November 14, 2019
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New Nequasset Dam fish ladder under construction

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Alicia Heyburn | BDN
Alicia Heyburn | BDN

WOOLWICH, Maine — Since 1955, the concrete fish ladder at Nequasset Dam has provided a route for migratory alewives to ascend from the salty tidal waters of the Sasanoa River to the fresh water spawning habitat in Nequasset Lake. But after 57 years of exposure to freezing and flooding conditions, the concrete ladder has badly deteriorated. Bath Water District, owner of the dam and ladder, worked with Kennebec Estuary Land Trust, Woolwich Fish Commission and state and federal agencies to design and raise funds for a new ladder so that the alewives could continue their historic journey to and from the sea.

Construction is now underway, and is expected to be complete by the end of August, to allow next spring’s run of Nequasset alewives to ascend a new and more efficient ladder. Through a competitive bid process, Atlantic Mechanical of Woolwich was selected to perform the logistically complicated work of demolishing and replacing the fish ladder without interfering with the migratory needs of the fish or disturbing the sensitive stream habitat.

For hundreds of years, American Indian and colonial inhabitants of the region have relied upon the alewives for food. American Indians dried and smoked the fish to preserve them, and taught the first white settlers how to do the same. This practice continues today with the current harvester at Nequasset, Steve Bodge, who sells smoked alewives in late May, though few people still rely on them for nourishment.

The alewives were so important to the community for food and fishing bait that laws were created as early as the 1700s to protect the fish. All mills had to have passage chutes so that alewives could complete their spawning runs into the lake. When the first dam was built, it too had to provide a passageway for the alewives. Additional laws throughout the 18th and 19th centuries further protected the life cycle of the alewives.

The fish are still economically important as lobster bait. Nequasset is one of fewer than twenty municipally-managed harvest sites in Maine, the only remaining state with a commercial alewife fishery. The alewife population has declined dramatically in recent decades due to overfishing, pollution and the loss of access to spawning habitats, which have been blocked by dams, culverts and development.

Since 2012, Kennebec Estuary Land Trust volunteers have conducted an annual count of fish that pass over the Nequasset Dam. In 2014, 19,061 fish were counted, which indicates a run size of 268,310. In 2013, the run was estimated at 137,000; in 2012, 164,000 fish.

Work at Nequasset is funded in part by the Maine Coastal Program and Trout Unlimited in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. For questions or to request a tour of the site, contact the Kennebec Estuary Land Trust at 442-8400 or aheyburn@kennebecestuary.org.

The Kennebec Estuary Land Trust is a membership-supported organization dedicated to protecting the land, water and wildlife of the Kennebec Estuary. It maintains nine preserves for public enjoyment, and has protected over 2,500 acres of land since founding in 1989. For information, visit www.kennebecestuary.org or call 442-8400.