BY LARRY GRARD
BENTON — The town’s Sebasticook River alewife run might be the largest in the United States this year, an official from the Department of Marine Resources says.
While most of those fish made it to upstream ponds to spawn, more than 350,000 of them were netted. The town, which gets one-third of the proceeds from the catch, has made more than $15,000 from the harvest.
Nate Gray, a Marine Resources scientist who has helped monitor the alewife run at the Benton Falls Dam, said that the Sebasticook run has been terrific.
“It’s probably close (to the largest), if not the largest,” Gray said. “We’re looking at something in the order of nearly 2 million fish.”
Rick Lawrence, Benton’s first alewife warden, had told townspeople to expect $5,000 to $10,000 in profits from the harvest. Ron Weeks of Jefferson and his crew have been netting and hauling in the bait fish for the entire month.
“It’s marvelous, and the fish passage is, too,” Lawrence said Wednesday. “It seems to be tailing off now. We’re in the last few days.”
Despite staunch opposition, residents agreed last month to spend $17,000 to purchase land and build an access road a mile below the dam. For this year only, dam owner Essex Hyrdo is permitting the harvest just below the dam, which is equipped with a fish ladder.
“At the meetings, I wanted to be as conservative as possible,” Lawrence said.
The uninhibited alewife run to Benton didn’t come without a cost. Fort Halifax Dam in Winslow first had to be torn down. According to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Winslow dam produced to the power grid 7 million kilowatt hours a year of clean electricity — enough to power one-third of the town’s 1,200 homes.
And despite assurances that the dam removal would pose no serious risk to the stability of the riverbank, the town has applied for a grant to pay for demolishing homes on Dallaire Street. Sebago Technics, which did the slope-monitoring for dam removal, has indicated the area’s slope is unstable, and the town is paying $1,500 a month to monitor it.
But now that Edwards Dam on the Kennebec in Augusta and Fort Halifax are gone, the sea-run species can make it up to the ponds of the Sebasticook watershed, as far north as Stetson Pond near Newport — 70 to 75 miles from the coast. There are fish ladders in the Vassalboro dam on Webber Pond, and on the Benton and Burnham dams on the Sebasticook.
“Other alewife runs are going down — loss of habitat, over-fishing, pollution,” Gray said. “The Sebasticook watershed has lots of lakes and ponds that are spawning grounds.
“They haven’t eaten. They just want to get there and spawn. That’s one of the great planetary migrations.”
Lawrence said that the alewife run is good not only for the harvesters and the town, but for the watershed’s ecology, as well.
“Most on their way back down will be eaten in the Gulf of Maine, and they have created thousands more,” Lawrence said. “Some are coming back downstream already. They face upstream as they come back down.”
Weeks said that, on his best day, he harvested 300 bushels of fish, which he sells to lobstermen. He and his crew net alewives in other locations, including in Vassalboro and Jefferson. But the Sebasticook is the largest, albeit the most challenging.
Great cooperation from the Department of Marine Resources and from dam supervisor Calvin Neal made his job much easier, Weeks said.
“We’ve definitely caught a lot more fish out of the Sebasticook,” Weeks said. “The Benton harvest is better than I expected. It was quite a challenge to get them up out of there, with the steep banks.”
Lawrence saw that, first-hand.
“I tried to lift one end of a half-filled crate and I couldn’t lift it,” he said.
Larry Grard, 861-9239