Record-breaking numbers of alewives, eagles
- Alewives return to Kennebec (chart)
- C-SPAN story about Edwards Dam, including interview with NRCM’s Pete Didisheim
- Brief history timeline of Edwards Dam
- More about the Edwards Dam removal and Kennebec River restoration
The health of the Kennebec River is making great strides just fifteen years after the breach of the 160-year-old Edwards Dam in Augusta, which occurred on July 1, 1999, and about eight years after the removal of the Fort Halifax Dam in Winslow. The Kennebec now supports the largest run of alewives and blueback herring (river herring) on the eastern seaboard, and the Sebasticook River—a tributary of the Kennebec at Winslow—likely has the largest annual congregation of Bald Eagles in the Eastern U.S., timed with the arrival of millions of river herring. Communities in the Kennebec watershed are also benefitting from the decisions to remove these two dams.
Since 2008, more than 13 million alewives have traveled up the Kennebec and Sebasticook rivers to lay their eggs in freshwater lakes upstream, based on official counts at Benton Falls on the Sebasticook and Lockwood Dam on the Kennebec—two locations with fish counting abilities. As of June 22, Department of Marine Resources (DMR) had counted 2.37 million alewives at Benton Falls and 90,294 at the Lockwood Dam (Waterville). Many additional alewives have reached freshwater ponds below Waterville, on tributaries without fish counting systems. Fishermen also have harvested large numbers of alewives below the Benton Falls fish lift. The exact number of fish in the harvest is confidential business information, but these fish are extremely valuable to lobstermen, who might have to import more costly bait from out-of-state if these alewives were not available.
“This huge surge of life each spring in the Kennebec is a remarkable success story,” said NRCM Staff Scientist Nick Bennett. “And it’s not just about the alewives. We’re now seeing an amazing number of Bald Eagles and osprey along the Sebasticook feasting on the alewives, and we know that alewives are critical food for cod, seals, and the entire marine food chain.”
This year, officials with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife counted 58 Bald Eagles on a single day (June 6) along the five-mile stretch of the Sebasticook River leading from the Kennebec to the Benton Falls fish lift. This likely is the largest congregation of Bald Eagles in the northeast, and possibly anywhere north of the Chesapeake Bay. Maine now has more than 630 nesting pairs of Bald Eagles, up from about 20 nesting pairs in 1967. The increased numbers of river herring have provide an important food source for the eagles, contributing to their recovery.
Fifteen years ago, the removal of the 160-year-old Edwards Dam restored a free-flowing Kennebec River. Excavators breached the dam on July 1, 1999, with thousands of people watching the event from the banks of the river in Augusta. Removal of the 917-foot-long dam, built in 1837, came about because, for the first time, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) ruled that the ecological value of a free-flowing river was greater than the economic value of a dam. FERC actually ordered the dam removed. On July 17, 2008 dam owner FPL Energy Maine Hydro breached the Fort Halifax Dam after deciding that removal made more sense economically than investing in the type of fish lift that would have been required. Prior to the Fort Halifax removal, DMR captured alewives using a vacuum pump and trucked them to upstream lakes.
Benefits to the river and fisheries began almost immediately following each of these dam removals. Today, the Kennebec has come back to life. It has become a draw for local residents and businesses. Boaters, anglers, and birdwatchers are regular visitors to the restored Kennebec, as well as its walking trails, riverfront docks, parks, and boat launches.
“For more than 160 years, fish coming up the Kennebec could not get past the Edwards Dam, where they were dozens of miles away from their prime spawning habitat,” says NRCM Executive Director Lisa Pohlmann. “But now alewives and other fish can swim from the sea to freshwater lakes in the Sebasticook watershed, and the results have been astounding. While there’s still important work to do to further improve the fisheries of the river, we now know that nature will restore itself dramatically if we give it a chance.”
The breaching of these dams has contributed many additional benefits to communities in the watershed. In Augusta, the former location of the Edwards Dam and its associated mill now are the site of Mill Park, which is an attractive destination because of its canoe and kayak launch, pavilion, and weekly farmers market. The Town of Benton receives about $20,000 per year from its annual alewife harvest below the Benton Falls dam and this year hosted its third annual Alewife Festival. The festival features a range of community events, including an alewife-themed dinner, alewife chowder contest, demonstrations on how to smoke alewives with 200-year-old techniques, and a “fun run.”
“The recovery of sea-run fish has been astounding. We have a strong recreational shad fishery, a huge alewife run that supports two town-managed commercial alewife harvests above the former Edwards site, and promising results from an experimental salmon egg planting project for Atlantic salmon. The change since 1999 is dramatic,” said Jeff Reardon of Trout Unlimited.
“River herring are critical to Atlantic salmon,” says John Burrows of the Atlantic Salmon Federation. “When river herring are plentiful, predators like cormorants and seals often prey on them instead of migrating Atlantic salmon. We remain hopeful that continued progress for river herring in the Kennebec watershed can contribute to Atlantic salmon restoration.”
The removal of Edwards Dam was the result of a decade-long effort of the Kennebec Coalition, which included American Rivers, the Atlantic Salmon Federation, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, and Trout Unlimited and its Kennebec Valley Chapter. It involved an innovative agreement among FERC, federal and state natural resource agencies, the City of Augusta, the State of Maine, and dam owners. NRCM, ASF and TU were the lead groups involved in seven years of legislative and legal efforts that preceded removal of the Fort Halifax Dam.