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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Alewife Return

Air Date: Week of

The alewife are running thick again in the cool waters of Maine. From a Maine mill town we hear from those who help the tiny creatures battle the currents upstream. Naomi Schalit [shal-LEET] has our report.


CURWOOD: On the East Coast of North America each spring, a fish called the alewife migrates from saltwater to fresh to spawn in natal ponds. Now, the alewife may not conjure up images as powerful or as romantic as the salmon, but for many, the return of this herring-like fish each year is a passionate affair. In the tiny town of Damarascotta Mills, Maine, the alewives have returned in huge numbers this year, sparking hopes that a population decimated by over-harvesting may now be coming back. Producer Naomi Schalit found 2 people there who know the alewives well.

(Splashing water)

BALT: I'm Frank Balt, Sr., and I live in South Jefferson. I've lived there all my life, I'm 63 years old. And I guess I'm the alewife counter or the tender, whatever you want to call me. We're at the mouth of the fish ladder. The lake is on one side, on the left. And the fish ladder is on the right. And there's a lot of little resting pools. The fish come from down below, up to the fish ladder, and they stop in one of these little pools and rest. And then they go into the lake. And it's 87 feet from the top to the bottom that they have to come uphill.


BALT: I'm cranking this wheel. And on the other end is a gate. And as I turn the wheel it lifts the gate about a quarter of an inch to a time. And that lets more water down where the alewives are. And we call it traction water, so that it gives them plenty of water to come up into the lake with. The stronger the current, the better they like it. They swim against the current all the time. That's what steers them to the fresh water.


BALT: I've seen it go from 28,000 bushel down to 500, in my lifetime. And so when we hit 500 we decided it was time to do something. So we shut it down, and we don't harvest them any more. And for the last 9 years we've been putting them all right into the lake. And the only ones can dip out any fish, the widows of Newcastle and Umber are entitled to 2 bushel. A lot of them will take them over to the smoker, Jack Buchan, and he smokes them.


BUCHAN: I'm Jack Buchan, and I'm running Mulyan Smokehouse for my wife and sister-in-law.

(Dripping water)

BUCHAN: Salted the fish down. Now we're stringing them on these wooden sticks. And we get done with this and we'll hang them all up in the rafters and build a smoke. They say the Indians used to do it the same way. This is my grandson; he's learned how. He can beat me stringing, actually. We used to have, I don't know, a dozen or so smokehouses down here. This is the only one left (laughs).

(Gulls call)

BALT: There's two things we do around here. You wear a hat and you don't look up, because the sky is full of seagulls and eagles and fish hawks. You just look at the fish and keep on going. They dive down, they catch a live one once in a while. But they eat a lot of dead ones, which makes it good because it would really smell wicked if it weren't for the seagulls around here. And the osprey come down, he gets a live one and feeds his young ones with it. So he has a thing to do, too; he supports his family like the rest of us. Then the eagle, well, he kind of sets back and sits in a tree, waits for the fish hawk to get a fish, and then he comes down and takes it away from the fish hawk. So I really don't really look up to him too much, and he don't really earn; he takes more than he earns.

(Splashing water)

BALT: West end, at the end of the fish ladder. Looking upstream, and looking down into the water, and it's solid with fish. There's so many fish that you can't see bottom. And it looks the best I've seen it in the last 25 years. There's more fish here than there had been for a very long time. Makes me feel real good. It's unbelievable; it looks like it used to look years ago. So, I hope they keep coming.

CURWOOD: Our sound portrait on the return of the alewife was produced by Maine Public Broadcasting's Naomi Schalit.



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