BENTON — Alewives are little fish with a big story.
Each year, billions of the silver fish hatch out of eggs in the cool waters of the Sebasticook River and embark on a dangerous journey to the sea and back again.
Those that return must make it past the Benton Falls Dam. As they wait for a boost from a fish elevator, a small percentage are netted by human harvesters, destined for the lobsterman’s trap.
Like the alewives themselves, the money traded for the fish is passed up and down the Sebasticook and all along Maine’s coast. The fish are the basis of a growing economic link between central Maine and the coastal lobster industry, which uses alewives to shore up a gap in the bait supply.
In colonial times, massive populations of alewives spawned along the Sebasticook and many of Maine’s other waterways, but the industrial age of dams and pollution sent their numbers into a tailspin throughout much of the 1800s and 1900s.
Benton’s ability to share in the harvest was halted when the Edwards Dam in Augusta was built on the Kennebec River, which the Sebasticook feeds into, in 1837.
Worried that the once-ubiquitous fish could face extinction, the Department of Marine Resources began stocking alewives in the watershed in 1985, going so far as to put fish in tanks on trucks to bypass the dams, which prevented fish passage.
Today, with the Edwards and other dams removed and water quality improved by modern sewage treatment practices, more fish are able to spawn with 2011 yielding a record run of 2.7 million.
Richard Lawrence, Benton’s alewife warden, said that a state-approved town ordinance makes it legal for the town to harvest the fish once 250,000 have made it over the dam.
Lawrence said the current run could beat the 2011 record, one more sign that statewide efforts to restore fish populations to historic levels are succeeding.
That effort got a last week, when Maine’s Natural Resources Council announced the reopening of the St. Croix River to alewives, allowing a run for the first time in 22 years. That run was down to fewer than 1,000 fish after dam passages were closed in 1995, compared with more than 2 million in the 1980s.
Moving right along
Each Sebasticook alewife undertakes a remarkable journey, beginning when it first wriggles out of a waterborne egg alongside tens of thousands of siblings. It heads downstream, past Benton, seeking the Atlantic Ocean, and then heads down the coast, sometimes traveling as far as South Carolina.
For three years, the alewife stays at sea, swimming thousands of miles while evading predators up and down the coast.
At age 4, instinct drives them to head back upriver to spawn with each inch of the 65-mile trip a hard fought battle against the current, won at a rate of about one mile per hour, said Nate Gray, a biologist with the Department of Marine Resources.
If 100,000 fish make it back to spawn in the Sebasticook, they can lay 15 billion eggs, but Gray said predicting the number of alewives that will successfully complete the cycle of life in any given year is impossible.
A cold 2009 rainfall in a lake may have created a lethal temperature swing for millions of baby alewives, Gray said, killing a significant number of what could have otherwise been this year’s spawning adults.
In theory, though, the numbers of alewives could continue to climb, with enough habitat currently available to support as many as five million fish per year.
“That’s a best-case scenario, if everybody makes it in, and everybody makes it out,” Gray said.
As more dams come down or install lifts — Gray said the Pioneer and Waverly dams in Pittsfield and the Hartland dam are among those expected to change — the range will more than double to include such spawning grounds as Great Moose Pond in Hartland, Big Indian Pond in St. Albans, and Stetson Pond near Newport, 105 miles from the sea.
It’s not easy being an alewife
To an alewife, the world is one big slaughterhouse.
“They take an enormous wallop from the second they’re born,” Gray said. “Their entire life is spent running from predators.”
Kingfishers, ospreys, herons, eagles, minks, otters and even — memorably — a pair of seals in 2011 have been known to follow alewives up the Sebasticook River to the Benton area.
During four years of adolescence, the survivors that reach the Benton Falls dam have zigged when their predators expected them to zag time after time.
Just miles from the finish line, while milling around at the base of the Benton dam, many are netted by humans and returned, as lobster bait, to the ocean that they only recently left, a fact that Gray said contains “no small amount of irony.”
But what’s bad news for a lone fish in a net is good news for the population as a whole, he said, because “in that, also, lies the fish’s salvation.”
The animals that no one needs are the ones that tend to go extinct, he said. As long as alewives are a commodity, people will work to preserve them.
Jim Wotton, 43, of Friendship, a commercial fisherman, has been harvesting the fish from Benton Falls each year.
