Originally published in Castine Patriot, May 19, 2022 and The Weekly Packet, May 19, 2022
Alewife celebration marks successful fish passage restoration
Conservation efforts result in return of the annual run
by Maggie White
On Saturday, May 14, Blue Hill Heritage Trust hosted the 2022 Bagaduce Alewife Celebration at Pierce Pond. The event, which was free and open to the public, consisted of informational displays on tables from organizations such as Sea Grant Maine, Maine Coast Heritage Trust, Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries and BHHT. On hand were representatives from each of the nonprofits, ready to share their knowledge about alewives in particular, and Maine coastal conservation efforts in general.
The occasion was made a full sensory experience by the offering of smoked alewives available to sample and the crafts table set up for attendees to create commemorative T-shirts.
What are alewives and why celebrate them?
While the name may conjure up images of British women serving beer from their homes in medieval times, the alewives being celebrated this past Saturday are actually a type of herring (though according to etymonline.com, the etymological source of the fish’s name was indeed due to their robust bellies, calling to mind the rotundity of British alewives).
What makes alewives unique is that they are born in fresh water and spend much of their lives in the ocean—yet they return to the body of water where they originated to spawn in the spring.
“Part of their life cycle is that they migrate from here to the ocean and back again. We’re celebrating that connection between inland habitats and the ocean,” said Hannah Robbins, communications manager for Sea Grant Maine.
In Maine, this run of the alewives back to their birthplace generally takes place in May. When in the ocean, the fish aren’t just idling out there close by; they traverse long distances. “It’s such a cool story of nature, really,” said Ciona Ulbrich, senior project manager with MCHT, “that the fish come back to their home stream or home pond years later. They can go as far down to the Carolinas and then come back…we know from history the run starts around May 10 in the Bagaduce.”
Saturday’s celebration was warranted not only because of the unique lifestyle of the alewives, but also because the run’s return was only possible due to a collective years-long community effort to preserve and restore the Bagaduce River watershed. Alewives, often used as lobster bait, are a vital part of a larger food chain, offering sustenance to a variety of birds, larger fish and mammals.
“This is the first year where we can celebrate the fish passage being restored to the whole watershed. We started this work in 2017…this was as fast as we hoped!” exclaimed Ulbrich of the collective efforts of the towns of Penobscot, Blue Hill, Castine, Brooksville and Sedgwick.
“The future’s looking good on the Blue Hill Peninsula and other areas where people have gotten involved in the effort,” said Bailey Bowden, a lifelong fisherman and Penobscot resident who has been involved with the watershed project for many years.
Another cause for celebration is the way this annual fish run lives in the memories of community members. “What I have found the most intriguing is how many people remember seeing the alewives run when they were kids. There’s so much living memory,” offered Ulbrich. “Bringing them back has made people able to see something they haven’t since they were kids. It’s so powerful.”
Among the community, there are not only those in possession of fond memories, but also many people who have a deep understanding about the waters and the fish within them.
“A big part of my work that I wish everyone realized is the depth of knowledge in the community, knowledge from fishermen and from many other members of our communities,” said Mike Thalhauser, collaborative management specialist for MCCF. Thalhauser emphasized that the residents of this area of Maine have proved to be invaluable resources for his work.
When asked what he hoped the general public would take away from the celebration, Bowden was quick and concise with his response. “To raise awareness of the fish and the environmental and ecological importance. Restoration efforts get easier if you have public support,” said Bowden. “Funders really look at that.”
Thalhauser said that the ecological impact of this effort has a broader reach than the run being celebrated. “Looking at interactions between river herring and other fish, one of the hopes is that the restoration of alewives and other prey species could be one of the triggers for restoring ground fish in the Gulf of Maine. Like cod.”
Interested in learning more? Attend the free, outdoor movie screening of A Watershed Moment on Saturday, May 21, at the Penobscot Community School, or visit the websites of any of the organizations mentioned here.