VASSALBORO — As Landis Hudson drove toward the alewife fish ladder at Webber Pond, she wasn’t certain the directions on the new Maine Alewife Trail Map had her on the best route. Then she noticed a bald eagle soaring overhead.

“I knew I was getting close,” she said. Like Hudson, the raptor was drawn to the alewives jumping upstream just below the pond.

To the eagle, the fish meant dinner. For Hudson, they are a sign of success for a project of the 17-year-old Maine Rivers, a nonprofit she has overseen as executive director for a decade. The organization works to restore fish passage in Maine rivers and streams for sea-run fish by removing dams and installing fish ladders (or “technical fishways,” as scientists call them).

From mid-May to mid-June, thousands of alewives head up Maine rivers to spawn; otherwise, they spend most of their lives at sea. Hudson believes that the more interested Mainers become in the state’s sea-run fish species, the more likely they are to support river restoration. The map, published in May, is intended to help drive enthusiasm. It pinpoints spots where the public can observe the alewife runs.

Alewife runs today are more robust than they were a decade ago. In Benton at the Sebasticook River Dam, for instance, the run has gone from 400,000 to 5.8 million alewives in 10 years. Still, the runs are “nothing near what they were historically,” Landis said. “We don’t have exact numbers, but they were very common, very prolific. Now, it’s kind of the opposite. Here’s a river that has alewives, we say. That’s cool! But it used to be odd to find a river where there wasn’t a run.”

We caught up with Landis in May during the Vassalboro alewife run. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Alewives swim in a holding pen at the top of a fish ladder at the Webber Pond Dam in Vassalboro. All over Maine, the installation of ladders and the removal of dams are letting the fish return to their historic spawning grounds. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Q: The first dam removed in Maine was Edwards Dam in the Kennebec, taken out in 1999. Many others followed. How long does it take, once that barrier is removed, for the sea-run fish runs to return?

A: The fish come back fast. The number of returns has gone up each year. Last year was a record year for alewife returns around Maine. The fish are very adaptable. But many more runs could happen if more fish passages were opened up.

While we don’t see the hideous pollution in rivers that people saw in the 1960s, people are not aware of the life that’s missing in the rivers. Our natural fish populations are at low levels. The (unfettered) river systems are a benefit to the sea-run species. And more sea-run fish populations are a benefit to the ocean fish – they provide more food.

Our hope is that the map gets people out to see the fish runs in the rivers and streams. I go into schools to do talks on Maine rivers. And I can tell you the kids definitely get the idea that the fish are doing an epic journey, and facing difficult hurdles getting upstream.

Q: What kind of sites are on the Maine Alewife Trail Map?

A: There are 18, and they’re all very different. Damariscotta Mills is tidal, so you have to watch the tides to see the fish runs. That run has over a million alewives. Pushaw Lake (north of Bangor) is close to that. Benton is a large run – four to five million. Vassalboro is a medium-sized run, about 400,000 alewives make it into Webber Pond. Most of the runs in Maine are medium-sized runs.

There is a harvest at six of the locations on the map, which are marked. You can’t harvest anywhere (you want). Biologists age the alewife using scales to make sure that the runs are harvested in a way that’s sustainable. (The alewives are mostly sold for lobster bait.)

Q: How many dams have been removed in the past 20 years, and how many remain?

A: I can count a dozen dams that have come out, but that doesn’t include some of the work by Project SHARE in Washington County on old timber crib dams. There are over 100 dams producing power that are licensed. In the town I live in, Yarmouth, there are two dams right in town on the Royal River that have been there for hundreds of years. They are obsolete and derelict. There are hundreds like those. Most prevent fish passage.

Many (dam removal) projects have taken many, many years. But it took many years to dam and pollute the rivers. It’s taking many years to fix that.

Q: Where does your interest in rivers come from?

A: I was born in Kanakanak, Alaska, where my dad was in the Public Health Service, and I was just so happy to be living in a fishing village in Bristol Bay. Then we moved to Anchorage, where I lived for 10 years. I grew up in upstate New York in Cooperstown. I grew up in the water, wanting to be in the water, and with a love of the water. The 10 years my family spent in Anchorage, we lived in a part of the world where the natural world was so wild. My family all swam. My father is 80 and still does swimming races.

Q: What kind of report card would you give your organization?

A: A lot of great work is happening in the state, not just by Maine Rivers. But restoration is harder than conservation because you’re putting it back together. When Fort Halifax (Dam) and Edwards Dam were removed … those were watershed moments. It’s a pretty daunting task to consider: Removing a dam. Today, our rivers are much healthier than they were 40 years ago because of it.

There is a lot of great stewardship going on, and much greater awareness of the sea-run fish. Fort Halifax (Dam) took decades of litigation and engineers to remove in 2008, and there is a dam in my town on the Royal River that me and several other people worked on removing with a (manual) grip hoist in 2012. There are a wide range of projects.

But there are plastics in the ocean and there is climate change taking place. Underwater systems are truly under attack by pollutants and plastics. If you look at the freshwater creatures that are imperiled, it’s alarming.

Q: Outlet Stream, which flows from China Lake to (a tributary of) the Kennebec, is a good example of one of your projects. How many dams are on this stream?

A: There were six. Now there are four on Outlet Stream. It was a very industrial stream. People started to dam it in the 1700s. It was like the Silicon Valley of dammed streams. We will install one technical fishway this summer, and then two next summer. It’s about $750,000 for one; the last will be less. So all four will be about $2 million, give or take.

We work in collaboration with many other groups. I spend a good percentage of my time writing grants. But these rivers, once you get drawn into it, it pulls you in. There is something magnificent about the stories of rivers.

Rivers are our underdogs. They were dreadfully polluted, dammed beyond imagination – and yet, they come back to life. But it’s a huge effort that involves a lot of people – scientists, lawyers, poets, anglers, birders, artists, engineers, historians. River restoration efforts are very slow. It can take years to see an idea become a reality. I try to find ways to celebrate our successes along the way because the road is pretty long.

Editor Peggy Grodinsky contributed to this story.

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CORRECTION: This story was updated at 7 p.m. on June 3, 2019, to correct the reference to when people started to dam Outlet Stream and the action to be taken this summer.