Turbulent Times

This month, a story from a COA alum who has gone on to research marine ecology beyond Frenchman Bay. Eliza Oldach (class of 2015) has recently returned from a Fulbright project in New Zealand, where she studied coastal ecology with the Marine Ecology Research Group at University of Canterbury. For more of her stories on science and New Zealand, check out her blog, Zeacology.


The shaking woke me up, as it did everyone.

In the early hours of November 14th, New Zealand was rocked by a 7.8 magnitude quake, the biggest felt in the country since 1855. It caused serious damage across a swathe of the country from Wellington to Kaikoura, and serious alarm for the rest. In the days and weeks following the quake, national attention was fixed on the areas with the most extreme damage and the greatest need for emergency aid.

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Faults ruptured in November quake (credit: GNS Science).

Biological and geological systems were just as disrupted as human ones. The emergency scientific response followed closely on the heels of humanitarian aid, as biologists and geologists hurried to impacted areas to document the quake’s effect on natural systems.

One of the most immediately obvious effects was a significant amount of coastal uplift. Shifting fault lines had pushed rock above the ocean, lifting areas that were previously underwater and visibly altering coastlines. The University of Canterbury’s Marine Ecology Research Group (MERG), my host for the year, followed these updates closely. Some of our field sites were in the center of the uplifted zones, and we hurried to get to those sites and record the changes to coastal ecology as soon as possible.

We mapped out points along the coast to visit, choosing bays that had experienced a range of uplift intensity to understand responses to varying levels of disturbance. In addition to establishing new plots in these areas, however, we also wanted to return to the places where we’d sampled before. Over twenty years ago, researchers from MERG had established long-term monitoring sites at three sites along the coast— Cape Campbell, Kaikoura, and Moeraki. By returning to these sites and repeating sampling every season for several decades, MERG had established a robust baseline of the seaweed community. We knew that severe uplift along the coast would impact seaweeds, and by returning to areas where we had baseline data we’d be able to provide detailed evidence of those changes.

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The Kaikoura coast, pre- and post-quake (credit: NASA Earth Observatory Images by Joshua Stevens)

In the week following the earthquake, I joined the sampling trip to our site at Cape Campbell (north of Kaikoura– see map, above) . With the roads south of the Cape closed, the normal route from Christchurch was impassable. Instead, I hopped on a puddle jumper to Blenheim, and was met by my labmate Shawn to drive to the Cape from the north.

Changes to the coastline were visible even on our drive out to the field site. Rock platforms usually tucked below tide were well above water. When we ventured out onto those platforms, gumboots on and quadrats in hand, the changes were even more dramatic.

The reef had lost its color. The dominant seaweed, Hormosira, usually forms an olive-hued cover over much of the rock, interspersed with purple Lophothamnion, bright green Ulva, and ruby-brown Champia. This time, the Hormosira was brown and crisped from sun exposure. The Lophothamnion was dark and scraggly, and the Champia had gone completely clear. Underlying turfs and encrusting corallines, usually a healthy pink crust beneath the seaweed canopies, had bleached to a sickly white. It looked like a seaweed graveyard.

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Stark changes in the reef community (credit: EO).

We continued out along the rock platforms, traveling from the Hormosira zone to lower elevations. Here, Hormosira should be replaced by subtidal seaweed species, the massive Durvilleae and Carpophyllum. This time, those subtidal seaweeds were still present, but ailing—the Durvilleae changing from golden to dark brown, the Carpophyllum blackened and crisped.

We started looking for our historic survey sites, unsure whether the marker bolts had survived the quakes. A few moments of searching revealed them, completely intact, their pink zip ties a bright marker against the new brown and white cast of the reef. We threw down a quadrat, and knelt to assess the scene in more detail. Some water was held in the cracks and pits of the rock, and in those places the seaweeds maintained their structure and color. Predominantly, though, they were out of any water cover, left to dry and wither in the sun. We also noticed a lack of invertebrates in the plots. Usually, the seaweed is crawling with Lunella and Melagraphia snails, a smattering of crabs, perhaps the odd sea slug. Now, A few limpets held on to areas protected by seaweed canopy, and anemones hunkered down in pits in the rock, but other than that it was an empty scene.

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Paul amidst bleached corallines and blackened Durv (credit: EO).

There was another obvious change, too. Normally, our trips to Cape Campbell have to be carefully timed. The species we study exist in a narrow slice of time and space between high tide and low. More often than not, we were chased back to land by the rising tide before we’ve finished all of our surveys.

No longer. On the post-quake visit, we spent hours on the reef. We finished our surveys for the day, moved on to collect more data and set up new permanent plots, messed about with oxygen probes and temperature loggers, stopped to share coffee from a thermos—and still the rising tide hadn’t covered our sites.

Small wonder, then, that the seaweeds were stressed and the invertebrates had vanished. These species have adapted to life in specific conditions—they can handle a moderate amount of sun and wind exposure, but they’re already on the physiological brink. A lift of even 30 centimeters increases the amount of time intertidal organisms have to withstand heat and desiccation stress. At Cape Campbell, the amount of lift was estimated to be closer to two meters.

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Shawn and Paul survey the dying Durv zone (credit: EO).

I thought I’d be prepared for these changes, but I wasn’t. Seeing the Cape, changed as it was, was shocking. My research mates agreed. Paul South, seaweed aficionado, had travelled from Nelson to help Shawn and I for the day. He was surprised by the state of the reef, too, comparing it to an atmosphere that’s suddenly lost most of its oxygen.

“Which would you prefer?” he asked us. “To lose 100% of the atmosphere’s oxygen all at once and be dead immediately, or to be down to 40% oxygen and hang on for a slow decline?”

Looking at the stressed reef around us, the metaphor struck home. It was a grim image, this decline of seaweed communities that were once rich with life.

