PENOBSCOT, Maine — When thousands of alewives leave the salty Atlantic Ocean next spring to reproduce in freshwater ponds, those headed to the Bagaduce River watershed will have an easier trip due to the recent completion of Maine’s first watershed-wide fish passage restoration.
Since 2017, the towns of Penobscot, Sedgwick and Brooksville, along with the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries and several organizations, have been working to ease the arduous journey for alewives at local connections between oceans and freshwater ponds.
The last of the five projects was completed in October.
Alewives can be found up and down the Eastern Seaboard and are a vital link in the food chain for a number of different species.
“Everything eats an alewife,” said Bailey Bowden, a member of the Penobscot Alewife Committee. “They are the bottom of the food chain, so the more of those you have, the more of everything else you’re going to have.”
Alewife populations were negatively affected by dams, pollution, overfishing and blocked runs. This project aims to reverse that. If the species bounces back, it could mean the return of local commercial harvests. Though the market for them is small, alewives are smoked locally for human consumption or can be used as lobster bait.
The fish spend most of their lives at sea, but when it’s time to spawn, they will swim thousands of miles back to the exact pond they were born in to reproduce. That makes maintaining clear passage for them to even small watersheds such as the Bagaduce vitally important.
“This is not just a little local accomplishment,” said Ciona Ulbrich, a senior project manager at the Maine Coast Heritage Trust who was one of the leaders for the project. “We impact the food chain.”
Improvements were made at Pierce Pond and Wight Pond in Penobscot, Snows Brook in Sedgwick and at Meadow Brook and the Walker Pond outlet in Brooksville.
Marked increases in the number of alewives going through the runs may take some time to see because the fish don’t come back again to spawn for a few years after birth, said Mike Thalhauser, a collaborative management specialist at Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries.
Outside of ecological benefits, the fishways showed that these projects can be done in quick succession if organizations work together.
“It was so key and inspiring to have real engagement and interest from so many community members and the town governments,” Ulbrich said. “It’s such an important component to get this type of work done.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which helped with funding for the Bagaduce watershed, said that similar improvements elsewhere in Maine could be on the horizon, especially with passage of the recent infrastructure bill.
Most of the fishways also have improved viewing areas, which make it easier to host educational programs that Bowden hoped would reconnect kids with their local ecosystem.
“If we can hook one kid into being a marine biologist, that’s a good thing,” he said.