May 17, 2013

A home run for Maine alewives

The Benton Alewife Festival is set to celebrate a record return of fish hatched from eggs that were laid in 2009.

By MATT HONGOLTZ-HETLING Morning Sentinel

BENTON – Alewives are on pace for a record run in Benton, whose residents will celebrate their relationship with the migratory fish Saturday during the second Benton Alewife Festival.

click image to enlarge

Tommy Keister, a fisherman from Friendship, stands up to his knees in live Alewives at the Benton Falls Hydro-Electric Dam on the Sabasticook River on May 9, 2013.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

Selectman Antoine Morin, the festival's organizer, said this year's run is significant because most of the spawning fish hatched from eggs laid in 2009, when the state restored Benton's traditional harvesting rights.

"It's kind of like Nemo," Morin said, referring to the animated movie in which a fish makes an extended journey to rejoin his father. "They've returned home."

For the first three years of their lives, the fish tend to remain at sea. They return to the place of their birth to spawn when they are four years old.

There will be much more alewife-themed hoopla than there was in Benton the year they were born and headed out to sea.

The festival, much of which will be held at the Family Fun Park, will feature free events from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., including horse-drawn carriage rides, an alewife chowder cook-off, presentations on smoking alewives, a canoe and kayak race, a floating bonfire on the Sebasticook River, and bus tours to the dam where alewives are being harvested.

At the Benton Falls Dam, a crew of fishermen contracted by the town has been working busily in recent weeks, scooping fish out of the water with nets and selling them for about $60 per crate to lobstermen, who prize alewives as bait.

The traditional alewife harvest in Benton, which dates at least to the early 1800s, stopped when dams were built downriver.

The annual migration was choked off when the Edwards Dam was built in 1837 on the Kennebec River, which the Sebasticook feeds.

When the Fort Halifax Dam was removed from Winslow in 2008, the way was cleared for fish to swim upriver to Benton, where an automated lift helps them up and on their way to their spawning grounds.

While the fish congregate in the water below the dam, they are easy targets for the harvester's nets, which is part of the reason for Benton's celebration.

Each time a crate is sold for $60, Benton collects $20 under its agreement. The more fish run, the more can be harvested, and the more money the town makes.

In three of the past four years, the total number of fish lifted over the dam has ranged between 1.3 million, in 2009, to 1.7 million, last year.

In 2011, a bumper run of 2.7 million alewives was brought on by favorable conditions, said Richard Lawrence, Benton's alewife warden.

The state Department of Marine Resources has tracked about 1.3 million fish so far this year, less than two weeks into a run that could go well into June, said biologist Nate Gray.

Most of the fish came last week, the first week of the run. Morin said the harvest yielded $13,000 to the town, close to the town's average take of about $15,000 per year.

The fish were largely absent for a few days this week. Gray chalks that up to cooler weather, not a sign that the run is over.

If the fish return with what meteorologists predict will be higher temperatures ahead, the town is likely to top its record take of $19,000.

Morin said the money goes into the town's general fund and is used to hold down property taxes. The festival is paid for by donations, including significant support from the Sebasticook Regional Land Trust, and the Time and Tide Resource Conservation and Development Area of Maine.

Morin said the festival, which drew about 400 people last year, is a way to build a sense of community among residents, increase traffic to businesses in town, and showcase Benton's appeal to prospective residents.

Gray said that, with the habitat now available, the number of alewives that run could range, in perfect conditions, to 3 million to 5 million per year.

Jim Wotton, 43, of Friendship, a commercial fisherman who has been harvesting the fish from the Benton Falls Dam each year, said he has never seen so many alewives.

"Barring anything unforeseen, we should shatter last year's record," Wotton said.

Gray was more cautious about predicting the final number. "Ask me in August," he said. "In this business, it pays to be an empiricist, not a theorist."

 

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be contacted at 861-9287 or at:

mhhetling@centralmaine.com

 

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