BRADLEY, Maine — The old saying about migrating fish holds that during the peak of a run, it’d be possible to walk from stream bank to stream bank on the backs of the fish, and never get your feet wet.
While most of us don’t possess that kind of balance, the scene at Blackman Stream on Tuesday morning made that scenario seem nearly believable: The seasonal run of river herring, or alewives, turned the stream black, and in shallow spots, hundreds of wriggling dorsal fins were halfway out of the water.
On Saturday, families are welcome to celebrate this annual migration during Alewife Day at the Maine Forest and Logging Museum at Leonard’s Mills in Bradley. The event runs from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m., and visitors are sure to see plenty of alewives in the 17 rock-and-pool weirs that allow fish to pass around a dam and continue their upstream trips to Chemo, Holbrook and Davis ponds. Admission is $3 for adults and free for children younger than 12.
“It’s going to be a fairly low-key event,” said Sherry Davis, the museum’s executive director. “We’re going to have the gas-powered Lombard log-hauler running, and we’re going to be serving up some of these smoked alewives. We’ll have this really fun maze set up, which we’re using this week with the children’s programs, for kids to run that and pretend they’re an alewife.”
On Tuesday, volunteers netted several dozen alewives, cleaned them, and put them in a brine solution to soak. On Wednesday, the plan was to begin the smoking process so that Saturday visitors would be able to sample alewives prepared in a traditional fashion.
Andrew Goode, vice president of U.S. programs for the Atlantic Salmon Foundation, was on hand to handle the netting duties on Tuesday, hauling up 15 to 30 fish per cast of a weighted net.
The return of alewives to Blackman Stream is an epic success story made possible due to the Penobscot River Restoration Project, which removed two dams on the Penobscot’s main stem and added fish passage at another upriver dam. Another crucial component: The decision by Maine Forest and Logging Museum board members to allow fish passage on Blackman Stream nearly a decade ago.
After that fish passage was constructed — making sure to build weirs that would keep to the traditional nature of the museum’s grounds — an alewife run was “seeded” in ponds upstream, allowing fish to access spots they hadn’t reached in 200 years or more because of dams.
Then, Mother Nature took over.
“For four years in a row, [the Maine Department of Marine Resources] took alewives from Orland and stocked them into Chemo Pond,” Goode explained. “From when they’re born to when they go out to sea and come back is about a four-year period. So essentially, they wanted to stock four age classes of fish.”
Goode said alewives were always important fish, until they couldn’t swim to the places they needed to go in order to reproduce.
“Alewives are the base of the food chain. So historically, going back into the 1600s, the 1700s, alewives dominated all of these coastal streams in New England and Maine in particular,” Goode said. “Alewives, they come up a river, and they need to go into a lake or a pond to spawn. That was the biomass in these waters, historically: Alewives … everything comes down and feeds on them.”
After three years of seed stocking in Chemo Pond, a few early maturing fish returned. After that, the run increased exponentially as fish returned to spawn in the ponds.
“The run here went from 10,000 to 50,000 to several hundred thousand,” Goode said. “Last year we were over 600,000, and it’s hard to know where it will stop. But it’s already, per acre, one of the biggest-producing alewife streams that we’re aware of in North America.”
According to a weekly DMR report, as of May 16 a total of 372,107 alewives had been electronically counted reaching the top of the fish weir at Blackman Stream. Another 364,677 had been counted at the Milford Dam on the Penobscot, bound for spawning grounds farther up the river.
And on Tuesday, the stream was black with alewives that were swimming side by side, turning the babbling brook into a writhing ribbon of water and fins.
Goode said the alewife restoration done in Maine thus far, on both the Kennebec and the Penobscot, has been impressive.
“Since the Edwards Dam was removed [on the Kennebec] and the fishway was put in on the Sebasticook, that run has really taken off. I think last year it approached 4 million, the biggest run on the east coast,” Goode said. “And now, the Penobscot has gone from zero less than a decade ago, and last year we hit 2 million for the first time.”
That number will continue to grow, Goode said.
“We’re going to increase that [total] this year, but we’ve got a lot more projects coming online, more ponds and lakes that are being opened up farther up the watershed,” Goode said. “So over time — and not a long time, over the next 15 years — the Penobscot will pass the Kennebec and we’ll have the two biggest [alewife] runs on the East Coast [here in Maine].”
Follow the Bangor Daily News on Facebook for the latest Maine news.
Correction: A previous version of this story wrongly identified the type of fish that had returned to Blackman Stream.