BENTON — Some 3 million alewives are rushing up the Sebasticook River, heading for the Benton Falls dam, where at least a quarter-million will be allowed to complete their run upriver to spawn. The rest will become fair game for food and bait for Maine’s multimillion-dollar lobster fishery.

While the fishery is going great guns, however, the town of Benton has canceled its alewife festival originally scheduled for Saturday, with a person at the Town Office citing rain as the reason. The festival dinner also was canceled. In past years the event always has sold out, but only seven tickets had been sold as of Thursday.

Nevertheless, Jeffrey Pierce, the president of Alewife Harvesters of Maine, said it’s been a really good year for the alewife run, as the once-depleted fish continue to swarm back into the area each spring. He hasn’t heard any negative reports, and places all around the state – from Bath to Benton – are doing well.

“The alewife recovery in Maine is really a phenomenal thing we’ve seen over the last 10 years,” Pierce said. “I remember when you couldn’t buy an alewife. Now it seems everybody has ’em, and that’s a good thing.”

Alewives are small herring that annually make their way up the Sebasticook River from the Gulf of Maine to spawn in inland lakes in May and June. Benton has the largest run in the state and one of the largest on the East Coast. Typically used as bait in lobster traps, the foot-long silver fish also can be eaten.

Alewives had long been a staple of the area, but dams on rivers and pollution of the waterways diminished the fish’s population. When dams in Augusta and Winslow were removed a few years ago, alewives returned.

The fish have been credited for a resurgence of wildlife in the area, including kingfishers, eagles, ospreys, herons, minks, snapping turtles and otters. Years ago, a pair of seals even made their way up the river to feed on the alewives.

Pierce said alewives have helped restore waterways throughout the state, including China Lake and Webber Pond in Vassalboro, after being reintroduced. The quality of drinking water from China Lake has vastly improved, he said, and the alewives also have helped the sport fishing industry.

“Have you noticed all the eagles?” he said, adding that the eagle population has grown in the region because of all the food now available in the rivers. “Maine now has the largest eagle population east of the Mississippi.

“Then you look at everything that eats them. If you have alewives in your pond, you’ll have great game fishing.”

According to the Department of Marine Resources, alewives are an important contributer to the ecology of Maine because they are an alternative prey for fish-eating birds during a time when juvenile Atlantic salmon are migrating downriver, providing cover for the salmon from birds of prey as well as seals once the salmon hit the open ocean.

Pierce said the resurgence of alewives also has benefited the rest of the state’s fish population, especially cod and haddock. He said fishermen are lining the banks to catch these fish.

“They’re now locally and sustainably caught,” he said. “That didn’t happen 10 years ago, and it’s directly attributed to the biomass of the alewife. They wait for the juveniles. It feeds the oceans, which is what we feed off. It’s just a great story from shore to lake and back again.”

Rick Lawrence, Benton’s alewife warden, said that on Monday, over a million fish had been lifted over the dam, and that this run appears to be on course to break records. The run generally lasts three to four weeks and eventually coincides with the running of another fish, the blueback herring, he said. Alewives can’t be harvested until over 200,000 have crossed the dam, he said, but that happened within three days.

A state-approved town ordinance makes it legal for Benton to harvest the fish once 225,000 have made it over the Benton Falls dam, which is equipped with a $1 million fish elevator that passes the fish upstream to their native spawning grounds. The town typically harvests anywhere from 350,000 to 500,000 fish per year. Harvesting alewives is regulated by the state for both mass scale harvesting and individual fishermen, who have a cap of 25 per day.

A 72-hour closure on harvesting is mandated by the state, which lasts from Thursday to Sunday, Lawrence said, but Benton gets an exemption because of the size of the run.

“They’re harvesting fish as fast as they can,” he said. “Benton’s alewives are becoming pretty well known for their availability.”

Colin Ellis can be contacted at 861-9253 or at:

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Twitter: @colinoellis