The crew usually numbers four, including Wotton, but this year, the record run has increased the total to six men, who wear hip-waders and stand in the water hauling nets of fish into aluminum skiffs.
When the sides of a fish-laden boat begin to dip perilously close to the water line, it is taken to shore, while an empty boat heads out to take its place.
Each 250-pound crate of fish is wrestled up an embankment, with the help of a chute and a winch, and into the back of a truck, where they are stacked four high.
Wotton described it as a “very physical, very hard” job, but the hot, hard labor leads to cold, hard cash.
Wotton doesn’t measure the fish by the millions. To him, what’s important is the number of crates sold, which in 2011 was 786.
This year, he said, he has already put 660 crates full of fish onto trucks.
The sticker price on a crate of about 600 dead alewives is $60, Wotton said, with a third going to the town of Benton.
The take for Benton has ranged between $15,000 and $20,000 annually, but a full accounting of the economic benefits and costs associated with the alewife is difficult to untangle, and it depends on what is included.
Individuals can pull up to 25 fish each out of the water, thereby supporting the recreational fishing industry and providing a draw for tourists. On Saturday, the town hosted its second annual Alewife Festival, which celebrates the fish and the town’s rediscovered connection to them. Organizers said the festival is partly designed to stimulate the local economy.
In addition, when there are fewer dams blocking the fish, there is also an efficiency gain for the Department of Marine Resources, which in the past has spent six weeks each year working to corral about 80,000 fish and truck them up to spawning habitat. Now, Gray said, sometimes 200,000 or more fish make their way over the Benton dam in a single day.
Installing the Benton Falls fish lift cost more than $1 million, but Andrew Locke, vice president for Essex Hydro, which bought the dam in 2006, said he’s not complaining about the cost.
“You don’t want to go halfway. If you make the commitment, you should honor it,” he said. “We’re stewards of the river.”
The Midcoast connection
To a lobsterman on the coast, a dead alewife from Benton smells of money. When Wotton’s crew begins pulling fish out of the Sebasticook, lobstermen arrive, money in hand, to take fish to ports such as Beals Island, Stonington, Bar Harbor, Friendship, Rockland, Port Clyde. The whole coast, he said, receives Benton’s bounty.
Alewives help ease the pain of a recurring problem for Maine’s springtime lobstermen.
The state prevents overfishing of herring, an important source of lobster trap bait, by establishing quotas that run from June 1 to May 31.
By the end of the annual cycle in May, some of the state’s commercial fishing zones begin to reach their quota, leaving lobstermen scrambling for alternatives.
“I would spend days upon days trying to find enough bait to go out with,” Wotton said.
By luck or providence, the alewife run ramps up just as the annual herring quota begins to run out.
Lobstermen also prize alewives for their firmness, their resistance to decomposition and, above all, their appeal to the newly molted spring lobsters, notoriously finicky eaters, Wotton said, that still have a hard time passing up a nice chunk of alewife.
Three or four at a time are put in a lobster trap and chopped into pieces to, as Wotton puts it, “get all the juices going.”
The price of alewives is about that of herrings, but the firm fish lasts longer, allowing the trap to sit for more days and collect more lobsters.
In other areas of the state, alewife harvesters limit how much of the scarce commodity they sell, but Wotton has set no cap on Benton’s record-breaking run, selling as many as 30 crates — about 15,000 fish — at a time.
For a time, with boats and nets and crates and trucks all packed to the gills with alewives, it seems the bounty will never end. But just a few days after the fish stop running, every last one winds up in a lobster trap or spoiled beyond use.
Gray said a strong relationship between the lobster industry and Benton’s fish will become more important in the future as the global economy forces American consumers back toward a time when local food and supplies were the norm rather than the exception.
When local bait sources dry up, Gray said, lobstermen are forced to buy from as far away as Australia.
“When you look at fuel prices over the last five years, these guys are taking it in the neck,” he said.
Over time, he said, the cost of transportation will become prohibitive, and locally sourced bait will become more important.
“It’s 50 pounds of halfway-around-the-globe bait versus 50 pounds of in-your-backyard bait,” he said. “It’s no contest.”
If Gray is right, the story of Maine’s alewives and the story of Maine’s people will become increasingly intertwined.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287