NEWPORT, Maine — Nate Gray squinted through his sunglasses Wednesday, watching eels caught between barriers of wood and steel at the Sebasticook Lake dam.
The largest of the bunch, more than 3 slimy, slithery feet long, poked its head above the surface to examine a trickle of water from a drainpipe. Finding no escape, the animal plunged back out of sight.
“He’s just looking for a way out of where he’s at,” said Gray, a marine scientist for the Maine Department of Marine Resources.
For most people, eels are the stuff of nightmares, or at least disgust. To Gray, they’re among the most amazing creatures alive. And to the ecosystems in the ocean and inland waterways such as Sebasticook Lake, they’re a crucial link in the food chain. That’s why Gray is monitoring repairs to the hulking steel gate that stops the water between Sebasticook Lake and the Sebasticook River.
Three weeks ago, one of two heavy-duty chains that move the gate up and down snapped, even though the gate hadn’t been activated in months. The gate twisted to one side, leaving a 6-inch gap and putting in danger the annual drawdown of the lake in September. The drawdown is done at the end of every summer to flush algae and more importantly phosphorus, which has plagued all manner of species in the lake for decades.
A crew from Cianbro Corp. of Pittsfield has been working for most of two weeks to build barriers on either side of the steel gate and pump down the water in between. Only then can the damage to the gate be assessed and repaired.
On Wednesday, a dive team from Pepperrell Cove Marine of Portsmouth, N.H., went into the water on the lake side to plug holes in a double-layer wooden wall. Success appeared imminent late in the day as a roaring industrial pump that moves 1,500 gallons a minute spewed water away from the gate. As the water level dropped, numerous eels, bass and other fish could be seen, tangible reminders of the reason for all the fuss.
Four decades ago, according to Gray, mills upstream and farms lining the shore of Sebasticook Lake poured pollutants into the lake — worst of all phosphorus. That unabated stream of waste and the construction of dams over the years cut off the migration of American eels, shad, alewives, blueback herring and striped bass to and from the Atlantic Ocean, some 90 miles away via the Sebasticook and Kennebec rivers. For more than 100 years, there were none of those species in the lake at all, but today their numbers are on the rebound.
As workers toiled on the dam Wednesday, a stream of baby alewives by the thousands passed through a fish ladder that was installed in 2004. While alewives spawn in inland lakes, American eels spawn in the ocean and come back to fresh water to grow. Their life cycle is among the most amazing stories in nature, said Gray.
The eels journey from Sebasticook Lake to the ocean, where vast schools of them swim thousands of miles to the Sargasso Sea in the mid-Atlantic Ocean. Four years later, the same eels — Gray knows this because eels have been tagged to prove it — return to the same inland water bodies where they came from.
“It’s amazing, but I don’t want to know the scientific explanation,” said Gray, who has been a DMR scientist for 19 years. “That would take all the mystery away, and I think there’s a certain amount of beauty in wondering.”
Restoring and preserving the normal path of eels and alewives has far greater benefits than saving eels and alewives, said Gray. In addition to supporting numerous other species, the animals serve as a natural antidote to harmful phosphorus levels, cleaning the lake bit by tiny bit over the course of decades. Slowly, Sebasticook Lake and other waterways in Maine are returning to their former natural grandeur. With the return of eels, alewives and herring come other species that to many people are far more desirable.
“Last year was the first time in 70 years that we had Atlantic salmon make it to the Benton Dam,” said Gray. “There were four, to be exact. No fish make it through the Benton Dam without someone looking at them.”
That’s progress, but it didn’t come without a price — and neither will the repairs to Sebasticook Lake Dam. Newport Town Manager James Ricker said the project already is close to exhausting the town’s maintenance account, and the actual repairs to the broken gate can’t begin until the water is drained. Ricker told selectmen recently that Newport may be forced to hold a special town meeting to authorize a loan to pay for the repairs. Cianbro and the dive team were expected to be at the site again today.
“There’s nothing easy about working in the water,” said Cianbro worker Ben Blodgett of Canaan.