BENTON — The menu included locally smoked whole alewife and two varieties of alewife chowder and lobster, along with traditional sides such as corn, potatoes and rolls.

It was a sold-out crowd Friday night at the Benton Grange as about 100 people came together in what is becoming an annual feast to celebrate the humble river herring, or alewife.

The dinner is a way to recognize the small fishes’ annual spring run from the Gulf of Maine upstream to spawn in inland lakes. Benton has the distinction of hosting the largest run in the state and one of the largest on the East Coast, estimated at nearly 3 million fish.

But the dinner is also a way to introduce new customers to alewives. Advocates have big plans to make the fish into a sustainable consumer product, but first they have to get people comfortable with alewives.

As the alewife populations grow, it could have an economic impact that goes far beyond a few smoked fish and bait. Cod, for example, once fed on a gigantic “buffet” of alewife right after spawning off the coast of Maine. Now that the river herring has come back, there could be a ripple effect on cod and other once-populous ocean fish.

“It’s not just lobster bait,” said Nate Gray, a biologist from the Maine Department of Marine Resources. “It’s more complex than that.”

The Benton dinner also is aimed at correcting misconceptions about the fish, said Antoine Morin, a Benton selectman who is a lead promoter for the town’s river herring fishery.

“I had a woman yesterday say to me, ‘Why would you want to eat those baby eels?'” Morin said. The woman had gotten alewives mixed up with elvers, the baby or “glass” eel that also has made headlines in recent years.

Even though some Mainers today have never heard of an alewife, 250 years ago it was a regular fixture on dinner tables of those living next to rivers, lakes and ponds up and down the Eastern Seaboard, Gray said.

The attraction to the fish was obvious — an easily preserved protein that showed up right on your doorstep every year. Early Mainers salted and smoked the fish and packed it away for the long, cold winter. But over centuries, dammed rivers and pollution from blossoming industry along the state’s waterways battered the immense alewife fishery. By the late 1950s, the population had hit rock bottom, Gray said.

“The remaining population is what’s left of a once-vast keystone species that has been reduced by 90 percent in its historical East Coast range,” Gray said.

But beginning a few years ago, the fish started to make a comeback, thanks to the removal of dams in Winslow and Augusta, up the Sebasticook River.

The fishery now is limited largely to providing bait for lobstermen on the Maine coast, but advocates of the fish hope its commercial possibilities will extend into consumer markets.

Morin hopes that the alewife eggs, or roe, can become a sought-after delicacy, as shad roe has in some Southern states. The fish also could be applied as a fertilizer, he added.

Kurt Anderson, who works with the Downeast Salmon Federation, said the group sees alewives as the key to restoring salmon populations in rivers in eastern Maine. Unlike other fish, alewives can return to a river or stream within years of having it reopened after a dam is removed, Anderson added. That means that the economic impact of the fish can be swift and it can lay a food base for larger, more desirable fish, such as salmon.

But there are consumer possibilities out there too, Anderson said. He recently met with a purchaser for high-end restaurants in New York City who is buying smoked herring from Scandinavian countries and expressed interest in sourcing her fish from Maine.

Diners on Friday seemed to enjoy the alewife varieties, although there was a consensus that the fish tend to be on the bony side.

“They’re good eating,” said Dwight Lanning, as he finished up his steamed lobster. “I always thought of them as lobster bait, but I never thought of eating it,” he added.

Lanning, who lives in Benton, has come to dinner with his wife Patricia for the past two years. They said they are proud that their town can claim to have the largest alewife run.

Sitting across from them were Allen Hayward and Irene Blood, from the Belfast area. Hayward, a part-time lobsterman, said he heard about the alewife dinner in a fishing newspaper last year and came up to find out more.

“It’s good to get people at this, to promote it,” he said.

But despite how far alewife restoration has come in recent years, the runs are still a fraction of what they were.

“We’re only really just getting started,” Gray said.

Although the number of fish coming up the Sebasticook River might seem huge, they have access to only about 40 percent of their historical spawning habitat, according to Gray. That means that future numbers could be truly massive, especially as more dam removal projects are successful, such as the one to take out six dams in Vassalboro and reintroduce the fish to China Lake.

Aside from their consumer appeal, or lack thereof, alewives fill a ecological niche. The little fish are eaten by virtually every other fresh- and saltwater fish, mammal and bird.

“Anything that comes into regular contact with this fish eats this fish,” Gray said.

Peter McGuire — 861-9239

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Twitter: @PeteL_McGuire