May 19, 2013

Sebasticook to the sea: Alewives' perilous lives crucial to ecosystem, economy

Little silver 'river herring' important to lobster, tourism industries

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling
Staff Writer

BENTON — Alewives are little fish with a big story.

click image to enlarge

Ron Weeks, left, and Tommy Keister, right, fill crates with bucketloads of alewives at the Benton Falls hydroelectric dam on the Sebasticook River on May 9. Each crate weighed about 250 pounds and was sold as bait for $60 each.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

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Craig Mott, 36, center, the dock manager at the Friendship Lobster Co-Op, helps unload the day's lobster haul from the Miss Kylie in Friendship Harbor on Wednesday.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

Additional Photos Below

Each year, billions of the silver fish hatch out of eggs in the cool waters of the Sebasticook River and embark on a dangerous journey to the sea and back again.

Those that return must make it past the Benton Falls Dam. As they wait for a boost from a fish elevator, a small percentage are netted by human harvesters, destined for the lobsterman's trap.

Like the alewives themselves, the money traded for the fish is passed up and down the Sebasticook and all along Maine's coast. The fish are the basis of a growing economic link between central Maine and the coastal lobster industry, which uses alewives to shore up a gap in the bait supply.

In colonial times, massive populations of alewives spawned along the Sebasticook and many of Maine's other waterways, but the industrial age of dams and pollution sent their numbers into a tailspin throughout much of the 1800s and 1900s.

Benton's ability to share in the harvest was halted when the Edwards Dam in Augusta was built on the Kennebec River, which the Sebasticook feeds into, in 1837.

Worried that the once-ubiquitous fish could face extinction, the Department of Marine Resources began stocking alewives in the watershed in 1985, going so far as to put fish in tanks on trucks to bypass the dams, which prevented fish passage.

Today, with the Edwards and other dams removed and water quality improved by modern sewage treatment practices, more fish are able to spawn with 2011 yielding a record run of 2.7 million.

Richard Lawrence, Benton's alewife warden, said that a state-approved town ordinance makes it legal for the town to harvest the fish once 250,000 have made it over the dam.

Lawrence said the current run could beat the 2011 record, one more sign that statewide efforts to restore fish populations to historic levels are succeeding.

That effort got a last week, when Maine's Natural Resources Council announced the reopening of the St. Croix River to alewives, allowing a run for the first time in 22 years. That run was down to fewer than 1,000 fish after dam passages were closed in 1995, compared with more than 2 million in the 1980s.

Moving right along

Each Sebasticook alewife undertakes a remarkable journey, beginning when it first wriggles out of a waterborne egg alongside tens of thousands of siblings. It heads downstream, past Benton, seeking the Atlantic Ocean, and then heads down the coast, sometimes traveling as far as South Carolina.

For three years, the alewife stays at sea, swimming thousands of miles while evading predators up and down the coast.

At age 4, instinct drives them to head back upriver to spawn with each inch of the 65-mile trip a hard fought battle against the current, won at a rate of about one mile per hour, said Nate Gray, a biologist with the Department of Marine Resources.

If 100,000 fish make it back to spawn in the Sebasticook, they can lay 15 billion eggs, but Gray said predicting the number of alewives that will successfully complete the cycle of life in any given year is impossible.

A cold 2009 rainfall in a lake may have created a lethal temperature swing for millions of baby alewives, Gray said, killing a significant number of what could have otherwise been this year's spawning adults.

In theory, though, the numbers of alewives could continue to climb, with enough habitat currently available to support as many as five million fish per year.

"That's a best-case scenario, if everybody makes it in, and everybody makes it out," Gray said.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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A crate full of lobster, worth $4.25 per pound, is weighed at the Friendship Lobster Co-Op in Friendship Harbor on Wednesday.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

click image to enlarge

Nate Gray, the onsite biologist from the Department of Marine Resources at the Benton Falls dam, sits next to a fish observation window at the top of the dam. Gray has the duty of counting and measuring the number of alewives that pass through the dam. So far this year, only two weeks in to the run, over 1.3 million fish have been tracked.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

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Tommy Keister, a fisherman from Friendship, stands in a skiff filled with live alewives while netting the baitfish at the Benton Falls hydroelectric dam on the Sebasticook River on May 9.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

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