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The reef, as of January. Lots of Ulva, but no canopy species (credit: Shawn Gerrity).

Since I’ve returned to the States, MERG researchers have continued their sampling trips out to the reefs at Cape Campbell and Kaikoura.  I’ve been following along, taking breaks from the upended politics in this country to check in on the upended reefs in New Zealand. Intertidal communities are still in a state of flux. By now, most of the large canopy-forming seaweeds like Hormosira, Durvilleae, and Carpophyllum have died off completely in the zones they used to dominate. They’ve been replaced by large swathes of weedy Ulva. Bleached coralline turfs are beginning now to break off of the mudstone substrate of the rocky reefs, and the exposed stone is increasingly eroding into a fine silt that coats the intertidal zone. Dead algae is washing up in mats of wrack along the coastline. And the invertebrates? Some limpets remain, and feast readily on the abundant Ulva, but the highly diverse invertebrate communities that existed pre-quake have disappeared— after all, there’s no habitat for them to recolonize. In the most recent update, MERG researchers put it this way: “no obvious ‘recovery’ is happening anywhere so far.”

The changes that have occurred in the seaweed communities are troubling in their own right, but also have consequences for the related human communities, and particularly for the communities of Kaikoura. Kaikoura’s economy rests largely on fishing and tourism, and the uplift throws the future of these industries into question. Key fishery species, like paua (abalone) and crayfish, relied on healthy seaweed forests that have disappeared. Now these species’ populations are at risk. Tourism was hampered on land by the damage to roads into and out of Kaikoura, but it’s been threatened at sea, too: uplift in Kaikoura’s harbor has made it impossible for the popular whale watch boats to access the marina except at high tide. Since the quakes, some progress has been made. Fishery closures are beginning to lift, roads are opening for traffic at specific times of day, and the whale watch is operating tours on a limited basis. Still, the dramatic change to the coastline has been sorely felt by local communities.

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Dredging Kaikoura’s harbor to allow ship passage (credit: Shawn Gerrity).

According to ecological theory, the new intertidal zone will develop again into stable, diverse seaweed communities if given enough time. Human infrastructure, too, will likely be rebuilt to a functional state, if given enough funding. One could predict that, in a few years or decades, the coastal communities of Kaikoura and Cape Campbell will have fully “recovered”.

But in observing the earthquake and its impacts, it’s impossible not to be reminded of the future facing our coastlines. In the coming decades, coastal communities will be subject to an unrelenting slew of physical changes just as stressful as the uplift— sea level rise, sea temperature warming, stronger hurricanes, lengthier droughts, and on and on and on. And I think, just as with the earthquake, we’ll see those changes reverberate back and forth between ecological communities and human ones. In a point of crisis, those connections will become more evident than ever.

But maybe there’s a role for human ecologists to identify those links before the crisis point is reached, and start now to provide data and policy and communication and art to reveal and strengthen them. And maybe that knowledge will help contribute to resilience when these crises arrive. I really don’t know— but maybe.

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What we are doing with our winter break

by Chris Petersen

It is winter break and my students are dispersed around the country and the world. I’ve just come back from a family visit to California, and wanted to give a flavor of what fall term into winter break actually means for COA students. I’ve asked all of my advisees to send along a picture, and have heard from everyone minus one student that is traveling somewhere around the US at the moment.

There was no linear way to go through who is off doing what and where, so I just started with the two students that have been off to conferences.  Abby Barrows, my grad student, was at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in early December where she gave a talk on her microplastics research,  work that is cosponsored with Adventure Scientists (this is such a cool project, but we will devote a post to it next year -chunks of it form the basis for her Master’s thesis).  She came back from the South Pacific last month and is off to South America for another cruise in February, with an EPA conference snuck in there somewhere. My only fear for Abby is that she is so busy between conferences and expeditions, that she won’t find the time to write up her thesis. It’s not the worst problem.  Meanwhile, one of my two seniors, Michelle Pazmino, is finishing up a tutorial on the UN Conference on Biological Diversity  with COA faculty Doreen Stabinsky and Ken Cline, which meant a December trip to Cancun to attend the meeting.

Michelle’s next stop will be going back home to Quito, and then off to the Galapagos to do her senior project in the Galapagos Marine Reserve. She will be talking with lobster fishermen seeing how they view the most recent changes in fisheries management. She is doing this under the mentorship of Mauricio Castrejón from Conservation International, who did the same interviews with fishermen ten years ago, before the current management scheme was implemented.

I do miss the tropics, and two of my students spent the fall working in programs in much warmer weather. Heather Sieger was on a Sea Semester program in the South Pacific, while Rose Edwards was diving in the Turks & Caicos with a School for Field Studies program.  Rose is off on a Sea Semester trip to New Zealand in January, while Heather is coming back and will be my research assistant here starting winter term. My third student doing a program, Maxim Lowe, is in Taiwan doing a COA term with Bonnie Tai and Suzanne Morse with nine other students. The picture I’ve included from Maxim is of part of the Taiwanese coastline that has been heavily armored with concrete blocks to help prevent inland erosion and damage from storms. He sent me a bunch of beautiful landscapes with mountains and trees and yet I picked the one dominated by concrete because it had the ocean.

