Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Alewives on the Damariscotta River

Over Memorial Day weekend, Damariscotta Mills, Maine, held an alewife festival to help raise money for restoring the fish ladder that leads from the Damariscotta River to Damariscotta Lake.  I've heard about the alewife run for years, but this is the first time the family has ever attended.

Alewives are herring, and they are anadromous, meaning they spend part of their lives in fresh water and part in salt water.  Born in lakes, they spend several years at sea and return to their native rivers and streams to spawn.  Unlike salmon, who spawn and die, alewives can make the run to their mating ground as many as eight times, as long as they can avoid seabirds, fishermen, and exhaustion. Gulls, ospreys, and great blue herons feast on them, while fish that die of exhaustion feed scavengers like raccoons and bald eagles.

[These photos came from a blog by A. Phillippi]

The fish ladder at Damariscotta Mills eases a 42-foot climb around a dam from river to lake.  It consists of a series of rockbound pools separated by small water runs about a foot high.  The pools wind through a wooded dell like the decorative stream of a miniature golf course.  The difference is that these pools and the runs between them are clogged with fish, resting and then swimming madly upstream.  The adult fish make the migration in late May, and around October or November, the fry let themselves return to the river, tail-first (I suppose they're swimming in place to keep themselves oriented correctly.)

In colonial times, villagers could scoop up enough fish in the two-week run to feed the village for the winter.  Alewives were preserved by smoking, and there is still a small, surprisingly sweet-smelling smokehouse. Today, alewives serve as bait for Maine's lobster industry, which brings in close to one million pounds of lobster in a good year.

To count the alewives, volunteers stand with a clicker at the narrow top chute into the lake. For the first ten minutes of each hour, a volunteer counts the fish as they shoot through the last opening.  Standing nearby, I counted 30 fish in one minute.  A fish every two seconds for two weeks would be just over 600,000 fish, but the actual estimate for this year is about 350,000.

Maine has long cold winters and rocky soil, but seeing the alewife run gave me an insight into the marine riches and steady protein source that might have made the midcoast an attractive place for colonists to settle.

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