During an informative 90-minute program in Stillwater on Thursday night, Richard Dill laid out plans to restore an anadromous — or sea-run — alewife run in Pushaw and Little Pushaw lakes.
The Department of Marine Resources fisheries biologist, who is overseeing the effort on 13 “phase one” lakes and ponds in the Penobscot River drainage, talked about allowing the native species access to waters that have been closed, due to dams, for generations.
He answered questions that have been raised during similar meetings with lake and pond landowners. He talked about work that would be done at an outlet dam, allowing for fish passage and better water control for the camp association that owns that barrier.
And about halfway through his presentation, Dill summed up the impact of restoration efforts not only on Pushaw, a 5,000-acre lake with hundreds of seasonal and year-round residents, but also on the entire Penobscot River watershed.
“Why is it important?” Dill asked. “Because everything eats them.”
From birds to mammals, turtles, fish to (eventually) lobster, alewives are a valuable contributor to freshwater, estuarine and marine environments, Dill explained. And allowing those fish to freely swim into Pushaw again, where they will spawn and then leave, is an essential part of a fisheries management plan that increasingly focuses on a multispecies approach rather than a single-species one.
Four residents attended the informational meeting at Herbert Sargent Community Center; all were property owners on Pushaw Lake. None voiced any objections to the plan, which would involve reconfiguring a dam owned by the Kukunsook Camp Owners Association, perhaps as early as next year, then stocking as many as six alewives per acre in Pushaw.
Permission to proceed must come from the KCOA, which last year granted interested groups, including the DMR and the Atlantic Salmon Federation, permission to study the dam and look at fish passage options.
Dill said partner organizations are looking into possible grants to provide funding for the project.
Another informational meeting was held last week, Dill said, and another handful of people attended.
One of Thursday night’s attendees, Tony Randall, has plenty of memories earned through years of trips to Pushaw.
“I’ve been going out there since I was two weeks old,” Randall said. “So 54 years I’ve been going out.”
Randall said he had concerns earlier in the alewife discussions, but over the past year or so he has come to support the alewife restoration project.
“Going in I was just concerned about what it would do to the pike,” he said, referring to the illegally introduced species that has thrived in the lake over the past eight or 10 years. “If they were going to get even bigger and we were going to get even more of them. And [I was concerned with possible changes] to the water level.”
Dill has repeatedly spoken about both of those concerns, among others, and Randall said he hasn’t heard any dissension from the landowners he’s talking to.
“I think they’re pretty receptive,” Randall said.
That has got to be a relief for Dill, the DMR, and other restoration organizations. An alewife brouhaha in Down East Maine, involving the alewives’ perceived role in the collapse of a smallmouth bass population on Spednik Lake, has stymied restoration efforts there for years.
Dill, to his credit, tackles the Spednik questions head-on and shares reports of documented successes in alewife restoration on other Maine lakes.
A personal note: Covering the Spednik issue has been difficult. Guides I have come to respect are on one side of the argument. Biologists and conservationists that I also respect are on the other. Nothing you can write pleases both sides, and even your best efforts to strike a middle ground can aggravate both camps equally, I’ve learned.
Thankfully, when it comes to restoration efforts on Pushaw Lake and other similar ponds that are being targeted, it’s refreshing to be able to say the word “alewife” without feeling like you’re uttering a four-letter word.
Restoration efforts dovetail nicely with the ongoing Penobscot River Restoration Project, which calls for the removal of two Penobscot dams and the construction of a fishway at another in order to provide access to traditional habitat to a variety of fish species.
The DMR and other groups are working hard to cooperate with landowners, provide the best information they can and alleviate any concerns. The landowners have shown they’re willing to listen, learn and, in many cases, support an ambitious plan.
As Dill can tell you, everything eats alewives. Restoring them to Pushaw — and elsewhere — will be another huge step toward a healthier Penobscot watershed.
And all of us can eagerly look forward toward that.