Three other students are off doing pre-med/vet/health stuff over break.  Renate Braathen is doing German language classes in Göttingen, which is part of her independent study with Gray Cox. She hopes to go to veterinary school in Germany after graduation.  For the picture, she told me “I’m sitting by the statue of Gänseliesel, which is the most famous landmark in Göttingen. The tradition is that when a student completes his or her PhD, they climb the fountain and kiss the statue.” Meanwhile, Siobhan Rickert, another pre-vet student, is off in California working with a horse vet in the Bay Area, in this picture she is using a laser as part of ‘laser therapy’ which is supposed to improve blood flow to targeted areas and promote healing (hence the cool glasses). Until I see the data I’m a bit skeptical (horse owners can get the placebo effect too).  My other senior, Porcia Manandhar, is back in Nepal for a couple of months (with Annapurna in the background of her selfie) doing her senior project looking at women with HIV/AIDS experience the medical system that has both public and private hospitals. This hasn’t been trivial, Porcia had to go through both the school’s research ethics panel but also had to get permission from the government to do this work. She has both in hand and is going for it in Katmandu.

 

Meanwhile, several of my advisees are staying close to (their) homes and spending time with parents or friends.  My newest advisee, Emma Ober (with the bright scarf), sent a picture hiking with her mom up Mad River Glen to go skiing.  Teagan is also back in Vermont, working on a couple of Gloucester Gull dories with her dad, I must say that these are very sleek looking dories.

Katie Clark is back in California, after spending time with her mom’s second grade class in Oregon.  She is currently in the bay area, and I’m guessing that this picture might be from Pt. Reyes (?), which has a stunning shoreline.  Meanwhile, Kenya Perry is finishing up an internship in Brunswick at a Natural Food store (Morning Glory), but spends her off time back at the treehouse she built this summer (and sometimes playing cello).  Kenya will be back in the winter to focus on nutrition and outdoor education.  Finally, Morgan Heckerd left Maine and spent some time at Standing Rock, but now is back on the Maine Coast for Christmas.

In the language of COA we would call all of these things expeditionary. About half of these students used part of their $1800 expeditionary fund to help support their work.  I want to thank all of the other faculty that have helped my students get these opportunities, Netta van Vliet, Ken Cline, Doreen Stabinsky, Bonnie Tai, Gray Cox, and Suzanne Morse all have official roles with at least one of these opportunities and I’m sure many faculty played a hand in helping students get this happening.

We often talk about the importance of what COA students do outside of class as being as important as what they do in their classes. There is certainly truth to that, although there are times when I think its hard to tell the difference between work inside and outside of the classroom. Counting through these students, 7 of the 13 have been doing  work off campus that is part of a class, internship, or senior project.

For all of my advisees, their general backgrounds and what they are trying to accomplish are also listed on my faculty website under current advisees, except for Heather who sneaks in by being my workstudy.  Perhaps I need to do those updates soon guys, I promise any new info you have sent or send me soon will get put in pronto.

To all of my current advisees, thanks for sending stuff in, and Amrita, I’m expecting to hear from you when you get back from your jaunt around the U.S. I’m quite proud of all of these students, and in my imagination I sometimes believe that I actually have something to do with their accomplishments. Yeah, but really I mostly just get out of their way.  Again, I’m a bit envious of the lives they are leading, and I would be even more envious, except that Thursday night my wife and two daughters all made it back to our house in Bar Harbor, and we just went into the backyard and cut a tree, which is now rocking the living room (but is in need of some ornaments).  Good times.  I’ll pair it up with a Christmas tree worm from Rose, and call it a night.  Time to go play games with my family (it looks like anagrams, I’m about to be killed).  Happy holidays everyone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Times Are a Changin!

Editor’s note: This is the sixth a series of posts from students in the class Fisheries, Fishermen, and Fishing Communities, or as the students say, Fish, Fish, Fish.  This class is co-taught be me and my colleague Natalie Springuel, a Maine Sea Grant marine extension associate based out of COA. The class had its final presentations June 3rd, but we are still getting a couple of our last blogposts up – Chris Petersen

Savannah Bryant and Emma Kimball

We were staying the night at the Cobscook Bay State Park campgrounds. We had a beautiful campsite with a view of the water. A land bar connected our campground to a small island just offshore. The site was more than perfect to soak up the natural scenery. Looking out over this serene landscape I marveled at its beauty: the evergreens, the rockweed slowly swaying with the tide, and the clouds moving in waves across the sky. Loon calls could be heard in the distance as night fell. Everything seemed still. Despite its stillness, I had to wonder if this quiet little bay was as stagnant and constant as it appeared. How different was the landscape we looked upon from that of the first settler who laid eyes on this place? I guess I shall never know. But what I do know is that things change with time, constantly shifting and transforming.

Despite a little rain over the night, we rose up in the morning with good spirits, bagels and hot beverages. We were heading to the Pennamaquan River fish ladder in Pembroke where we were to meet with Chris Bartlett, an Eastport local and associate of Maine Sea Grant. We were there to witness a great natural phenomenon; the migration of thousands of alewives (Alosa pseudoharengus), a species of river herring, swimming upstream to spawn.

Alewives are anadromous, meaning they spend most of their life in the sea and travel up freshwater systems to spawn. They are a Maine native and have been fished for thousands of years. However, much has changed in those years. This thousands-year-old ritual has struggled in the forms of dams, pollution, and overfishing.

At first invisible from the glare of the sky, the fish gradually began to emerge from the brown water, their silvery underbellies catching the light. The more you looked the greater the numbers grew. Thousands of fish persevering nature’s greatest endurance workout. Bit by bit the fish dart and leap to the next height of falls. The river was so thick with fish a couple of students were able to pluck them from the water with their bare hands. To say that we were excited is an understatement. We made a video that is viewable on the COA marine biology facebook page (Posted June 10).

According to Bartlett 100,000 fish made their migration along this point the previous year. This however is only a small percentage of the greater run it once was. Imagine what this run would have looked like before colonial settlement! However, at the same time, to see these fish in such numbers performing this great feat was both inspiring and hopeful. Thanks to the efforts of individuals like Bartlett, local volunteers, communities, and organizations there is now a chance for change. While time can take away, it can also rebuild, and this fish run is proof of that, and it’s not the only one.

