Hope is a thing with fins.................
Updated: Sep 17, 2021
Writing anything original and meaningful these days feels like a very daunting challenge. I’ve been feeling like a deer-in-the-headlights ever since the pandemic hit, and the racial justice protests began, in regards to coming up with a relevant topic and perspective, without sounding a lot of familiar themes and alarms.
A two and a half minute news video from a television station in Portland, Maine, however, has unexpectedly awakened and reminded me of a story which transcends our current state of affairs, I think, and which brings with it a rich message from the natural world, as well as from Maine locals who saw an opportunity that they eventually were able to shape into a great blessing.
The story involves a relatively small fish (9” – 12”) that some people call River Herring, Big-eyed Herring, or, more commonly, Alewife. (Alosa pseudoharengus). These ocean-going fish swim in huge schools, and when it’s time to spawn, they head upriver, from as far out to sea as 150 miles, to freshwater lakes and ponds. Historical accounts from New England in the 1600’s suggest that millions upon millions of these silvery, sleek fish returning each spring to reproduce fed not only humans, but just about everything else, from eagles, gulls and ospreys to striped bass and large trout, to mink, otter, and bear.
As hundreds of dams were built, the fish could not reach their traditional breeding grounds. Water pollution, overfishing, and shoreline development created additional problems, and over the centuries, the Alewives were greatly reduced, as vitally important and long-established food webs tying together the ocean, freshwater, and the land disintegrated year by year. It was a slowly evolving ecological disaster, with far-reaching consequences. (Maine scientists have linked the disappearance of the economically vital coastal cod populations to the dramatic decline in the number of alewives compared to historic levels.)
In the tiny mid-coast hamlet of Damariscotta Mills, where a cascading stream from adjacent Damariscotta Lake empties into to a sea-going river, alewives have had an historic pathway for their annual reproductive runs. In 1729, however, twin sawmills were built at the most dramatic part of the wide outlet stream, where a narrow but precipitous waterfall would provide power. Its not clear if any alewives were able to use other parts of the stream to enter the lake, which sits about 42 feet and a hundred yards or so above the river. What we do know is that a so-called “fishway”, consisting, possibly, of a series of rock pools and sluice-ways was eventually built by surrounding towns in 1807. Apparently, this system worked to some extent, as far as we know, since there were so many fish seeking the lake, but over centuries of repair and re-building, it was largely deficient by the early 2000’s.
In 2007, a committee of local residents decided to take up the challenge to rebuild the fishway so that it reflected the best current engineering and design, and in the course of the next dozen years, over a million dollars was raised, and all of the old fish ladder was slowly replaced, mostly during the colder months of the year when masons often had to work under a large plastic tent heated by propane, while their boots, we understand, were in cold mud.
In May and June of 2007, before the restoration work began, approximately 80,000 alewives made their way into Damariscotta Lake. By 2010, after the first years of restoration began, about 300,000 fish swam up to the lake. By 2014, after a long series of ascending rock pools were constructed as well as other masonry work accomplished, a record was set that spring, with 1,066,314 fish successfully swimming upstream through the artful and stunningly beautiful fish ladder. While a variety of factors, such as appropriate water temperature, weather, predation, etc. effect how many fish are able to swim up the 600 foot tiered-ladder each spring, counts of a million or more, over a period of about six weeks, are now more common.
I’ve been lucky enough, over the past decades, to witness the mind-boggling flood of many thousands of alewives crowding into the stream entrance as they slowly swim their way to the first of a number of small resting pools, and then upward and onward. There are so many fish packed into the 20’ wide entry stream that it appears, in the words of an old cliché, you can “walk across the creek on their backs.” All is alive, moving, shimmering……… all the fish facing the same upstream direction, and all seemingly fixated by an urgent bio-chemical mission. Hundreds of curious people and photographers each week are able to walk alongside some of the stream and pools to watch this spectacle. And with thousands of visitors each year, there is growing enchantment, and hopefully, support for the maintenance of the Damariscotta Mills Fish Ladder Restoration, and for other such efforts in the state.
The fish are the main attraction, of course, to those of us lucky enough to see a true miracle of migration. But the annual alewife run creates a huge and exceedingly noisy feeding frenzy of hungry gulls, ospreys, eagles, and cormorants, all of whom are busy with their own reproductions and the feeding of young. Very few nature guidebooks, however, would even suggest that gulls will get completely underwater in pursuit of prey, but it is not an uncommon sight to see that happen here…… and watch as a 10” wriggling river herring is caught in the tight grip of a large gull’s beak.
As news of this great wildlife success has travelled, the restoration committee now organizes a very popular Alewife Festival each Memorial Day weekend. Additionally, other groups throughout Maine are currently working to remove old, un-needed dams, and thus open historically important lakes to alewife and sea-run fish migrations. Since two huge dams on the mighty Kennebec River were removed in 1999 and 2008, more than 27 million alewives have reached their spawning habitats upriver. Estimates for re-opening Maine’s St. Croix River to alewives suggest that as many as 20 million fish per year could reproduce in that eastern part of the state. This would have a huge and positive cascading effect on the entire regional web of life which benefits from such a vast treasure trove of bio-mass.
Videographers from Portland television station WMTW recently put together a wonderfully inspiring news piece about Damariscotta Mills and the tsunami of fish that are finding their way to Damariscotta Lake. Check this out!
Also, for more information about Alewives, their importance and life history, and restoration work, go to: