Despite alewives being the focus of sometimes contentious efforts to improve their access to Down East Maine freshwater spawning habitats, these migratory fish remain something of a mystery to many, while at the same time remaining a favorite food for wide variety of Maine wildlife.

Alewives as a meal for Mainers themselves? Not so much. At least not anymore. Once a dinner-table staple in Maine, alewives are now more likely to be chopped up for lobster bait.

In addition to osprey and bald eagles, which have perfected dive-bombing fishing techniques in feasting upon the annual spring run of “river herring,” alewives are prey for a long list of critters. Alewife predators include not only raptors, but other fish, among them bass, bluefish, tuna, cod, haddock, halibut, eel, trout, landlocked salmon, pickerel, pike and perch. Other predators include great blue heron, gulls, terns, cormorants, seals, whales, otter, mink, fox, raccoon, skunk, weasel, fisher and turtles. Maybe even bears.

An 1852 history of Kennebec County recounts that in Gardiner and Pittston “alewives were so plentiful at the time the country was settled that bears, and later swine, fed on them in the water. They were crowded ashore by the thousands.”

Before the 20th century advent of refrigeration, which allowed a wide variety of fish species as options for dinner entrees, alewives were popular because they kept well when smoked or packed in salt. They were also plentiful, as each May and June hundreds of thousands of the 10-inch silver fish migrated from the sea into virtually all of Maine’s freshwater rivers and streams to spawn. Alewives were also cheap, as in free for the taking.

For thousands of years Native Americans and, centuries later, Maine’s early European settlers relied heavily on alewives for subsistence. So did the poor, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service history of alewife migration. When one Maine river town built a dam that blocked the fish from their spawning habitat, settlers upstream were outraged.

“It was difficult to persuade the aggrieved people to forbear using violence to open a passage for ye fish,” one report of the incident relates. “The cry of the poor every year for want of the fish … is enough to move the bowels of compassion in any man that hath not a heart of stone.”

Guided by their keen sense of smell, alewives migrate from the ocean to upstream rivers, streams, ponds and lakes to spawn. Males return to freshwater when they are 3 years old, while females usually return at age 4 or 5. Although one female alewife can produce as many as 100,000 eggs, very few juveniles — as few as three — survive to adulthood.

While some die after spawning, most adult alewives make their way back to the ocean shortly after spawning, with many returning the following spring to spawn again. Juvenile alewives grow to be as large as six inches. From mid-July through October, they migrate downstream to the ocean, where they grow to adulthood before returning to freshwater estuaries.

Alewives making news

Alewives have been making news in Maine since the 1980s, when it was first claimed that their migratory habits were undermining sport fishing in Spednik Lake, one of the Chiputneticook Lakes upstream from the Washington County community of Vanceboro. As a result, and with little debate, legislation was enacted in 1995 that blocked fishways at Grand Falls Dam near Princeton and at Woodland Dam in Baileyville. The Woodland Dam barrier was removed in 2008.

Passamaquoddy tribal members in Washington County and in New Brunswick who fish the St. Croix River that defines a 71-mile stretch of U.S.-Canadian border have been pushing for years to restore alewife passage to watershed spawning grounds far upstream from Calais. New science shows there is no viable reason to maintain St. Croix barriers established due to a now-debunked claim that alewives were undermining the smallmouth bass population important to a small but lucrative sport fishing industry.

A law that took effect last month required state officials to remove barriers in fishways at Grand Falls Dam in Washington County by May 1 to provide alewives with unrestricted access to the entire St. Croix River watershed for the first time since 1995.

The lingering debate over removing the barriers shifted into high gear last fall when the Portland-based Conservation Law Foundation filed suit in U.S. District Court. That suit claimed the Grand Falls Dam barrier blocked alewives and other fish species that migrate within the St. Croix River from accessing 98 percent of their spawning habitats. As a result, the suit claimed, the alewife population in the river had been “decimated” from millions of alewives in 1995 to an estimated 900 by 2002.

The CLF lawsuit named two state officials as defendants: Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the state’s Department of Marine Resources, and Chandler Woodcock, commissioner of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries. That suit was dismissed at the request of the Conservation Law Foundation in April with the approval of the new law.

‘It’s a business’

As the price of herring keeps going up, alewives remain a popular and affordable May-June bait alternative for the Down East lobster fishery. Ralph Cahoon, a Hancock-based lobsterman, said that herring bait is now selling for as much as $25 a bushel, while he can buy a bushel of alewives harvested from the Union River in Ellsworth for about $15.

Other lobstermen, like Robert Hudson of Hancock, avoid alewives as bait. “I’ve fished with them,” Hudson said. “But all I ever caught was crabs.”

Hancock’s Herb Hodgkins has been working for years to develop an affordable, artificial lobster bait as an alternative to herring. He said lobstermen find alewives attractive not only because they are less expensive, but because they last longer as lobster trap bait than herring.

“I don’t think alewives fish as good as herring, but it’s a handy alternative,” Hodgkins told the Bangor Daily News. “One reason why alewives are a popular bait in the spring is that, due to weather and other factors, fishermen like to set their traps for more days. Herring is gone in about three days, whereas alewives will stay on two or three more days.”

According to the Maine Department of Marine Resources, 21 Maine communities are approved to harvest alewives this spring. Most of the towns involved take bids in selling the harvesting rights. Although the revenue generated is not huge, with cutbacks in state revenue sharing subsidies, every dollar of income matters to Maine’s communities, large or small.

The towns and the waterways involved in this spring’s alewife harvest include: Alna (Sheepscot River), Bath (Winnegance Lake), Benton (Sebasticook River), Cherryfield (Narraguagus River), Dresden (Mill Creek), East Machias (Gardner Lake), Ellsworth (Union River), Franklin (Grist Mill Stream), Gouldsboro (West Bay Pond), Jefferson (Dyer-Long River), Newcastle (Damariscotta Mills), Nobleboro (Damariscotta Mills), Orland (Orland River), Perry (Boyden Lake), Phippsburg (Winnegance Lake), Steuben (Tunk Stream/Lake), Sullivan (Flanders Stream), Vassalboro (Webber Pond), Warren (St. George River), West Bath (Winnegance Lake) and Woolwich (Nequasset Stream).

In Ellsworth, alewives are harvested as they cluster beneath the Union River hydroelectric dam, with thousands trapped and 1,100 bushels trucked upstream for release in the Green Lake and Graham Lake estuary that feeds the dam. Last year another 8,000 bushels were sold to lobsterman like Cahoon at prices that buffer the higher cost of herring bait.

“It’s a business,” says Richard Welch, the alewife harvester who has been authorized by Ellsworth to trap and sell Union River alewives for the last 17 years. “We run it, in terms of prices, to sell the fish and to make it worth the while of people who come from a distance to buy them.”

Alewives underappreciated

Among Maine’s resident experts on alewives is Doug Watts of Augusta. Quite literally, Watts wrote the book on river herring. Simply titled “Alewife,” his 2012 book traces the complexity and history of the alewife migration cycle in Maine and Massachusetts.

“Most people in Maine don’t know what alewives are, which is strange,” Watts said. “It’s like some red bird showing up in your yard and you call the DNR [Department of Natural Resources] and ask ‘What is it?’ … only to learn it’s a cardinal.”

Asked what two things Mainers don’t know or appreciate about alewives, Watts said, “Alewives exist in far more numbers in Maine than people could imagine.

“Second, alewives are not just lobster bait,” he said. “If people see and watch alewives, they will see that they are as colorful and fascinating as brook trout. They shouldn’t be viewed just as something to chop up for lobster bait.”