Closer to home, in Somesville, there is another alewife run. Certainly, it does not boast as great of numbers as the Pennamaquan, but it’s growing. Through the efforts of the college, the Somes-Meynell Sanctuary, and local volunteers we have worked to conserve and restore what once was, and we have previously written about our work in Somesville. It is our hope that one day hundreds of thousands of fish will also return to that stream to continue and preserve this great tradition.

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Lunch in Lubec. Photo: Chris Petersen

After visiting the fish ladder, we drove about half an hour to the small, quaint town of Lubec. We had a lovely lunch near the pier, looking out over a picturesque harbor with the lobster boats perfectly set at anchor. Canada was just on the other side of the channel. You might have even been able to throw a stone and have it reach the other side. While the water looked tempting and the bridge was right there, there were many legal reasons why we chose not to take our chances.

As we made our way to our next rendezvous, we were struck by the number of empty, dilapidated buildings balancing on barnacle covered posts. With a population of 1,300 people, life still goes about its daily routine, but it was clear that much had changed in this town. These old buildings were once canneries and smoke houses and Lubec a flourishing, fishing town. However, they have gone silent and only time will tell when some of them will be washed away by the tides. However, one of these buildings, the old McCurdy Smokehouse, has since been transformed into a museum, allowing visitors such as ourselves, the chance to travel back in time and experience what it would have been like.

McCurdy Smokehouse:

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Snapshot into the past. Photo credit: McCurdy’s smokehouse museum

The last of its kind in Downeast Maine, McCurdy’s closed in 1991 and is now preserved as a museum open to the public. One plaque in the exhibit indicated that the smokehouse has been standing in the intertidal since 1911! We had the best luck of the day when our tour guide had to cancel and at the last minute John P. McCurdy, the previous owner agreed to come down and give us a tour.  It was really wonderful to get the tour from the last owner of the smokehouse, Mr. McCurdy talked about everything from the labor that went into maintaining a sturdy smokehouse–ensuring that the wooden pilings beneath the building were frequently replaced, to who did what jobs and the ebb and flow of the yearly work cycle.

On display at McCurdy’s are various artifacts from when the smokehouse was in use–from the sticks used to hang the smoking herring, to the wooden boxes at the packing station to the dip nets and the spudgers (devices for mixing the brining herring) we were able to get a feeling for the inner workings of the industry. Also on display is an exhibit by photographer Frank Van Riper that details the history of the herring fishery and smoking industry.

The exhibit gave us an overview of the historical fishery, and Mr. McCurdy showed us around, explaining his time in the smoking industry.

The Process of Smoking Herring:

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Model of a weir at the smokehouse. Photo: Natalie Springuel

A small model gave us a peek at how fishermen used to catch herring–The herring weir is a heart shaped net staked into the ground that enables fishermen to ensnare their catch. The fish swim into the opening at the top, cannot exit, and are then scooped up by the fishermen in boats.

The herring were then pumped out of the boats and into the 24 huge brine tanks in McCurdy’s pickling shed where they sat for several days, pickling in a strong salt solution.

Next, herring were removed from the brine, and strung side by side (through the gills) onto wooden sticks.

Before being smoked, the fish needed to dry and were set hanging in the sun. Finally, hundreds of sticks of dried, salted herring would be hung in the smokehouse. Personally, I wondered how on earth anyone could maintain a fire in a wooden building without the risk of fire. Still, it was done– one aspect being that the floor was made of gravel, not wood.

Smoking entailed hanging the fish above a smoldering fire, and frequently rotating their placement to achieve an evenly smoked product.

The final product was then skinned and packed in wooden boxes for shipping. A great deal of McCurdy’s herring travelled all the way to areas such as New York and Chicago where it was consumed at bars–a great salty snack to go with a cold beer.

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John McCurdy explaining how herring were processed in the smokehouse. Photo: Natalie Springuel

Mr. McCurdy recounted his experience during the decline of the industry. There used to be several smoking and packing facilities in Lubec, but by the 1960’s there were only two–McCurdy’s and one other. Over time fish numbers had declined and buying patterns had shifted. Several things led to the final closing of the smokehouse, from changing patterns of food preferences to FDA requirements for handling of fish. so the plant closed twenty-five years ago when Mr McCurdy was in his 60’s… although the Canadians were still using the same herring smoking process and sending it across to the United States! he told us.

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View of cannery building. Credit: Natalie Springuel

The decline of Maine’s smokehouses can also be attributed to a decline in the fish themselves, the Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus). The atlantic herring, (after the American lobster), is one of Maine’s most abundant fisheries–serving historically as a staple in the state’s diet, but now primarily as bait in the lobster industry. Yes, there are still schools of herring that dart about in Maine’s waters, but Mr. McCurdy briefly recounted an important story to us. His son is a fisherman, he told us, and Mr. McCurdy had the opportunity one day to accompany him. First off, herring are no longer caught in nearshore passive nets (weirs), but by offshore trawlers (large boats with nets that are able to engulf a whole school of herring in one gulp). Mr McCurdy described the technology used to accomplish this–when a school of herring draws near, they show up red on the screen and the fishermen can catch every last one. They are then pumped aboard the ship through a vacuum—a difficult way to sustain our fisheries for future generations.

In many ways, the story of McCurdy and Lubec reminds us of the alewives. The town is not what it once was but there is still space to grow. Since the decline of the fisheries, one of the buildings has been outfitted as an art gallery. In other nearby communities, art has gradually developed as part of the identity of these old fishing towns and has contributed greatly to the tourism industry in these areas. Such communities have been able to adapt and explore new alternatives to sustaining themselves, while holding onto and celebrating their rich history. Just as the alewives may yet return in the numbers they once ran, we hope that Lubec and other towns like it will flourish with new life.

