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 mhhetling@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

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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

As more dams come down or install lifts — Gray said the Pioneer and Waverly dams in Pittsfield and the Hartland dam are among those expected to change — the range will more than double to include such spawning grounds as Great Moose Pond in Hartland, Big Indian Pond in St. Albans, and Stetson Pond near Newport, 105 miles from the sea.

It's not easy being an alewife

To an alewife, the world is one big slaughterhouse.

"They take an enormous wallop from the second they're born," Gray said. "Their entire life is spent running from predators."

Kingfishers, ospreys, herons, eagles, minks, otters and even — memorably — a pair of seals in 2011 have been known to follow alewives up the Sebasticook River to the Benton area.

During four years of adolescence, the survivors that reach the Benton Falls dam have zigged when their predators expected them to zag time after time.

Just miles from the finish line, while milling around at the base of the Benton dam, many are netted by humans and returned, as lobster bait, to the ocean that they only recently left, a fact that Gray said contains "no small amount of irony."

But what's bad news for a lone fish in a net is good news for the population as a whole, he said, because "in that, also, lies the fish's salvation."

The animals that no one needs are the ones that tend to go extinct, he said. As long as alewives are a commodity, people will work to preserve them.

Money, money

Jim Wotton, 43, of Friendship, a commercial fisherman, has been harvesting the fish from Benton Falls each year.

The crew usually numbers four, including Wotton, but this year, the record run has increased the total to six men, who wear hip-waders and stand in the water hauling nets of fish into aluminum skiffs.

When the sides of a fish-laden boat begin to dip perilously close to the water line, it is taken to shore, while an empty boat heads out to take its place.

Each 250-pound crate of fish is wrestled up an embankment, with the help of a chute and a winch, and into the back of a truck, where they are stacked four high.

Wotton described it as a "very physical, very hard" job, but the hot, hard labor leads to cold, hard cash.

Wotton doesn't measure the fish by the millions. To him, what's important is the number of crates sold, which in 2011 was 786.

This year, he said, he has already put 660 crates full of fish onto trucks.

The sticker price on a crate of about 600 dead alewives is $60, Wotton said, with a third going to the town of Benton.

The take for Benton has ranged between $15,000 and $20,000 annually, but a full accounting of the economic benefits and costs associated with the alewife is difficult to untangle, and it depends on what is included.

Individuals can pull up to 25 fish each out of the water, thereby supporting the recreational fishing industry and providing a draw for tourists. On Saturday, the town hosted its second annual Alewife Festival, which celebrates the fish and the town's rediscovered connection to them. Organizers said the festival is partly designed to stimulate the local economy.

In addition, when there are fewer dams blocking the fish, there is also an efficiency gain for the Department of Marine Resources, which in the past has spent six weeks each year working to corral about 80,000 fish and truck them up to spawning habitat. Now, Gray said, sometimes 200,000 or more fish make their way over the Benton dam in a single day.

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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

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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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