A Ladder for Maine Fish? It's Alewife Time!

Priscilla McCandless' painting of the fish ladder and the small community of Damariscotta Mills

Priscilla McCandless’ painting of the fish ladder and the small community of Damariscotta Mills

Lea Wait here, betting that a lot of you have never heard of either fish ladders or alewives. So – here’s the story. An alewife is a small (8-10 inch long) fish.  This time of year, the alewives head up some of the rivers in Maine to spawn.

The Damariscotta River (Damariscotta means “river of many fishes) is one of their ancestral routes. Thousands of alewives swim up the river from the sea, and jump up the falls at Damariscotta Mills to get to the fresh water of Damariscotta Lake. For hundreds of years their annual migration has provided food for gulls, ospreys — and humans living nearby, who dried and salted the little fish. The smallest fish were also used as lobster bait.

Alewives, Heading Up the Falls

Alewives, Heading Up the Falls

But as far back as 1730, humans blocked the migration by constructing a double sawmill on the falls. In 1741 the Massachusetts Legislature (Maine was then a district of Massachusetts) passed an “Act To Prevent the Destruction of Alewives and Other Fish”,
requiring that passage for fish be provided around falls blocked by mills.

Priscilla McCandless painting - Harvesting Alewives in the old days

Priscilla McCandless painting – Harvesting Alewives in the old days


In Damariscotta Mills the fall are 42 feet high. At first a local shipowner had his

A view of the Fish Ladder
A view of the Fish Ladder


Buy a tee-shirt! Save the alewives!

Buy a tee-shirt! Save the alewives!

employees net as many of the thousands of fish as possible and carry them to the lake above the falls. That plan proved ineffectual, at best.

Stephen -- he and others shucked over 2,000 oysters during the Festival!ohen

Stephen — he and others shucked over 2,000 oysters during the Festival!ohen

In 1809 the towns of Newcastle and Nobleboro built a lock stream to help the fish climb the falls; it had to be rebuilt every five to ten years.

In 2007 the Fish Committee of Nobleboro and Newcastle initiated a major building project: the construction of a permanent, stone, environmentally safe and attractive “ladder” for the fish. Every year since, over Memorial Day weekend, they sponsor a festival to raise the funds to do this. And every year the “Fish Ladder Restoration Festival” — known locally as the “Alewives Festival” — has gotten larger and raised more money. People from all over the United States have made the Festival (and the sight of thousands of fish heading up the falls) a destination.

Yum! Local oysters!

Yum! Local oysters!

This year 5 and 10 K runs were added to sales of tee-shirts and hats, food (oysters, beer, lobster and crab rolls, hot dogs, and a pig roast), rides in antique cars and horse-drawn wagons, live music, and, of course, the stars of the show: the alewives. The festival hosted thousands of guests, and raised about $30,000 to contribute to

Waiting Herring gulls, between fish courses
Waiting Herring gulls, between fish courses


the Fish Ladder Restoration.

My husband and I participated, as we have several other years. Our friends Priscilla McCandless and Stephen Vowles, who live in Damariscotta Mills, are very active in the Festival, as are our Edgecomb neighbors who own Alewives Fabrics, a store near the falls.

You may have missed attending the Festival this year … but the pictures here should give you an idea of how much fun it was! Bob and I devoured oysters and hot dogs, and bought pork sandwiches home to eat for dinner. Yum! Local gulls and ospreys thought the same …

And, best of all, the alewives are, once again, back.

Lea Wait writes the Shadows Antique Print Mystery series and the Mainely Needlepoint series, and five historical novels set in nineteenth century Maine. She’s a fan of all things fish.

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11 Responses to A Ladder for Maine Fish? It's Alewife Time!

  1. I have never made it to this event, so thanks for the photos. Next year!

  2. Pshaw! We have both fish ladders (more than one) and alewives right here in town! I’ve seen the alewives running. You can tell when they’ve arrived because the gulls circle over the fish ladder nearest to town. Used to be that townspeople could harvest as many as they could catch. Not any more. No t-shirt, though–I’ll have to mention that to the planners for next year’s Herring Run Festival.

  3. Peter Murray says:

    Nice post, great pictures. I am a volunteer monitoring the alwife run on the Presumpscot River in Westbrook. It has been re-established via stocking of Highland Lake. The Presumpscot hold the dubious distinction of being the most dammed river in all or Maine. That was partially rectified in 2002. Now about 16,000 fish make the annual migration.

    Thanks for the post

  4. Sennebec says:

    Great post, Lea. I remember Mom buying smoked bloaters when we were kids. That’s not an expression you hear any more.

  5. MCWriTers says:

    true enough! Smoked alewives were for sale at the festival ….

  6. James Ridgway says:

    I would love to live in Maine. (live in South Dakota.) Where I could get fresh seafood all the time. Here we only have the fish that we catch from the lakes and streams.

  7. Nice piece! We write about alewives all the time in the Morning Sentinel. Something I knew nothing about five years ago and now am an expert on! More or less.
    Thanks for furthering the cause!

  8. Gram says:

    I grew up in New England. I have heard of both. Nice article!

  9. Lea – terrific post. I love the combination of photos and paintings. Lots of talk down here in Yarmouth about establishing fish ladders on the Royal River, but I’m not sure people understand how expensive and challenging it is. Couple of weeks ago, I went to a National Fish Migration event on the Royal, which was terrific. You might enjoy “The Most Important Fish in the Sea: Menhaden and America” (H. Bruce Frankline) – I liked it a lot.

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