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

(Continued from page 2)

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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

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Installing the Benton Falls fish lift cost more than $1 million, but Andrew Locke, vice president for Essex Hydro, which bought the dam in 2006, said he's not complaining about the cost.

"You don't want to go halfway. If you make the commitment, you should honor it," he said. "We're stewards of the river."

The Midcoast connection

To a lobsterman on the coast, a dead alewife from Benton smells of money. When Wotton's crew begins pulling fish out of the Sebasticook, lobstermen arrive, money in hand, to take fish to ports such as Beals Island, Stonington, Bar Harbor, Friendship, Rockland, Port Clyde. The whole coast, he said, receives Benton's bounty.

Alewives help ease the pain of a recurring problem for Maine's springtime lobstermen.

The state prevents overfishing of herring, an important source of lobster trap bait, by establishing quotas that run from June 1 to May 31.

By the end of the annual cycle in May, some of the state's commercial fishing zones begin to reach their quota, leaving lobstermen scrambling for alternatives.

"I would spend days upon days trying to find enough bait to go out with," Wotton said.

By luck or providence, the alewife run ramps up just as the annual herring quota begins to run out.

Lobstermen also prize alewives for their firmness, their resistance to decomposition and, above all, their appeal to the newly molted spring lobsters, notoriously finicky eaters, Wotton said, that still have a hard time passing up a nice chunk of alewife.

Three or four at a time are put in a lobster trap and chopped into pieces to, as Wotton puts it, "get all the juices going."

The price of alewives is about that of herrings, but the firm fish lasts longer, allowing the trap to sit for more days and collect more lobsters.

In other areas of the state, alewife harvesters limit how much of the scarce commodity they sell, but Wotton has set no cap on Benton's record-breaking run, selling as many as 30 crates — about 15,000 fish — at a time.

For a time, with boats and nets and crates and trucks all packed to the gills with alewives, it seems the bounty will never end. But just a few days after the fish stop running, every last one winds up in a lobster trap or spoiled beyond use.

Gray said a strong relationship between the lobster industry and Benton's fish will become more important in the future as the global economy forces American consumers back toward a time when local food and supplies were the norm rather than the exception.

When local bait sources dry up, Gray said, lobstermen are forced to buy from as far away as Australia.

"When you look at fuel prices over the last five years, these guys are taking it in the neck," he said.

Over time, he said, the cost of transportation will become prohibitive, and locally sourced bait will become more important.

"It's 50 pounds of halfway-around-the-globe bait versus 50 pounds of in-your-backyard bait," he said. "It's no contest."

If Gray is right, the story of Maine's alewives and the story of Maine's people will become increasingly intertwined.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287

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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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