Alewives Swim from Sea to Winslow for First Time in 160 Years

After 162 years of obstruction by Edwards dam, on April 20, 2000, the first alewives were seen returning to the Sebasticook River in Winslow all by themselves. In May hundreds of thousands of alewives are expected to pass over the spot where Edwards dam once stood, and swim freely for the first time in more than 160 years, seventeen miles up the Kennebec River to the Lockwood and the Fort Halifax dams.

Before the Edwards dam was built, Native Americans, and later Kennebec and Sebasticook river communities depended on the annual spring alewife run.

"The alewives arrival this year is one of Maine+s great restoration success stories," said Laura Rose Day, Watershed Project Director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine and spokesperson for the Kennebec Coalition.

"The restoration of the Kennebec River since the removal of Edwards dam has been wonderous, dramatic and quick," said Rose Day. "By mid-May, we expect alewives below Fort Halifax will be so densely packed that it will be hard to miss seeing their fins and silvery bodies in the pool below."

With the Kennebec unobstructed by Edwards dam for the first spring in over 160 years, the return of the alewives to Fort Halifax will be a first of many firsts this year for this newly reborn river.

Alewives, a native species of the Kennebec, return to the river after a long absence at sea. The alewives that are returning, which average about 12 inches long and weigh about half a pound, left the Kennebec as juveniles three to five years ago. Those that did not become food for osprey, eagles, striped bass and the like, have lived in the ocean spending their summers in the Bay of Fundy and the Nova Scotian Shelf and their winters off the coast of North Carolina. This spring, well-traveled and well-fed, they are returning to the river and the tributary of their birth ready to lay their eggs and begin the cycle again.

Osprey, bald eagles, great blue herons and other fish-eating birds feast on the alewife migration. Doug Watts of Augusta, a member of Friends of Kennebec Salmon, saw an osprey catch an alewife on the Sebasticook shortly after the migration began. 

"After nearly knocking itself out on the rock below the dam on the first attempt, the osprey successfully captured lunch and flew over Fort Halifax dam with the alewife in tow," said Watts. "Probably not the way the alewife wanted to get over the dam, but probably the way the osprey wanted."

Striped bass, small mouth bass and brown trout will follow the alewives up the river as well. "The restored Kennebec will hold lots of surprises this year as the water quality improves and fish, accompanied by a wide variety of fish-eating birds return to the river," said Rose Day.

Another feature of the whole complex web of creatures living in healthy, free flowing rivers, fresh water mussels sense that the alewives are passing and release their spawn which the alewives carry up river attached to their gills.

Fishermen know that with the arrival of alewives the stripers can not be far behind. Look for fisherman too, to be out in large numbers below Fort Halifax and Lockwood dams. "If this run of alewives is any indication, I'm really looking forward to a great year of fishing in the Winslow/ Waterville area now that Edwards has been removed," said Bruce Bowman, President, Kennebec Valley Trout Unlimited.

Once the alewives arrive at the mouth of the Sebasticook River, the Fort Halifax dam, they will be pumped into trucks by the Department of Marine Resources. "We will be transporting returning adults into historic spawning and nursery habitat throughout the watershed. The goal is to restore this native species to their historic range because of their importance as a forage species to the inland and coastal fishery community. Their offspring will return in four to five years to the place of their birth," explained Sandra Lary, Marine Resources Scientist. By 2003, permanent fish passage is required at Fort Halifax dam.

Some of the other fish species that will be returning to the Kennebec above Edwards for the first time this year -- such as the endangered shortnose sturgeon, the American shad and the Atlantic salmon -- will be able to spawn in the 17 mile stretch from Augusta to Waterville. Before the dam was removed, this habitat was not only inaccessible but also of poor quality for spawning for these species. Now, with swiftly moving water over shallow gravelly areas alternating with deeper pools, conditions are ideal.

The Kennebec Coalition, includes the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Trout Unlimited and its Kennebec Valley Chapter, Atlantic Salmon Federation and American Rivers; this coalition was instrumental in the removal of Edwards dam which opened up 17 miles of free flowing river.


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