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A Trip Downeast: Salmon, Coasties, and Camping

Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of posts from students in the class Fisheries, Fishermen, and Fishing Communities, or as the students say, Fish, Fish, Fish.  This class is co-taught be me and my colleague Natalie Springuel, a Maine Sea Grant marine extension associate based out of COA. The class had its final presentations June 3rd, but we are still getting a couple of our last blogposts up – Chris Petersen

By Michael Cornish and Nicholas Tonti

At around 11 o’clock on Friday, May 13th, Chris Petersen and Natalie Springuel’s class Fisheries, Fisherman, and Fishing Communities loaded into two College of the Atlantic vans and headed Downeast for a weekend field trip to the easternmost city in the United States, Eastport ME. Eastport is a historic fishing and canning community on the Cobscook bay that is now home to numerous lobster, scallop, elver, clam, and urchin fishermen, several salmon aquaculture installations owned and operated by Cooke Aquaculture of Brunswick, Canada, and a tight-knit arts community. We made the trip hoping that we would be able to experience the town as it were 100 years ago, with brick canneries and white fishing boats dotting the coast, as well as the way it is now with modern fishing and aquaculture practices at work. We hoped that the trip would give us a sense of what it was not only like to live in an isolated fishing community but also how it has changed and the problems that were, and are, currently threatening that way of life.

After a two-and-a-half hour drive from the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, we met up with the wonderfully enthusiastic Chris Bartlett of Maine Sea Grant, and immediately departed from the port, taking the short drive to Cooke Aquaculture wherewhere Butch Harris, a fisherman and the owner the tour company Eastport Windjammers met us with his 47″ lobster boat to take out to the salmon pens

Cooke Aquaculture

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Dave Morang, manager of Cooke Farms, Eastport (center) and Kevin Murray, site manager give an overview of their aquaculture process. Meret is wondering where the sails are on this strange boat. Photo credit: Michael Cornish

We were welcomed to the Cooke Aquaculture facility in Broad Cove by manager Dave Morang. Morang was happy to respond to questions asked by our class, such as: “how does the Eastport community view Cooke Aquaculture?” or “do you ever cast a line in the pens and fish?”. All jokes aside, our class truly loved gaining more knowledge on aquaculture and the community of Eastport. The salmon were fed automatically by rotating arms that evenly tossed food throughout the pen’s water surface. It was interesting to see how new technological innovations, such as camera-monitored feeding equipment and “robot arms” to clean fowling, have really modernized the industry. As the feeders were twirling away, Morang told us about the days where they had to hand feed all of the Atlantic salmon, a process in which he said used to take all day. Morang and the other Cooke employees did not hide their happiness about not having to do that tedious work any more.
These operations are much larger than the initial salmon aquaculture done here in the 1980s. As the herring pellets hit the surface of the water the salmon jumped and thrashed for the feed, living up to their Latin name, meaning “great leaper.” The site that we visited had twenty pens, each 8 meters deep by 30 meters across and containing 25,000 four-pound Atlantic salmon. This adds up to 100,000 pounds of fish per pen, and they were small, only weighing 4 pounds each!

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Fish pens with herring gulls in Broad Cove. Photo: Michael Cornish

The fish currently held in the pens will not be ready to harvest until they reach at least ten pounds. The salmons’ voyage in the pens begins when they are smolt. Cooke raises the fish from eggs until they reach the smolt stage, when fish typically leave freshwater and begin their oceanic period. However, Atlantic salmon smolt can not be collected from any river in the wild because of their low population. Cooke has its own hatchery and adults, with these Atlantic salmon, Cooke has done selective breeding to maximize a variety of aspects of the fish, from speed of growth to the ultimate size of the salmon.

Morang spent a great deal of time comparing new aquaculture to old aquaculture. However, even with all of the advances there are still a lot of vulnerabilities within the industry. For example, infectious salmon anemia (ISA) has been following Cooke throughout their time farming salmon, and is currently an issue in some facilities in Canada and South America. ISA is a deadly virus to salmon. And in Canada it is illegal to sell the fish when they have been affected by the disease. The disease hit the bay in the mid 2000’s, and now Cooke uses several strategies to minimize the risk, including raising same-age cohorts in all the pens in a given year, letting areas lay fallow (no fish) once a group is harvested, and vaccinating every fish by hand when they are smolt. The disease has not been back to Broad Cove since 2008, but there are no guarantees in aquaculture or agriculture. When the disease hit in the past, it devastated the Cooke facility and the Eastport community, putting jobs and livelihoods in jeopardy.

All photos above by Natalie Springuel 

With three other facilities in Cobscook Bay, Cooke Aquaculture has over one million fish to look after. With this large biomass of fish, Cooke needs a number of employees. Cooke employs 35 people in Eastport, a town of 1,293. That is about three percent of Eastport’s population, meaning that the jobs would be equivalent to how many employees College of the Atlantic has in a town like Bar Harbor. Cooke doesn’t end its reach in Eastport, they employ over 200 people in Washington County, leading them to claim that they are the second largest employer in Downeast, Maine. Not only do they pay well, but a job with Cooke also includes benefits and insurance, leading many to stay with the company year after year.

We enjoyed the people and town of Eastport and their hospitality quite a lot. Our boat captain, Butch Harris, was happy to talk about his history in the Eastport fisheries, and his addition of ecotourism to his business model.  Another great example of the openness of the community happened when we returned the port authority building where we were met by a member of the Eastport Coast Guard named Kyle who invited us on an impromptu tour of their boats led by his staff, who answered questions ranging from inspection of fishing boats to horsepower, tours of duty and future plans. The boats were spick and span with barely a dust particle to be found anywhere, an interesting contrast to the fishing vessels in the harbor that bore the scars of their occupation. In the background they were rebuilding the pier that collapsed in December 2014.

