Thursday, March 20, 2014

Who wants to be a marine biologist?

Wanna try your hand at science?  Help out a land trust (the Ocean Lover's favorite type of non-profit)? Spend a few hours outside?  What's that?  YOU want to do it?

Great!  Because despite current conditions and indications to the contrary, the earth is moving around the sun, our hemisphere is starting to get more direct radiation, and spring is about to arrive (gal-dangit, it better). With it will come some of the greatest migrations on earth -- whales (from as far as the Caribbean), sandpipers (passing through as they fly from South America to the Arctic tundra), and the anadromous fish that live in Maine's fresh waters for part of their lives.  This is National Geo worthy -- and you can have a front row seat.

The Kennebec Estuary Land Trust (KELT), has protected almost 1000 acres on the Midcoast, and they want you.  KELT worked with the Bath Water District starting in 2010 to restore the fish ladder from the Kennebec via Nequasset Brook to Nequasset Lake, prime spawning habitat for alewives. Later this year, the ladder is getting a major refit, expected to make passage for fish easier and maintenance of the ladder less labor intensive.  Every year, KELT recruits dozens of volunteers to count how many alewives climb the ladder.

Swimming upstream!  Gotta make me some babies!  Credit: Jerry Prezioso, NEFSC/NOAA
I'm psyched to help out.  Volunteering involves choosing a 2 hour shift, and within that 2 hours, doing two 10 minute counts of fish, as well as collecting associated data such as temperature and the presence of predators (if you're a bird watcher, this part will thrill you).

Alewives were part of the enormous biomass our ancestors found when they arrived in Maine.  Every river would have been jam-packed with alewives in spring, as they ran up the rivers to spawn.  Any number of species relied on this bolus of protein during the migration -- gulls, ospreys, and eagles; raccoon, fox and turtles; and marine predators like cod and even whales.  (Dogs?  Probably.)  People relied on the alewife run too -- smoked alewives were an important source of nutrition (especially for the poor), and they were commonly used as bait for lobstering.  Everything eats alewives.  Everything.

Unfortunately, most of the alewife runs in Maine are a shadow of their former self.  Dams have blocked passage of alewives (and many other anadromous fish) along almost all of Maine's rivers. But this is a new era.  Recent efforts to eliminate barriers to fish passage have succeeded in opening the St Croix watershed (where the alewife run was reduced to just 900 fish at one point) and much of the Kennebec, plus smaller watersheds around the state -- like the Nequasset Dam.  It's an exciting time to be an alewife!

I know you're chomping at the bit to sign up to volunteer -- aren't you?  How can you resist?  Go to the KELT website and follow the link for the 2014 Fish Count.  Mark it on your calendar and dream about being out in the spring sun cheering these small heroes on their way up the ladder.  Maybe I'll see you there.

*Want to see alewives but don't think you can volunteer?  There are two other great places to see them. The Damariscotta Mills fish ladder is probably the most amazing place (going to their Alewife Festival on Memorial Day weekend will make it even more fun), and you can check out the fish ladder at the Brunswick Hydro Dam (on the Androscoggin).  Alewives start running when the water reaches 57 degrees, so May is probably a good time to visit.

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