BROOKSVILLE — On a recent spring day, Mike Thalhauser peered down into the recently restored alewife run at Walker Pond to see if any of the anadromous fish had completed the journey from the Atlantic Ocean all the way to the local freshwater pond.
To the disappointment of the lurking gulls, there were none, but this spring, thousands of alewives will likely make the final sprint along the spruced-up run for the first time in order to get to the pond to spawn.
It’s something that only a few years ago wasn’t as easy a task for alewives, an important species in the ecosystem’s food chain.
The towns of Brooksville, Sedgwick and Penobscot, along with Maine Coast Heritage Trust, the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries and several other players, mounted an effort to improve the fishways for the entire Bagaduce River watershed.
The recent completion of the Walker Pond run is the latest milestone in that effort and the third in a series of five projects to restore the fish passage in the watershed.
“Alewives are a big deal,” said Thalhauser, a collaborative management specialist at the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries. “They’re basically food for everything that can fit them in their mouths, whether it’s in the freshwater or the marine environment.”
In 2018 and 2019, nature-like fishways were installed at Pierce Pond and Wights Pond in Penobscot and there are two other projects, one each in Brooksville and Sedgwick, that are expected to start this summer.
The Walker Pond site is at the former location of a mill at the head of the Bagaduce River. Last year, the groups restored the fishway that runs around the dam, created public access, stabilized the dam and added a hydrant for the Brooksville and Sedgwick fire departments to draw water.
The work was to help bring back passages for a species that’s been populating Maine waters for thousands of years.
The fish can be found up and down the Eastern Seaboard and their spawning journey is one of nature’s wonders. The trip from the ocean back to freshwater is made even more miraculous by the fact that, out of all the freshwater spots along the coast, the fish largely return back to the same body of water that they were born in, which makes the maintenance of the fish passages all the more important.
“If they’re blocked from coming in here, it’s not like they just go down the street and go to another place,” said Ciona Ulbrich, a senior project manager with Maine Coast Heritage Trust. “This is where they want to spawn and so it’s been a huge impact on the population that they can’t get back to their spawning places.”
If alewife populations drop, it takes a chunk of forage fish out of the food chain, which has prompted theories that Maine’s groundfish population could be struggling at least partially because of a lack of smaller fish.
Helping the fish make it into the pond isn’t a new idea. People in the community remember being kids and going down to the run and carrying fish to the pond.
In 1870, the Maine fish commissioner went to Walker Pond and noted that the dam nearly destroyed the population, and human intervention was needed.
“For 12 or 14 years all the fish that reached the pond were carried up in baskets,” the commissioner wrote in his annual report. Sometimes as much as 10 barrels of fish were carried past the dam. The commissioner later directed the dam owners to make a fishway and a ditch was dug around it.
“It worked very satisfactorily, and if kept in order a revival of the alewife fishery may be confidently expected,” the commissioner wrote.
Thalhauser didn’t want to create a new run wholesale and instead the team made tweaks to the same ditch that was dug around the mill. About 400,000 alewives made the run last year.
Part of the project was also balancing the ecological aspect with the human culture aspect, Ulbrich said. People wanted to keep the history of the now-gone mill at the site and make it accessible to the public and to the fire department to draw water.
The alewife fishery is one of the few fisheries that can be locally managed. After about a decade of data collecting, towns can request permission to harvest the fish. Those conversations happened in Penobscot, which had its first commercial harvest in recent memory last year.
One of the biggest pieces of the Walker Pond project is the local community buy-in. Volunteers help count the alewives to see how many are going into the pond to spawn, as well as notch beaver dams to keep passages clear. In all, it’s about 300 hours of conservation work a year.
“It’s pretty important to have that buy-in at the local level,” Thalhauser said. “Otherwise, all this kind of work can happen and the run can still go away again.”
That the entire watershed project would be done later this year was a bit of a “pinch-me” moment for Ulbrich.
“It’s been really successful and the idea that we’re going to finish this this year is still, I’m not quite comprehending that yet,” she said. A lot of work has gone into securing funding, land and talking to all of the different parties involved. “It’s so exciting and it really is a big deal just on a number of levels, and the community support has just been fantastic.”