SURRY — With a bald eagle and an osprey soaring overhead, more than 60 people gathered at the town landing on Patten Bay last Saturday to celebrate the annual return of alewives to Patten Stream and the completion of a new fish passage.
The town’s Alewife Committee hopes the passage will make it easier for an iconic symbol of spring in Maine to reach their freshwater spawning grounds from the sea.
The climb of the early-run fish up the stream via the recently completed weir and pool system marked the culmination of some eight years of effort to restore the historical run of alewives — once the favorite springtime bait of Maine lobstermen — to Patten Stream.
Construction on the fish passage began early last September. The final work on the project, construction of a carefully graded gravel driveway and small stream-side parking area, was finished early this spring.
The fishway itself comprises five rock walls, each about 8 inches high, spaced like steps at irregular intervals across the stream. The granite blocks used to build the weirs were once a part of the underpinnings of the Singing Bridge that, until 1999, carried U.S. Route 1 over Taunton Bay.
The fishway was designed to help alewives make a passage beneath the Surry Road (Route 172) where it crosses Patten Stream.
On Saturday morning, Jim Dow, executive director of the Blue Hill Heritage Trust, described the project as “a work of art really,” adding “and we think it works.”
The evidence was there to see. A goodly number of alewives were schooled up at the mouth of the stream and fish were visible in the pools formed by the granite weirs and swimming beneath the culvert. Before the project was built, the fish would likely been found in a pool below the culvert, their passage upstream effectively blocked by a granite ledge. Each spring, volunteers would net alewives downstream of the culvert and release them into the water above it so they could continue their way upstream.
According to Ciona Ulbrich, senior project manager at the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, completion of the project reconnects 23 miles of stream and access to 1,100 acres of habitat — enough to support some 250,000 fish — to returning alewives.
Those fish help feed all sorts of wildlife, mammals and birds, Alewife Committee member Susan Shetterly told the assembled crowd. Juvenile alewives swimming out into the Gulf of Maine serve as important forage fish for cod, haddock and halibut.
Ulbrich praised the Surry Alewife Committee for its continuing effort in the face of many difficulties to see the fishway project through from planning to completion.
“It’s a really complicated, time-consuming process, and it’s expensive,” she said.
Last year, the town signed a $118,000 contract with Linkel Contruction Inc. of Topsham to build the project. With engineering, the total cost of the fishway was about $150,000, but Surry was only responsible for a small portion of the cost. Most of the funding came from the Maine Department of Transportation, the agency responsible for maintaining the culvert. Other funds came from the Department of Marine Resources, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, NOAA Fisheries and the Gulf of Maine Council. Several individuals and organizations, including both the Maine Coast Heritage Trust and the Blue Hill Heritage Trust, also contributed to the project.
According to Ulbrich, some 90 Maine ponds and lakes once supported populations of alewives, but dams, pollution and overfishing shrank that number to a handful. In recent years, a number of community-based efforts to restore alewife runs have begun along the Maine coast. Locally, efforts are under way in both Somesville and Sullivan.