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