The Hundreds of years-Previous Fish Ladder that Feeds Maine’s Lobster Industry

Straddling the border of Nobleboro and Newcastle around the Maine coastline, the Damariscotta Mills fish ladder is an unanticipated neighborhood landmark—a hundreds of years-outdated hard work to safeguard the alewives that travel just about every spring from Fantastic Salt Bay to the fresh h2o of Damariscotta Lake, exactly where the fish spawn, that is nonetheless an economic motor for the little towns right now.

This story began with the alewife, an anadromous—or migrating from the sea to rivers to spawn—species of herring a bit larger sized than a human hand. The salty, bony fish was a nutritional staple of the region’s Indigenous Algonquian people, who utilised nets to capture the alewives throughout the spring migration. The tribe even named the spot Damariscotta, “place of an abundance of alewives.”

But by 1729, sawmills were being beneath building in the location to process the white pine trees necessary to make ships for the British Royal Navy. 1 double sawmill, in specific, created and operated by William Vaughan, stood at the head of the falls concerning Damariscotta River and Damariscotta Lake, blocking the alewife corridor. The influence on the fish populace was so drastic that the Massachusetts legislature (the region that is now Maine was aspect of Massachusetts until 1820) needed the towns to develop a fish ladder as a treatment. Nobleboro and Newcastle collaborated to construct the structure—as they nevertheless do to preserve it—and the ladder was unveiled just about 80 several years afterwards as the centerpiece of Damariscotta Mills.

Alewives swimming up the Damariscotta River in the springtime. Cavan Illustrations or photos / Alamy

The unique ladder was a series of little pools related by quick passages that increase uphill to the lake and it labored marvelously—for about 180 decades, with consistent maintenance. But its stonework and the underlying concrete deteriorated as icy Maine winters dislodged stones, blocking the path and creating the drinking water so shallow that fish suffocated. By the 1990s, the fish ladder was on the edge of collapse, and fish depend plummeted to fewer than 200,000.

“We were not getting fish up the ladder, and these that had been having up were being fatigued, so we’re not positive if they were even spawning,” states archeologist and ladder challenge manager Deb Wilson. “And the ladder is not just applied for alewives. Catadromous eels come up in spring to stay in fresh new h2o, smelts spawn in the lower ladder. It’s a busy place.”

Wilson and her spouse, municipal fish agent Mark Becker, spearheaded the ladder’s restoration, a ten years-prolonged work that provided fundraising about $1 million. Working together with them had been group members, municipal and condition gurus, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, to design and assemble a modern day fishway with a style and design comparable to that of the initial, consisting of a collection of 69 ascending pools related by weirs, or quick waterfall passageways that each individual increase 8 to 10 inches.

Not all of the alewives make it to Damariscotta Lake. Each year some are diverted for harvest. In this photo from the first half of the 20th century, workers fill large wooden boxes with their catch.
Not all of the alewives make it to Damariscotta Lake. Every 12 months some are diverted for harvest. In this image from the first half of the 20th century, employees fill huge wood bins with their catch. Courtesy of Nobleboro Historic Society

The function was limited to November via April, Wilson states, due to the fact the fish just take their time descending the lake right after spawning and are energetic into the slide. She recollects the grueling winter scheduling to accommodate this aquatic timetable, which include heated shelters so the concrete could remedy adequately, concrete pump trucks with crane booms reaching more than non-public households to pour the swimming pools, and dismantling previous residential walls to harvest initial stones.

“Every 12 months the ladder had to be all set to be utilised by the fish by April 15. There could not be a time when we blew it,” Wilson states. “It was quite essential to us to retain the character of the original fish ladder. All the stones from the unique ladder have been utilized.”

Concluded in 2017, the renovated ladder, a serpentine form shaded by mature trees, now ushers much more than one particular million alewives to their natal waters. It winds 1,500 feet up the hill, growing 42 vertical feet from top to bottom. As water cascades downstream, fish leap up through weirs, then relaxation in a pool, and repeat the process until eventually they reach the lake.

When they commence at the bottom, fish have to instinctively know which way to convert, nonetheless. Between 200,000 to 500,000 alewives go the erroneous way and conclude up in the harvester as a substitute. This common machine at the ladder’s foundation is a big metal contraption that scoops errant fish into a holding pen and ushers them together a lifted conveyor belt to waiting around lobstermen. Volunteers donning rubber waders manually load alewives in an age-old practice that has improved very little considering the fact that the 19th century.

Historically, harvested alewives were salted or smoked, and packed in barrels to be shipped overseas as a reliable and inexpensive food.
Traditionally, harvested alewives have been salted or smoked, and packed in barrels to be delivered abroad as a reputable and low-cost foodstuff. Courtesy of Nobleboro Historical Society

“Getting fish into the lake is our variety a person priority. We’ll gradual down the harvest if the fish quantities are minimal, since we want to guarantee grownup fish get up the ladder, and back downstream,” Becker says.

Historically, the harvested fish ended up salted or smoked at copious smokehouses close by and had been then packed in barrels and transported overseas as a reliable and cheap food items. The genesis of the state’s industrial lobstering business in the 1840s prompted their demand as bait, and alewives’ value grew so substantially that there are now extra than 30 alewife runs statewide.

“Lobstermen now arrive from the islands, down east, all more than,” suggests Becker. “They arrive at evening and snooze in their pickup to be the initial in line. We also harvest for two co-ops that salt and freeze the fish, and eating places experiment with them. Even applying alewives as halibut bait has picked up steam.”

Some of the alewives are still reserved for the region’s widows. In 1839, Newcastle and Nobleboro voted that all widows would get 400 alewives if they wished, states Nobleboro Historical Culture President Mary Sheldon. Right now, widows can use to receive two bushels of the fish. Sheldon, whose spouse handed away in 1999, claims her widow’s share each and every year, then exchanges them with a lobsterman for lobsters, simply because she admits the tradition’s historic allure outshines its success as a modern day help mechanism.

Women clean alewives circa 1950.
Females cleanse alewives circa 1950. Courtesy of Nobleboro Historical Modern society

“What do I have to have with two bushels of alewives?” Sheldon jokes. “They taste great if you like oily fish, and I do, but they’re a challenge for the reason that they have fine bones so it’s challenging to get out the meat. An additional Mainer advised me to eat them with bread to drive the bones down so I do not choke.”

When the alewives are running May well into mid-June, it is a classic emphasize for piscivores too. Searching for protein soon after a long, cold wintertime, birds together with osprey, herons, eagles, and gulls prey on alewives, whilst seals lurk beneath the floor. This illustrates an ecosystem with an spectacular balance, states Wilson, who watches from her home as the colleges of fish surge up the river and into the base of the ladder.

Preserving the ladder was about preserving additional than the fish. “As a state, we never actually have a culture the way the Indigenous Americans did, and this ladder is so essential to retain going so we can continue to keep grounded. It gives us a feeling of place. We are connected to the record, the land, the ecology, and it is significant to hold the flavor of Maine,” claims ladder treasurer Laurel Ames. “We’re trying to be stewards of what they started out in the 1700s.”