After wandering through the town and checking out art galleries, we took a thirty-minute drive to the Cobscook State Park where we made camp for the night. Once we set up camp we were re-joined by Chris Bartlett and his two daughters who graciously answered many of our questions from those about the aquaculture facility and town of Eastport to ones about his past and personal connections and stories to these places. Having him at the camp as a resource gave us more perspective on the people and place, from the role of the coast guard in helping to find a missing clammer to the challenges the community faces over natural resource use and conflicts on clamflats. Overall Chris was an amazing resource that we not only got to hear from during our time in Eastport, but also got to bring us to an active alewife run (blogpost coming soon).

First and foremost we would like to thank Chris Bartlett for helping to facilitate this trip as well as being a fantastic resource for the class. We would also like to thank Dave Morang for opening his business to us and sharing his daily life as a salmon farmer in Maine as well as Butch Harris who graciously gave us a tour of the salmon pens in his boat.

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The Town Dock; Where Everything Ends and Where Everything Begins

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of posts from students in the class Fisheries, Fishermen, and Fishing Communities, or as the students say, Fish, Fish, Fish.  This class is co-taught be me and my colleague Natalie Springuel, a Maine Sea Grant marine extension associate based out of COA – Chris Petersen

by Leah Rubin

dave-starting-tour-cropped

Dave Thomas leading COA students over to the Cranberry Isles Lobster Co-op. Photo: Natalie Springuel

A seal scapula lay on the sand below the dock. Next to our group was a school bus-sized freezer and the wind carried the fresh bait smell right to my nostrils. Lazily swatting small black flies from my face, I listened to Dave Thomas, a local lobsterman and a member of Little Cranberry Lobster, the island’s lobster Co-op, while taking in the surroundings. From the boat, the town of Islesford, on Little Cranberry Island, had looked much like Mount Desert Island. But now, on the pier, I could see that few buildings sat further inland, there were lobster traps stacked across an entire field and no trash was scattered along the beach. Dave walked us under an aluminum roof, and overhead the herring gulls screeched. In the room underneath were barrels of bait: redfish racks, skate, and herring.

Bait

The bait sold by the Co-op. Photo by Natalie Springuel

Dave talked to us about the island’s lobster co-op. Laughing, he allowed that it is a “fine communist plot that works for us.” He mentioned a number of common themes: concern about climate change which has pushed many lobsters further offshore, the importance of a community-supported fishery, and a lack of diverse fisheries. However, I wasn’t expecting him to stress the importance of understanding economics and business. In my mind, lobstering seems almost romantic. The archetype of a Maine lobsterman, accent and all, is clear in my mind and the skills which occur to me are an ability to do hard physical labor for long hours and having a fierce understanding of the ocean. I do not usually associate lobstermen, or anyone outside of an office job, with an acute sense of the market system, an obvious failure on my part to understand the complexity and difficulty of lobstering. Dave walked our group through the 2008 financial crisis, detailing where the lobsters caught in Maine go once brought to shore, from Canada to be processed and then as far as China to be eaten. Dave lamented that you “gotta be big to survive” in today’s global fishing market. Handing us Little Cranberry Lobster pamphlets, he told us the Co-op’s aim is to “brand” their lobsters, thereby achieving a reliable and profitable system.

Arriving in Northeast Harbor an hour earlier, the Fishermen, Fisheries, and Fishing Communities class had clambered out of the vans and loaded ourselves onto the Osprey. We met Nick Battista and Rebecca Clark Uchenna from the Island Institute, who introduced themselves and outlined the work they do. The Island Institute aims to help sustain Maine islands through economic development, education, and marine resources. The Island Institute and COA have a unique connection, one that allows COA to teach classes such as sustainable energy on Samso Island off of Denmark’s coast. They understand the things an island community needs to sustain its population and told us about the island’s general store, school, library, and post office.

Clockwise from top left. Dave, Nick, Rebecca and student Teagan White look at maps, traps on the green, students in the coop. Photos above by Natalie Springuel.

While wandering around the island with three friends, we ran into a sweet couple who had retired to the island years ago. While they may be from “away,” they have made Islesford their home. The man has checked out every James Patterson novel from the library and the woman has learned how to get the ingredients she needs when she wants to try new recipes. Watercress soup was on the menu that night, ingredients sent on the ferry by their daughter on Mount Desert Island. We had noticed that there weren’t many people walking around, and asked if that was normal for a Friday at 2:45. The couple bemoaned the closing of the general shop; the owner is ill. There were concerns about mail service changing, the restaurant owner retiring and cycling of the school between Little and Great Cranberry. We were surprised to hear about so much potential change, we thought of this as a small, isolated island where things always stayed the same, and what we saw were dynamic changes, including some institutions that seemed critical for the island’s sense of community. It seemed like most of the factors which we had been taught uphold an island community were vulnerable. We thanked the couple for the information, and as we turned to go they invited us to come visit in the summer. I look forward to coming back to visit, and see how these issues have been resolved.

Before heading back home, Roz Rea, the project coordinator for the Isleford Historical Museum “Boats and Bouys” exhibit gave us a tour. There were numerous portraits of the island’s fishermen with their families, boats and gear. Historical aspects included an old sea chantey, descriptions of closed fisheries and timeworn photographs of the community. This museum expertly connected the modern island we had just explored to the Little Cranberry of the past.

Osprey

Nick Battista talking with COA students in the FFF class. Left to right, author Leah Rubin, Nick, Teagan White, Melissa Chan listen while Elsa Kern-Lovick looks for wildlife. Photo by Natalie Springuel.

