the local restoration team with a design for the repairs to the fish ladder, which took ten years to complete. Neighbors provided access through their land; in some locations, the concrete trucks’ booms pumped over houses to build the pools. To avoid environmental impacts, the crew worked in the winter, from November 1 to April 1.
At the Damariscotta Mills Alewife Festival in May, the two-lane Route 215 leading to the fish ladder is jammed with cars parked along the shoulders. Racks of gold-colored smoked alewives are on sale at a picturesque smokehouse at the edge of Great Salt Bay. Families with young children stand mesmerized by the immense numbers of live alewives slowly circling at the base of the 1,500-foot fish ladder, waiting their turn to make the 42-foot vertical climb to the calmer waters of Damariscotta Lake. Gulls soar overhead; an eagle makes an appearance and flies off. Photographers line the bridge to capture images of an osprey diving down on the shadowy shoals of fish swimming in the current.
Jeffrey Pierce, the president of the Alewife Harvesters of Maine, describes the recovery of Maine’s alewife fishery over the past 15 years as “phenomenal.” “I remember when you couldn’t buy an alewife,” he tells me. Pierce says that the near collapse of the alewife runs in Maine was due to a combination of factors, including pollution of the rivers and overfishing both at sea and in small streams, but he particularly pointed to a wave of dam rebuilding in the 1970s and ’80s when “dams got bigger and bigger.” Fish ladders were often so poorly designed and maintained that only a few fish could get to their spawning habitats.
Pierce, who served in the Maine House of Representatives from 2015 through 2018, was particularly incensed when, in 1995, state legislators passed a law supported by bass fishery guides that blocked the fish ladders at two locations on the Saint Croix River in the Grand Lake Stream watershed of Washington County. Soon after, according to Pierce, the alewife fishery there shrank from several million fish to fewer than 100,000 before this misguided law was overturned in 2005. “All these little pieces contributed to the decline,” Pierce says. Faced with the prospect of the loss of their fishery, the harvesters organized the Alewife Harvesters of Maine in 2006 to create a voice for their fishery.
Webber Pond in Vassalboro, according to Pierce, is another example of the value of restoring alewives, which can improve water quality by eating plankton and taking out phosphorous in the process. “When I was a boy, the water color was green as grass. You couldn’t see your hand if you stuck your arm in up to your elbow. Now it’s crystal clear,” Pierce says. “Who doesn’t like clean water?” Last year the Alewife Harvesters of Maine, working with the Maine Department of Marine Resources and other local organizations, helped to restore new alewife runs in Phippsburg and Arrowsic and on the Bagaduce River.
Of the more than 30 alewife runs in Maine communities, Pierce says over half have been restored to the point where the fisheries can sustain an annual commercial harvest. The remaining runs are still rebuilding. According to Mike Brown, a fisheries biologist with the Maine Department of Marine Resources, to manage a commercial harvest a town must demonstrate that the alewife population is large enough and stable enough to support a commercial fishery. Pierce estimates that the number of alewives that are reaching freshwater lakes to spawn now approaches 20 million fish, but that is a long way from the alewife harvesters’ goal of 50 million fish. Even that impressive goal would reach only a fraction of their historic numbers.
When a local run is healthy enough to be certified as sustainable, towns can auction the harvest rights to individuals, who have built an astonish-ing variety of means to trap a portion of the run. Most alewife harvesting operations employ some combination of nets, impoundments, scoops, or mechanical lifts, depending on the configuration of the stream or river. One of the oldest alewife harvesting designs is a fish weir, an artful arrangement of nets strung between poles to corral fish as they approach a stream or river. For the past decade, Jake Sutherland has built a fish weir each spring at the bottom of the Orland Village Dam, where a long line of nets guide the fish into a trap. When the tide goes out, the trapped fish are exposed and then transferred by conveyor belt to a truck waiting above. Through an arrangement with the town, Sutherland leaves the weir open three days a week so that some fish can make their way upstream by way of two small fish ladders and flip themselves over the dam into the Narramissic River. Sutherland sells the alewives to lobster-men, who prize this source of fresh bait in the spring, when other bait is scarce and expensive.
On Maine’s bigger rivers, where hydroelectric dams block fish passage, relationships between conservationists, harvesters, and dam owners are not always as cooperative. The federal government relicenses dams every 25 to 40 years, and those proceedings are often long and contentious, especially if restoring fish passage is required.
On the Presumpscot River, the largest river emptying into Casco Bay, seven dams, all owned by the paper company Sappi North America and its predecessors, blocked fish passage on almost the entire length of the river between Casco Bay and Sebago Lake for over a century and a half. Since 1992 the Friends of the Presumpscot River has led the work to restore native fish runs there. The effort achieved its first success in 2002, when the Friends and their partners purchased and removed the Smelt Hill Dam at the head of tide on the Presumpscot River in Falmouth. Sean Mahoney was an attorney at Verrill Dana when he began working pro bono with Michael Shaughnessy, the leader of the Friends of the Presumpscot , and Ron Kreisman, an architect of the removal of the Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River. After Mahoney joined the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) in 2006, he spent much of the next decade and a half in a series of “pretty fraught negotiations” with Sappi after winning a 2009 court case requiring fish passage at the company’s power-producing dams.
As a result of the successful lawsuit brought by CLF and Friends of the Presumpscot, Sappi was required to build a $5 million fish ladder at its Cumberland Mills Dam, which was opened in 2013. Alewives surged farther upriver as public interest in seeing the natural spectacle of a restored alewife run continued to escalate. In 2014 the Presumpscot Regional Land Trust began to work on a major new trail system to offer residents in the greater Portland area the opportunity to see the largest alewife run on Casco Bay. The city of Westbrook donated the first parcel of land, says Rachel Curran Apse, executive director of the land trust, and the property has grown to over 130 acres. Last year, over 30,000 fish made the journey upstream to Highland Lake.
Saccarappa Dam, adjacent to Sappi’s mill in the center of Westbrook, became the next priority for the alewife advocates. After three years of contentious negotiations, CLF, the Friends of the Presumpscot, and the city of Westbrook agreed to a precedent-setting compromise with Sappi in 2016. The company would relinquish its hydroelectric licenses at Upper and Lower Saccarappa Falls, remove the dams there, and reconstruct a natural fishway by sculpting the river bottom to enable fish to ascend the falls. The company also agreed to create new passageways on the next four dams upriver when significant numbers of alewives appear below those dams in the future. At the suggestions of the organizations, the city agreed that Sappi would not be allowed to surrender its dam licenses until it had restored the river to enable a natural fish run. “The river bottom had been blown to smithereens there,” says Mahoney. “The Saccarappa Falls are the key to fish passage on the Presumpscot. If we didn’t get it right there, fish passage upstream would fail.”
All across Maine, people from all different walks of life have contributed to the resurgence of alewives. According to Maine Rivers, which maintains the Maine Alewife Trail Map website, there are 18 publicly accessible observation sites from Kennebunk to Machias. The Damariscotta Mills site is one of the most exciting. Since Wilson and her team of volunteers started work, “We went from getting 80,000 alewives up the ladder to over a million now,” says Wilson. “These fish definitely inspire people—you can practically feel your whole body trying to help them get up.”