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April 4, 2011

Community fish ladder restoration brings new life to alewife run

by Muriel L. Hendrix

Visitors to the Damariscotta Mills fish ladder watch for alewives along the upper, restored section of the fish ladder.
Visitors to the Damariscotta Mills fish ladder watch for alewives along the upper, restored section of the fish ladder. Photo: Dick Chase
We all have daffodils and lilacs to delight us as harbingers of spring, but people who live in Damariscotta Mills and the surrounding area have an additional gift: the return of the alewives. They have been working hard to protect this bountiful resource.

Often called river herring, alewives are anadromous fish that travel from the ocean to fresh water to spawn. Signs of their astonishing migratory run up the Damariscotta River to spawn in Damariscotta Lake are subtle at first: a few osprey scouting the Great Salt Bay for signs of food, an eagle or two, seals appearing to get their fair share, stories from further downstream of excited gulls massing above what must be schools of fish. And then, says Deb Wilson, a selectwoman from Nobleboro who coordinates volunteer activity for the Damariscotta Mills Fish Ladder Restoration project, "Suddenly, one day you can see the schools of fish boiling in the water and the osprey are diving and the eagles chasing them." Shortly after, the schools will be oriented by smell to the fresh water of the Damariscotta Mills Fish Ladder, the site of one of the most productive alewife runs on the east coast and the largest in Maine. They will have to struggle through the initial section of the ladder, which rises a total of 42 feet from the salt pond to Damariscotta Lake, but about one-half the way up, will encounter newly-restored pools that are designed to ease the final stages of their journey to the lake. This primal rite attracts thousands of visitors, and is a boon for photographers who revel in the opportunity to capture the spectacular fish and bird activity. "When they are running, it's like watching a silver ribbon," says Stanley Waltz, fish agent at the ladder.

The restored sections of the fish ladder are the achievement of an enormous volunteer effort that has involved around 200 residents from the surrounding area. They have held bean suppers and raffles, put on an annual Fish Ladder Restoration Festival on Memorial Day Weekend, (the winner of this year's 10K Raffle and a special Alewife Rug Raffle will be announced then), applied for funds through grants and individual and corporate donations (they have almost met a $5000 challenge grant from Pemaquid Oyster Festival's Edward A. Myers Marine Conservation Fund), and helped teachers, seniors and other groups learn on the site about alewives and the ladder. They have even waded in to assist the fish, so frantic to reach their spawning grounds that they mass by the thousands in the lower, not yet restored, pools and sometimes become so crowded they lack oxygen and die if not helped to move on.

In 1807, because sawmills were blocking the passage for alewives to reach the lake, Nobleboro and Newcastle residents decided to build the fish ladder to provide a passable route. They did not want to lose this valuable resource, which provided fresh and smoked fish for residents and salted fish for trade. At that time, alewives flourished: 2,782,244 were harvested in 1896.

Over the years, the stone walls of the fish ladder began to deteriorate. Rocks fell into the pools and decreased their size, diminishing available oxygen. Great numbers of fish died, even though local people repaired the rock walls each season. Other routes to spawning grounds were being blocked along the coast, but fishing continued, and the numbers of alewives dropped dramatically. Between 1985 and 2007, commercial landings of river herring along the coast decreased by 97 percent.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission ruled in 2009 that states had to re-establish alewife runs if they wanted to harvest the fish. After seeing numbers dwindle as low as 38,326 fish counted in 1992, the towns of Nobleboro and Newcastle realized that yearly repairs were not adequate. In 2007, the towns' Fish Committee initiated an estimated five-year, $500,000 restoration plan. Like the residents in 1807, they wanted to protect the resource, which provides fresh bait for fishermen in the spring after a long winter of salted and frozen bait, and is an important food source for numerous fresh and saltwater fish like large and small-mouth bass, trout, pickerel, haddock, cod and striped bass, and for many birds and mammals. Alewives' upriver migration also gives protective cover to out-migrating Atlantic Salmon smolts. In addition, the towns of Nobleboro and Newcastle continue a tradition begun in the 1800s of giving two bushels of alewives from each year's run to the town's widows. These days, most either trade them for smoked fish at Mulligan's Smokehouse or trade with lobstermen for fresh lobsters.

The upper section of the fish ladder, where fish make their final leap into the mill pond at the southern end of Lake Damariscotta, reveals what the entire ladder will look like when work is completed. There, pools completed in 2008 and 2009 are works of art, an intricate series of beautifully crafted stone walls in descending circles, each with an 18- to 22-inch wide notch where fish leap up a 10-inch rise to reach the next pool, which has a minimum diameter of 5 feet.

These specifications were recommended in a plan drawn up by Curtis Orvis, an engineer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to provide optimum conditions for the fish run. Because of the nature of the terrain, particularly the presence of ledge, pools do not march up the ladder like a normal stairway. Instead, they are of varying sizes and are arranged in a winding route.

The top weirs (walls) were constructed by building two stone walls and then pouring concrete in between. Because some leaks have appeared in this work, planners decided it would be better in the next stage to clear out all the original stones first and then construct walls out of concrete. Later, Wilson says, when funds are available, they will be faced with rocks, which create a smooth surface that Orvis says protects fish from descaling. "Right now," Wilson says, "our main concern is to put the money we raise towards making the ladder as accessible as possible to protect the resource."

Visiting the central section of the ladder shows 22 pools constructed in this way during last November and December. Further down the ladder, it's possible to see the initial work, a restored high stone wall which had collapsed into the run. Also, the lower, still unrestored area is visible. Wilson says it will be cleared out as best possible before the run begins. In the fall, after the last of the juvenile alewives have leaped tail first from their birthplace into the ladder to return to sea, work will resume to replace the remaining deteriorated pools with concrete and rebar.

So far, the increase in numbers has been impressive: In 2008, an estimated 150,000 alewives reached Damariscotta Lake; in 2008 and in 2009, more than double that number were counted.

Standing on a viewing platform beside a restored portion of the ladder, Wilson says she can see every place where previously the fish were stuck and couldn't get through. Having spent countless hours on the project, she is thrilled to know the fish will have an easier time this spring.

"My heart sings to see this work," she says.

For further information, visit

Muriel Hendrix is a freelance writer living in Bath.

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