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Alewives return to China Lake for the first time since 1783

Susan Sharon
Maine Public
At the Box Mill Dam on Outlet Stream in Vassalboro, a Denil fishway (at far left) has been constructed on one side of the stream.

The last time alewives made the 70-mile journey from the ocean to China Lake in central Maine, the American Revolution had just come to an end in 1783. Since then, the sea run fish, also known as river herring, have been blocked from their historic spawning grounds by a series of dams.

But this week, something remarkable happened: the fish returned.

YE Top Photos 2021
Robert F. Bukaty
River herring, also known as alewives, swim in a stream on May 16, 2021, in Franklin, Maine. The fish were once headed for the endangered species list but have been making a comeback in some U.S. states.

No species restoration effort could ever happen without at least one person who's persistent and passionate. In this case, there are several people who've been working to return alewives to China Lake for the past seven years. The small gray fish are a keystone species eaten by many other predators, which makes them important to the health of Maine's ecosystem.

"Yeah, they're popping through. That group that was down there is coming," says Nate Gray, a scientist with the Maine Department of Marine Resources, standing on the edge of a newly constructed fishway at the Outlet Dam, watching alewives in the water below. "It's a thing of beauty, it truly is."

The dam is the final barrier before China Lake. And the fishway serves as a sort of ladder for migratory fish, a structure with water on the side of the dam that helps them do what their driving instincts tell them: navigate around the obstruction and get to the lake to spawn.

Gray relishes the sight, along with the numbers he's been seeing on his counter over the past few weeks.

Nate Gray.jpg
Susan Sharon
Maine Public
Nate Gray of the Department of Marine Resources Searun Fisheries and Habitat Division cleans out debris from a fishway installed at China Lake Outlet Dam, the dam closest to the lake.

"We've had a lot of fish pass through," he says. "You want to hear how many fish have passed through? We're well north of the half million mark now. Yup, it's a lot of fish."

The numbers are already exceeding expectations for a complicated project that involved not just the construction of one fishway, but three, along with the removal of three separate dams.

Just down the road, Landis Hudson of Maine Rivers holds up photos of the Masse sawmill and dam, which once stood at this site on Outlet Stream.

"There were parts of the mill that would fall into the stream when there were storms — so doors, parts of stairs. So, we had to first dismantle the sawmill and then remove the dam underneath it," she says.

Hudson, who spearheaded the alewife restoration project, says the tear-down was a large and cumbersome task. And even though the dam was no longer functioning, not everyone in the area wanted to see it gone.

At one point protesters showed up. And at the project's early meetings there was stiff opposition.

"The one thing that I think people hate the most is change. Any sort of change frightens people, you know?" Gray says.

Gray says homeowners on the lake feared the loss of the dams would leave them high and dry and that the reintroduction of native alewives would upset the balance of things.

"When I started public outreach in 2000 or 2001 with the China Lake Association, told them alewives are good, river herring are good," he says, "they told me to take a hike."

Mill Fishway.jpg
Susan Sharon
Maine Public
The fishway can be seen in the foreground of this shot. In the background is the Olde Mill, a woolen mill built in approximately 1850. At one point, it was the largest mill in New England, employing over 500 people.

It took time, local partnerships and small focus groups to educate people about the science behind the project. And the science is not easy to explain or to understand.

"I like to tell people fish passage is not rocket science. It's more complicated and that is because we're dealing with a biological species that we know very little about," says Brian Sojkowski, a regional fish passage engineer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

fishway at box mill dam.jpg
Susan Sharon
Maine Public
The fishway at the Box Mill Dam.

"We have our standards for fishways and we try to keep up with the science. But at the end of the day, anytime you can take a dam out, is the ideal for the fish," he says.

Dam removal is usually less expensive than constructing fishways that involve hydraulics and maintenance. And in this case, project manager Matt Streeter of Maine Rivers says the fishways cost six times more than the dam removals.

"Now, another way to look at that is with this budget, which was, going from memory here $3.2 million, if we had done just fishways, I think we would have been able to do four and a half fishways. If we had done just dam removals, we would have been able to do 22," he says.

"I know these fish have been waiting 200 years to get up to China Lake and we're not going to delay them any further," said Gov. Janet Mills, who joined supporters to celebrate the completion of the seven-year project at a historic woolen mill in Vassalboro.

Property owner Raymond Breton opted for a fishway instead of dam removal, in part because a small waterfall at the site has become a popular photo spot for brides and high school graduates. There's also a swimming hole nearby. Breton says he's excited to see so many fish return.

"This is great," he says. "This is great to see, you know, over half a million have gone up through so far, and it's only been like a month, if that. But there's plenty more in the brook that are coming up."

Project organizers expect at least a million fish will return. And they're also hopeful that the numbers will inspire others to undertake similar efforts around the state.

Ray Breton.jpg
Susan Sharon
Maine Public
Ray Breton owns the property where the Box Mill and Ladd Mill sit in Vassalboro.