BENTON — The town is gearing up for its annual festival celebrating the migration of millions of alewives up the Sebasticook River.

Now in its fourth year, the Benton Alewife Festival celebrates the return of the small river herring that travel upstream from the Gulf of Maine to inland lakes and ponds where they breed.

The events kick off Friday evening with an Eating with the Alewives dinner at the Benton Grange and continue into Saturday with family activities and viewings of the alewife run at the Benton Falls dam.

“Benton is home to the largest alewife migration and the most successful alewife catch list on the east coast,” said Antoine Morin, a town selectman and festival organizer.

Despite the size of the run, estimated to be up to 3 million fish, until a few years ago the Sebasticook was almost bereft of alewives.

Dams on the Kennebec and the Sebasticook once prevented the fish from swimming upstream, but as dam removal has progressed in recent years, the population has rebounded.

The 1999 removal of the Edwards Dam in Augusta and the 2008 removal of the Fort Halifax dam in Winslow allowed the fish to swim upstream in the Sebasticook to the Benton Falls dam, which has a fish elevator that carries the alewives into the upper stretches of the waterway to spawn in Sebasticook Lake and other water bodies.

The small fish are a food source for virtually every marine predator and have also become a key source of bait for Maine’s lobster industry. Benton earns revenue by exercising its historic harvesting rights to the fish, earning more than $20,000 from the fishery last year.

Morin thinks there are even more opportunities for the fish, and the Eating with the Alewife dinner at 7 p.m. Friday is a way to introduce people to alewives.

“I still get a lot of people who don’t know what an alewife is or why it is important,” Morin said.

For their $15, diners get a lobster caught by the same fisherman who runs the town’s alewife harvest, smoked alewives and alewife chowder along with sides and drinks. Tickets are still available and can be bought at the town office at 453-7191.

The dinner will also be the venue for the Maine premiere of the documentary, “Alewife Journey,” which chronicles the path alewives take as they go from ocean to river and features the Sebasticook run.

Members of the Alewife Restoration Initiative, a regional group that hopes to boost the alewife population further in part by removing dams in Vassalboro to reintroduce the fish to China Lake will also be in attendance to explain the program.

On Saturday, the festival starts at 10 a.m. at the Benton Family Fun Park on Neck Road with free activities such as batting cages and mini golf and goes until 4 p.m.

At 2 p.m., there is a live raptor presentation at the Benton Town Office Park by the group Wind over Wings, featuring owls, eagles and hawks.

Also at 2 p.m., a canoe and kayak race will be held on the Sebasticook, starting at the bottom of the Brimstone Hill Road. The Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office dive team will be on hand in case of accidents.

The festival is rounded out by a public supper at the Benton Falls Church and fireworks starting at 7 p.m. at the town office park.

Peter McGuire — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @PeteL_McGuire

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