Saturday, May 24, 2014

World Fish Migration Day; Alewives Abound

Today is World Fish Migration Day.  A day to celebrate the spectacle of fish that connect the oceans and rivers of the world; to appreciate the many people who rely on these fish, and to work to ensure fish will run the rivers for generations to come.  So hooray for the alewife!  The salmon!  The eel!  Three cheers for the shad, the lamprey, the dourada, the giant catfish!  Hats off to fish ladders!  Hooray for all the organizations working for these fish.

Maine is blessed with more than its fair share of migrating fish.  We have your anadromous fish; the alewives I've grown so fond of, the Atlantic salmon (perched on the edge of extinction), the rainbow smelt, blueback herring (very difficult to tell apart from alewives), striped bass, Atlantic and shortnosed sturgeon (both in trouble), the Atlantic tomcod, the sea lamprey, and the American shad.  These fish all are born in freshwater, migrate to sea where they mature, then swim upstream to reproduce.  We've also got your catadromous fish, whose life cycle is just the opposite of anadromous fish -- they are born at sea, swim upstream and mature in fresh water, then swim downstream and reproduce at sea.  The American eel is our lone representative of this group.

I spent time this week at three fish ladders; at each, I stood transfixed by the sheer determination of the fish to make it upstream and breed.  At Nequasset, where I've been volunteering to count fish as part of their fish ladder restoration project, I stopped by to pick up some smoked herring.  Alewives were an important source of protein for Native Americans and colonists; especially the poor.  (To this day, some towns still give smoked herring to widows in town.)

Harvesting at Nequasset.  These are going for lobster bait.
Price list in the fish house at Nequasset
The smokehouse was full of delicious smoke; a small fire of alder wood is stoked, then smothered with saw dust to create a thick smoke.  Fish are first brined; then smoked for several days.

You know it's spring when these signs go up
Tools of the trade; salt for brining and sticks for hanging herring
The skilled smoker!
Inside the smoke house.  I can't tell you how wonderful it smelled.
Now what do I do with it?
Making a bit of a mess.
I took a dozen home to try.  I have to admit; these were not the easiest things to deal with -- cleaning this small fish was a task.  But I'm glad I tried them; they won't go up on the list with my cherished lobster rolls, but they're part of Maine's heritage, so worth trying.

Harvesting at Damariscotta
I wanted to make it back to Damariscotta for their fish harvesting, so I set an alarm for a pre-dawn departure, tricked a co-worker into coming along found someone I knew would be as fascinated by the process as I would be, and headed out at 5 am to see the fish.  Nequasset is a small-time fish run compared to Damariscotta, where they sometimes have more than a million fish climb the ladder.  It wasn't always this way of course; the run was severely depleted; so recently, they stopped harvesting for a decade, restored the fish ladder, and made conserving the alewife a priority.  One of the things that interests me so much about the alewife is how each town can influence their harvest only through conservation.  Although river herring are squeezed on both ends -- through poor fish passage on rivers and because they are caught as bycatch in offshore fisheries, the actions of each town can greatly influence alewife abundance.  Fish ladder in poor condition, or missing completely?  Overharvest on your run?  No alewives for you.  Fish ladder well designed and maintained?  Harvest just the right amount?  Tons of alewives for you.  Unlike so many fisheries, where the stock is a resource shared by a large amount of people and subject to the "tragedy of the commons", local actions directly influence alewife abundance.  That's why I'm so jazzed about the Damariscotta run.

When we arrived, it was clear the run was, well, overrun.  Below the ladder, fish were massed in giant schools, pushing forward in a mob.  The ladder was completely full, with fish popping over the rungs every second or two.  They were counting fish at the top, and said they have 10 minute counts of 700 fish -- compared to the 200 fish I counted at Nequasset, this is enormous.

Our early arrival allowed us to check out their fish harvest.  This operation is something to see.  Up near the rapids, fish make a choice; go up the ladder (they're the happy fish), or go up the natural waterway, and into the large metal baskets used to harvest.  When the baskets are full, they are tilted into a large funnel; where thousands of fish slide down onto a conveyor belt.  This belt carries them to a flume, and water from the falls carries them down the flume to the collection area.  Fish are put in fish boxes and sold as lobster bait.  (Bait is difficult to get this time of year, so thank an alewife if you come up to Maine for Memorial Day weekend and enjoy a lobster roll.)  It was absolutely worth the early wake up call to see them fishing, and I can tell you, two women showing up at 5 am to learn about fishing?  You get a pretty good reception!  Thanks guys!  But, if you're a late riser, or a guy, you can still check out the ladder -- this weekend is the Alewife Festival.  If I weren't busy packing for Kent Island, I'd make sure to stop by and celebrate the alewife!

These fish turned the wrong way!  Dumping the baskets.
My friend Julie, learning about alewives.  This guy is knee-deep in fish!
Coming down the flume to be collected.
Filling the fish boxes
A good harvest
As usual, plenty of birds were taking advantage of the sea's riches
My final foray into alewives was just around the corner from my house -- at Brunswick Hydro.  This isn't the biggest run around -- I understand the fish ladder leaves much to be desired; therefore many fish can't make it home to breed.  In fact, fish have to be trucked from the ladder upstream, which I find amazing.  Nonetheless, this ladder is worth a visit, because of the unique viewing windows.  The ladder itself can't be easily viewed, but at the top there is a little room (staffed by a knowledgeable interpreter) where you can get a "fish-eye" view of the alewives waiting to trucked to their breeding ground.  Apparently they get around 250,000 fish in a good year, and alewives are joined by shad, white suckers, and even Atlantic salmon (but only a few).

The viewing room
Fish count as of last Saturday
A fish-eye view
Hearing about this run from an expert
They look determined, don't they?
The truck they use to move these fish upstream over the dam.
I'm going to be sad to see alewife season end.  But I'm about to embark on our annual summer adventure -- spending nine weeks up on Kent Island, in the Bay of Fundy.  I'll post when I can (internet, and just about every other modern convenience, is spotty), so look for lots of foggy photos in upcoming weeks.  

Nequasset fish house, today
Some things never change.


To get the Nequasset fish ladder, from US 1, turn south on Nequasset Road at the Town Hall.  At the bottom, park near the small bridge (DO NOT block the bridge or cross it, the bridge goes to a private residence).  Walk west along the water (~100 feet) and to your left, you will see a gate on a dirt road, with two large concrete blocks on either side.  Follow the dirt road to the ladder; ~100 yards.  

To get to the Damariscotta Mills fish ladder from US1 north, take the Damariscotta exit to business Route 1. Go straight at the stop sign just past the Congregational Church. Take Route 215 north for approximately 1.6 miles. Look for a parking area just past the Austin Road on the left. Or, take the next left into the Fish House parking lot. Follow the path behind the fish house and you are there. Coming south on Route 1, take the Damariscotta exit and take a right on Rt 215 across from the Louis Doe Home Center. The parking lots decribed above are about 1.3 miles on the left.  

To get to the Brunswick Hydro ladder; from US 1, turn onto Maine St in Brunswick. Park at the Ft Andross mill (the large, red brick mill, right on the river) and walk towards the green bridge.  The sign for the ladder is located immediately before the bridge.


  1. This was a good read, Janet - thanks! See you soon. Robin (HS)

  2. Thanks Robin! Someday I'll do one on seaweed! And Shoals!