In late spring, some of Maine’s freshwater rivers, lakes and ponds teem with a small relative of herring called alewives.
Like salmon, alewives spend most of their lives in saltwater, but once a year they migrate up freshwater creeks and rivers to spawn. Alewives, which grow to 10 to 11 inches long and weigh half a pound, aren’t much for humans to eat, but they are considered a key part of Maine’s coastal ecosystem. The alewives population has dwindled with the construction of dams, mills and other barriers along their usual migration paths. Mainers have built fish ladders since the 1740s, but many of them have crumbled.
Thanks to groups like Damariscotta Mills Fish Ladder Restoration, the state is beginning to restore the alewives’ watery paths to spawning grounds. The Damariscotta Mills group is restoring a fish ladder built in 1809 by the towns of Newcastle and Nobleboro. The organization sponsors a fish ladder restoration celebration, which this year will be held Memorial Day Weekend, May 24-26. The celebration includes lots of food –a pig roast, a chicken barbecue, and lobster and crab rolls, are featured – beer from local breweries and live music. Visitors can watch the thousands of alewives climbing the ladder as well as the many birds that prey on them – osprey, eagles and gulls.
Alewives are food for many species of Maine wildlife, including larger freshwater and saltwater fish. Lobster fisherman line up to buy alewives at this time of year because they make perfect live bait for their lobster traps. The mass migration of alewives also protects young Atlantic salmon that are moving downstream at the same time. Predators are more attracted to thousands of squirming alewives than they are to the young salmon smolt heading to the sea. Despite it’s small size, alewives are a key part of Maine’s environment and ecosystem. When you visit Newcastle Inn in late spring, take some time to appreciate these natural wonders.