June 26 – July 2, 2015Vol. 17, No. 4

What About Them Alewives???

by Dale Finseth

Last week I spent some time discussing the importance of fixing stream crossings, i.e. places where roadways cross streams. This week I'll take a stab at discussing the beneficial results of stream barrier removal. While the restoration of Salmon gets the flashy media attention, more and more in Maine the local impact of StreamSmart practices is the restoration of alewife runs.

Clearly my short article will not settle the serious differences of opinion that drive that discussion. Many believe that the return of alewives will mean the demise of smallmouth bass fishing and the sporting industry that the smallmouth fishery supports. For purposes of this article we remain focused on the anadromous, or "sea run," alewife. These are also called river herring and spend most of their lives out in the ocean only to return to fresh water ponds in order to spawn. They have an amazingly complicated life cycle which we still do not fully understand.

Back in late April and the month of May some may have visited sites in Kennebec County which support alewife migration. Benton Falls on the Sebasticook is one, the Webber Pond outlet dam is another. Efforts are afoot to remove the barriers on the China Lake Outlet Stream in order to re-establish alewife in China Lake. Togus Pond has also begun to have alewives restored.

For those who have not witnessed the spring run of alewives, it is highly recommended. Over a short period of time thousands of fish storm up the Kennebec and its tributaries until they experience a barrier. At Webber Pond that is at a dam with a "fish gate." There you will see them by the thousands waiting to be released into the pond. Naturally many are harvested for lobster bait, but . . . Once in the pond they continue and many travel further upstream into Three Mile Pond.

What purpose do they serve and who are we to determine which purpose is valid?

In the spring all those fish feed the birds and other animals you see clustered at the bottom of barriers or small streams. They even used to feed a number of humans. 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." In the fall you will again see animals prepared to feed on the out-run when the alewives return to the ocean. Some believe the stripers in the Kennebec are fond of eating alewives. This creates a large stream of protein traveling upstream in the spring and downstream in the fall for all kinds of critters. Note the osprey at right with its meal attached. Once back to the ocean they become part of that food cycle.

So far, much of the evidence seems to indicate that the restoration of the alewives does not hurt the other fisheries. Some believe that the bass fishing in Webber Pond has vastly improved due to alewife return. Do the alewives improve water quality and cut back on algae blooms caused by phosphorus? So far the evidence doesn't seem to be clear. There are so many other factors effecting water quality. They do not seem to hurt water quality.

Many folks on Togus Pond are looking forward to the alewife return. It might even make their bass fishing better. They believe the restoration will be one more part in their effort to improve the pond's water quality.

And so far no one has complained about seeing odd looking fish with "punk" haircuts and too many body piercings.

Remember . . . the objective is improved water quality and managing the waterways for native plants and animals is a big part of that. Anadromous fish runs can be part of that effort.

Conservation Too columns are written by staff at by the Kennebec County Soil and Water Conservation District in Augusta. For more information about the district and its projects, call Dale Finseth at 622-7847, X 3 or visit www.kcswd.org.