When I returned to the boat I asked Nick what he thought about the closing businesses. He confidently said that others would move in and make up the gap by starting new businesses and picking up old ones. I assumed that the Island Institute would immediately rush in and perhaps start up their own store or restaurant to help jumpstart the economy. However, while the Island Institute makes available resources and education for those who hope to start or fix businesses Nick said, in layman’s terms, that it wasn’t the organization’s role and that islands don’t want or need organizations to become that intrusive, and I think I now understand why. Even if they could airdrop a new store owner or bring the mail to the island themselves, the Island Institute wouldn’t because that is not sustainable; it is Islesford who must work together to create methods which work for their own community, as they have been for as long as their community has been around.

This field trip has encouraged me to look into becoming an Island fellow through the Island Institute. The program places college graduates on islands to work on community-identified programs. This would be an amazing opportunity for myself to learn more from Maine’s unique and culturally rich island communities.

Group

The FFF class at the stern of the Osprey with Toby (Osprey’s captain) in the back left, Nick, Rebecca and Roz. Photo: Matt Messina.

Editors note: Since our May 6 trip to Islesford, the Washington Post  has published a nice article on Little Cranberry Lobster and their work on finding high-end markets, as far away as China. 

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Never Smelt So Good: The 16th Annual Smelt Fry & Fisheries Celebration

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of posts from students in the class Fisheries, Fishermen, and Fishing Communities, or as the students say, Fish, Fish, Fish.  This class is co-taught be me and my colleague Natalie Springuel, a Maine Sea Grant marine extension associate based out of COA – Chris 

By: Lindsey Jones, C.J. Pellegrini, Elsa Kern-Lovick

Executive Director of the Downeast Salmon Federation, Dwayne Shaw giving the class information about the area and the work the DSF does

Executive Director of the Downeast Salmon Federation, Dwayne Shaw giving the class information about the area and the work the DSF does. This is the beautiful view from the back porch of the DSF office, which overlooks the Pleasant River at the site of the former dam. Photo credit: Natalie Springuel

Last Saturday, April 16th, our Fisheries, Fishermen, and Fishing Communities class attended the annual smelt fry held in Columbia Falls, Maine, where we all had a great time, filling our bellies with smelt and even learning a few things while at it!

The smelt dinner plate - fried smelt, cole slaw, beans, and a dinner roll, not pictured is the delicious blueberry cobbler with whipped cream that was included

The smelt dinner plate – fried smelt, cole slaw, beans, and a dinner roll, not pictured is the delicious blueberry cobbler with whipped cream that was included. Photo credit: Lindsey Jones

For sixteen years, the Downeast Salmon Federation (DSF) has held its annual smelt fry in Columbia Falls, in Washington county, Maine, and each year the community event grows in size and turnout. The Smelt Fry is an effective way to educate the visitors about the Downeast Salmon Federation’s efforts to reestablish the Atlantic salmon population, but is also a wonderful way to bring the community together. Community events like this facilitate the sharing of stories, provide a place to shake off the winter frost and a time to meet family, friends, neighbors, and strangers over a delicious Maine meal.

The smelt breading and frying station at the Downeast Salmon Federation’s Annual Smelt Fry and Fisheries Celebration  Photo credit - Chris Petersen

The smelt breading and frying station at the Downeast Salmon Federation’s Annual Smelt Fry and Fisheries Celebration Photo credit – Chris Petersen

Our Fisheries, Fishermen, and Fishing Communities course at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor travelled to Columbia Falls for the smelt fry to volunteer at the event and speak with community members about the local fisheries. Students handed out popcorn in the historic Union Hall, cooked hot dogs in the sun, washed dishes, greeted event-goers, and breaded smelt for frying. In volunteering, students assisted the local community members who make an event like this possible. One student breaded smelt with two sisters who have been breading and frying smelt since the event began sixteen years ago. The sisters described the process of frying smelt under a tent in a small fryer in the early years of the event. Now, with a few more breaders and a much larger fryer, they provide the delicious fried fish to hundreds of attendees. After an especially warm and sunny day spent at the event, the students returned home with new knowledge about Atlantic salmon, smelt, sustainable fishing, the Pleasant River Dam and the community of Columbia Falls.

According to a hatchery worker, these are spent smelt eggs that were found along the banks of the Pleasant River estuary

According to a hatchery worker, these are spent smelt eggs that were found along the banks of the Pleasant River estuary. Photo Credit: C.J. Pellegrini

The featured fish of the day, rainbow smelt (Osmerus mordax), are small anadromous fish – meaning that they migrate from saltwater to freshwater to spawn. They spend most of the year within a mile from the coast but in early spring, before the ice breaks up, smelt move into freshwater creeks and begin spawning when the water temperatures are above 40°F. They usually congregate in coastal streams and rivers at night above the head of the tide. The female fish is attended by several males who fertilize her sticky eggs as she lays them on the substrate. It is not uncommon for rainbow smelt to visit several freshwater rivers during the spawning season, however this mainly depends on distance between the river mouths. Depending on the water temperature, the baby smelt hatch from their eggs within 16 to 25 days and drift out to sea.

Maine has had a long commercial smelt fishing history, however as early as 1863 people here already knew that smelt populations were declining. During that time the annual catch rates were more than one million pounds per year and by the 1940’s that number had abruptly dropped. In 2004, smelt were listed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as a species of concern. Today, Maine still supports a small commercial smelt industry however catch limits have waned in comparison to those of the past.

“Washington County is the last stronghold for smelt and many other sea-run fish.  Efforts to monitor and restore our local smelt populations have helped to keep the fishery open for current and future generations to enjoy.” -Downeast Salmon Federation’s pamphlet

Anadromous Fish Recovery in Maine

The smelt fry was organized by the Downeast Salmon Federation (DSF), not the “downeast smelt federation” because smelts aren’t quite famous enough to warrant the devoted efforts of an entire organization. The DSF, while initially focused on Atlantic salmon, also works to support the recovery of other fish species and their habitats along rivers in eastern Maine.  The DSF is a non-profit group run out of Columbia Falls, where the smelt fry event was held.  Their mission is “to conserve wild Atlantic salmon and its habitat. To that end, we work to restore a viable sports fishery for all to enjoy. DSF is committed to protect important river, scenic, recreational and ecological resources in eastern Maine.”

