The Hundreds of years-Old Fish Ladder that Feeds Maine’s Lobster Industry

Straddling the border of Nobleboro and Newcastle close to the Maine coast, the Damariscotta Mills fish ladder is an surprising local landmark—a centuries-outdated effort and hard work to shield the alewives that travel each spring from Terrific Salt Bay to the refreshing h2o of Damariscotta Lake, in which the fish spawn, that is nevertheless an financial engine for the small cities currently.

This story started with the alewife, an anadromous—or migrating from the sea to rivers to spawn—species of herring a bit bigger than a human hand. The salty, bony fish was a nutritional staple of the region’s Indigenous Algonquian individuals, who utilised nets to capture the alewives throughout the spring migration. The tribe even named the region Damariscotta, “place of an abundance of alewives.”

But by 1729, sawmills have been beneath construction in the location to process the white pine trees required to establish ships for the British Royal Navy. One particular double sawmill, in individual, designed and operated by William Vaughan, stood at the head of the falls concerning Damariscotta River and Damariscotta Lake, blocking the alewife corridor. The impact on the fish populace was so drastic that the Massachusetts legislature (the region that is now Maine was portion of Massachusetts until eventually 1820) needed the towns to create a fish ladder as a remedy. Nobleboro and Newcastle collaborated to create the structure—as they even now do to maintain it—and the ladder was unveiled nearly 80 a long time afterwards as the centerpiece of Damariscotta Mills.

Alewives swimming up the Damariscotta River in the springtime. Cavan Photos / Alamy

The unique ladder was a collection of smaller pools linked by limited passages that increase uphill to the lake and it labored marvelously—for about 180 years, with continual servicing. But its stonework and the fundamental concrete deteriorated as icy Maine winters dislodged stones, blocking the path and creating the water so shallow that fish suffocated. By the 1990s, the fish ladder was on the edge of collapse, and fish rely plummeted to significantly less than 200,000.

“We have been not getting fish up the ladder, and individuals that were being finding up were fatigued, so we’re not absolutely sure if they were being even spawning,” says archeologist and ladder job supervisor Deb Wilson. “And the ladder is not just employed for alewives. Catadromous eels arrive up in spring to stay in fresh new drinking water, smelts spawn in the lower ladder. It’s a hectic location.”

Wilson and her partner, municipal fish agent Mark Becker, spearheaded the ladder’s restoration, a 10 years-long exertion that incorporated fundraising close to $1 million. Functioning along with them ended up neighborhood associates, municipal and condition professionals, which includes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Company, to style and design and assemble a contemporary fishway with a structure identical to that of the unique, consisting of a series of 69 ascending pools related by weirs, or short waterfall passageways that every rise 8 to 10 inches.

Not all of the alewives make it to Damariscotta Lake. Each year some are diverted for harvest. In this photo from the first half of the 20th century, workers fill large wooden boxes with their catch.
Not all of the alewives make it to Damariscotta Lake. Each individual year some are diverted for harvest. In this picture from the initial half of the 20th century, employees fill large picket boxes with their capture. Courtesy of Nobleboro Historical Society

The work was limited to November by means of April, Wilson states, since the fish consider their time descending the lake following spawning and are active into the slide. She recollects the grueling winter scheduling to accommodate this aquatic timetable, including heated shelters so the concrete could heal adequately, concrete pump vans with crane booms achieving above non-public residences to pour the pools, and dismantling old residential walls to harvest first stones.

“Every year the ladder had to be ready to be employed by the fish by April 15. There could not be a time when we blew it,” Wilson suggests. “It was extremely important to us to keep the character of the original fish ladder. All the stones from the primary ladder ended up made use of.”

Done in 2017, the renovated ladder, a serpentine form shaded by mature trees, now ushers additional than just one million alewives to their natal waters. It winds 1,500 ft up the hill, increasing 42 vertical ft from top rated to bottom. As drinking water cascades downstream, fish leap up by way of weirs, then relaxation in a pool, and repeat the procedure until finally they get to the lake.

When they get started at the bottom, fish have to instinctively know which way to flip, nonetheless. Among 200,000 to 500,000 alewives go the wrong way and end up in the harvester instead. This common machine at the ladder’s foundation is a huge steel contraption that scoops errant fish into a holding pen and ushers them together a elevated conveyor belt to ready lobstermen. Volunteers carrying rubber waders manually load alewives in an age-outdated apply that has transformed small since the 19th century.

Historically, harvested alewives were salted or smoked, and packed in barrels to be shipped overseas as a reliable and inexpensive food.
Historically, harvested alewives were salted or smoked, and packed in barrels to be delivered abroad as a responsible and cheap food. Courtesy of Nobleboro Historic Society

“Getting fish into the lake is our selection one precedence. We’ll sluggish down the harvest if the fish quantities are low, due to the fact we want to guarantee grownup fish get up the ladder, and back again downstream,” Becker says.

Traditionally, the harvested fish had been salted or smoked at copious smokehouses close by and have been then packed in barrels and shipped abroad as a reliable and low-cost food. The genesis of the state’s industrial lobstering field in the 1840s prompted their need as bait, and alewives’ value grew so considerably that there are now much more than 30 alewife runs statewide.

“Lobstermen now appear from the islands, down east, all about,” suggests Becker. “They arrive at night and slumber in their pickup to be the 1st in line. We also harvest for two co-ops that salt and freeze the fish, and dining places experiment with them. Even making use of alewives as halibut bait has picked up steam.”

Some of the alewives are even now reserved for the region’s widows. In 1839, Newcastle and Nobleboro voted that all widows would receive 400 alewives if they wished, says Nobleboro Historical Culture President Mary Sheldon. Now, widows can apply to acquire two bushels of the fish. Sheldon, whose partner handed away in 1999, statements her widow’s share each and every yr, then exchanges them with a lobsterman for lobsters, mainly because she admits the tradition’s historic charm outshines its efficiency as a up to date support mechanism.

Women clean alewives circa 1950.
Women clear alewives circa 1950. Courtesy of Nobleboro Historical Modern society

“What do I want with two bushels of alewives?” Sheldon jokes. “They style great if you like oily fish, and I do, but they are a challenge mainly because they have fantastic bones so it’s tough to get out the meat. Yet another Mainer informed me to consume them with bread to press the bones down so I really do not choke.”

When the alewives are managing Could into mid-June, it is a common spotlight for piscivores much too. In search of protein following a extended, chilly wintertime, birds which includes osprey, herons, eagles, and gulls prey on alewives, though seals lurk beneath the surface. This illustrates an ecosystem with an outstanding harmony, says Wilson, who watches from her residence as the educational facilities of fish surge up the river and into the base of the ladder.

Preserving the ladder was about conserving extra than the fish. “As a nation, we don’t really have a tradition the way the Indigenous Americans did, and this ladder is so crucial to preserve likely so we can keep grounded. It provides us a sense of put. We are hooked up to the historical past, the land, the ecology, and it is vital to continue to keep the taste of Maine,” suggests ladder treasurer Laurel Ames. “We’re trying to be stewards of what they commenced in the 1700s.”