On Tuesday afternoon, Richard Dill stood alongside Blackman Stream in Bradley, monitoring a fish-counting facility and welcoming back some travelers he’s been waiting four years to greet.
After nearly 200 years without adequate access to upstream habitat, the alewives finally are back.
And not just a few of the river herring have returned. We’re talking thousands … and thousands … and thousands.
At 1 p.m. Tuesday, Dill, a fisheries biologist for the Maine Department of Marine Resources, reported that about 1,500 alewives were heading up Blackman Stream each hour. A day earlier, 12,000 of the fish had been counted. And over at Milford Dam, a total of 30,000 alewives returned in a single day.
How significant is that? Two years ago, a grand total of 47 alewives made it to the fish trap at Veazie Dam. Over a four-year monitoring period, the most alewives recorded at Veazie was about 2,000, Dill said.
“Back in 2010, a fishway was completed up at Leonard’s Mills [Forest and] Logging Museum, and for the first time migratory fish had access back to Chemo Pond probably in a couple hundred years,” Dill explained. “At the same time, the Department of Marine Resources began a restoration effort here in Blackman Stream and Chemo Pond in that we started stocking adult alewives up in Chemo Pond and today we’re seeing the fruits of that labor, where we’re actually seeing an established run return from those stockings.”
Upstream at the Leonard’s Mills site, fish could be seen fighting their way up over the new fishway, sometimes succeeding, other times succumbing to the current and splashing back down into the pool they’d just left.
Alewives are ocean-going fish that return to freshwater to spawn. Upon spawning, the adult fish immediately head back to the sea, according to a DMR fact sheet. Juveniles hatch in less than a week, and come July, will also head toward salt water.
Then, it’s a three- or four-year wait before those young fish return to their natal lakes to spawn.
Since the DMR has been stocking for four years, this marks the first year Dill expected a large run to occur.
“We’ve been stocking anywhere from 12,000 to 50,000 alewives [per year] over the last four years, and now, just this year, we’re starting to see those fish come back,” said Dill, who explained that stocking efforts took place at Chemo Pond, Mattamiscontis Lake in T2 R9, and Mud Pond in Old Town.
With more than 30,000 fish through the makeshift counting device at Blackman Stream as of Tuesday, Dill said a substantial run was likely to make it up that stream to Chemo Pond by the end of the month.
“[The total run] may be as much as maybe even 100,000 [alewives],” Dill said.
While reintroduction efforts of alewives have been controversial Down East, in the Grand Lake Stream region, that same level of debate hasn’t hampered effort in the Penobscot drainage. And Dill said the presence of alewives in the Penobscot ecosystem is essential.
“Alewives are a keystone species. They can be the building block of an ecosystem,” Dill said. “They’ve been missing from the Penobscot for a long time now. Everything feeds on them, from inland fish — freshwater fish — to fish that are riverine fish, fish in the Gulf of Maine, along with the wildlife.”
And Dill said restoring alewife runs on Penobscot tributaries is an essential cog in any river restoration efforts.
“Some of the other species we’ve been struggling with now for a few decades,” Dill said. “Hopefully [alewives are] just piece of the ingredient to get maybe salmon back someday, or get a good run of American shad. We’ve learned from experience we can’t restore one species at a time. We really need to get all those species back to get the ecosystem back in order.”