YARMOUTH – How often do you honk at a fish?

Granted, this one was more than 9 feet long, made of papier mache.

And we were carrying it over the Androscoggin River to make a public statement about American shad and the nonfunctional fish ladder in Brunswick.

As I walked with a poet, artists, a fishery biologist and friends of the Androscoggin River Alliance, a few people honked but more than a few simply drove by, oblivious.

Once American shad are restored to the Androscoggin River, fishing for them could bring up to $2 million a year to local economies.

Whether or not many people got that message from our short walk with the giant shad, fish passage is something you’ll be hearing a lot more about in the coming seasons.

Two recent events mark river restoration milestones in Maine — one was held just off Route 1 in Wiscasset to celebrate the removal of a dam on Montsweag brook, the other marked the end of a once-contentious debate about the removal of the dam in West Winterport, on a tributary of the Penobscot River.

A great number of the dams in our rivers are relics, serving no purpose at all but reducing the vitality of our waterways in real ways.

In addition to the dams on Montsweag brook and in West Winterport, there remain hundreds and perhaps thousands of other dams in our rivers — dams that have outlived their function.

Some are old mill dams that have outlived the mills, others may never be economically viable for producing hydropower.

Most kids old enough to toss a rock into a brook can tell you that rivers carry water from land to the ocean.

But only now are we coming to an awareness of the role that rivers play the in opposite direction — allowing aquatic organisms, energy and nutrients to move from the ocean into the landscape.

Our view of rivers will need to evolve. As we no longer allow raw sewage to get dumped into our brooks and streams, we should not leave relic dams in place. Fish must be able to move freely in our waterways.

Healthy rivers are highly complex systems of interconnected parts, influenced by weather, hydrology, and geology, as well as the complex interactions of plants, animals and insects.

An unconnected river system is less healthy and less resilient. Maine has 12 species of fish that migrate between fresh and saltwater.

These fish — salmon, shad, alewives among others — rely on access to rivers and connected waterways for their survival.

Researchers are beginning to understand the role that these creatures play in sustaining the health of our oceans.

The rivers of our state once provided billions of young fish to sustain cod and other groundfish in marine ecosystems.

Dams with non-functional fish ladders are one of the dominos that have led to the collapse of Maine’s groundfishing industry.

Last year, Carolyn J. Hall completed her master’s thesis at Stony Brook University in New York analyzing records from throughout the state of Maine to create a database of 1,356 historic dams.

Hall came to a stark but simple conclusion: The ingenuity of Maine’s early colonists created a legacy of resource depletion and ecological disruption that continues to this day.

The harnessing of water power by mill dams obstructed access to spawning grounds for alewives and other sea-run species.

Hall estimated that Maine suffered the potential loss of more than 6 billion alewives.

Certainly a large number of the 1,356 dams Hall studied remain as relics in our rivers — providing no power and reducing the vitality of our watersheds.

I can’t help but imagine these 6 billion fish as I read an application from Scribner’s Mill Preservation, Inc. to rebuild a historic sawmill on the Crooked River in Harrison and Otisfield.

The Crooked River is the primary spawning habitat for Sebago Lake’s prized unique and indigenous landlocked salmon population and the source of drinking water for residents of Portland.

The river is rebounding from 140 years of damming.

It baffles me that anyone would consider risking the very real current tourism value of Sebago Lake’s landlocked salmon population to recreate historic environmental degradation.

We need to understand the past, and the future will require a new way of looking at our rivers.

 


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