Migrating adult Atlantic salmon

Migrating adult Atlantic salmon. Photo Credit: Maine Atlantic Salmon Commission

Like the rainbow smelt, Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) are an anadromous fish. After spending about two years at sea, adult salmon travel over 2,000 miles from their feeding grounds off the coast of Greenland and–astonishingly–are able to find their way back to the very same river that they were born in. These spawning runs, as they are called, were historically very prolific along the whole New England coastline. However, due to the construction of dams, pollution, and overfishing, Atlantic salmon no longer inhabit their historic range in the United States except for here in the state of Maine. And yet, even in Maine, they are completely extinct from 14 of the state’s watersheds leaving populations hanging on in only eight remaining river systems. Since the year 2000, Atlantic salmon have been listed as an endangered species.

Releasing fry into the Pleasant River

Releasing fry into the Pleasant River. Photo Credit: Pleasant River Hatchery

One important aspect of the DSF’s work is to provide education programs in downeast Maine. A unique program they run, called Salmon in Schools  brings salmon eggs from the hatcheries into local schools, where students are directly involved in raising and releasing the salmon once they grow into the fry stage.  At the event on Saturday, a few students from our class had the pleasure of meeting some high school students that participated in this program and put our knowledge of salmon to shame.  Through this program, the smelt fry, and many others, it was evident that the DSF is really ingrained in the community and works hard to get community members involved in the protection of the local fishery resources.

Downeast Salmon Federation headquarters in Columbia Falls, Maine, the site of the Annual Smelt Fry & Fisheries Celebration.  The Pleasant River Salmon Hatchery is housed in the main building pictured, the river just behind

Downeast Salmon Federation headquarters in Columbia Falls, Maine, the site of the Annual Smelt Fry & Fisheries Celebration. The Pleasant River Salmon Hatchery is housed in the main building pictured, the river just behind. Photo credit: Natalie Springuel

Upon our class’s arrival to the smelt fry, Dwayne Shaw, Executive Director of DSF, kindly offered to give us an introduction to the area and the work that DSF does to protect fish and the marine environment in eastern Maine. Dwayne told our class about the Columbia Falls Dam, which was once a hydroelectric power plant. The dam was removed in 1988 and at its site lies the current DSF office and salmon hatchery. Dams are major roadblocks to fish passage, and without a proper fish ladder, the movement of diadromous fish is blocked. Our trip to work on the Somesville fish ladder the day before gave us a good preface to this topic; see the blog post about it here. The DSF is working hard to advocate for the removal of other dams in the rivers of eastern Maine to restore important salmon or anadromous fish habitat.

One of the best things to do at the smelt fry (from a biologist’s perspective at least) is to take a tour through DSF’s Atlantic salmon hatchery.Though it might not look like much from the outside, inside the historic small building and down in the basement you’ll find the sizeable Pleasant River Hatchery for Atlantic salmon. We were given an informative tour of the hatchery by the DSF Hatchery Supervisor, Kyle Winslow. To our amazement, Kyle pointed to a tank that was no bigger than a bathtub, called a salmon nest, and said that there were about 60,000 salmon alevin in there! Alevin is the term for newly hatched salmon, who spend up to 30 days lying between the spaces of the gravel and growing from the nutrients of their yolk sac, attached to the underside of their body.

The juvenile salmon, known as “fry” and later “parr”, live up to 3 years in freshwater feeding on aquatic invertebrates before they leave for the open ocean. From the DSF Hatchery, salmon fry will be released in May right into the adjacent Pleasant River. This input of hundreds of thousands of healthy young salmon will help the endangered populations of salmon recover in the rivers of Maine, so that one day there can once again be a strong, self-sustaining population of Atlantic salmon.

COA students from the Fisheries, Fishermen, and Fishing Community class conversing with attendees of the Smelt Fry in Columbia Falls

COA students from the Fisheries, Fishermen, and Fishing Community class conversing with attendees of the Smelt Fry in Columbia Falls. Photo Credit: C.J. Pellegrini

The 16th Annual Smelt Fry and Fisheries Celebration was quite a success in raising awareness for important fish species like smelt and Atlantic salmon that need river systems, and the event brought together members of the Downeast Maine community, whose support for Maine fish is vital to their continued survival. Community events like the smelt fry are important to bring people from various backgrounds together to work towards a collective vision to keep local fisheries healthy for all, while having a great time! Want to help in the recovery of smelt or Atlantic salmon in Maine?  This website has some good ideas and you can visit DSF’s site to find out how to help out with their programs.

Executive Director of the Downeast Salmon Federation, Dwayne Shaw, with Chris Petersen

Executive Director of the Downeast Salmon Federation, Dwayne Shaw, with Chris Petersen. Photo credit: C.J. Pellegrini

Editor postscript: College of the Atlantic and Downeast Salmon Federation are both partners in the Downeast Fisheries Partnership.  Special thanks to Dwayne, Kyle, and the other members of DSF including new staff member and COA alum Brett Ciccotelli for putting on such a great event. 

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Alewives and Spring Cleaning

Editor’s note: This is the second in several posts from students in the class Fisheries, Fishermen, and Fishing Communities, or as the students say, Fish, Fish, Fish.  This class is co-taught be me and my colleague Natalie Springuel, a Maine Sea Grant marine extension associate based out of COA – Chris 

By: Katie Clark, Melisa Chan, and Meret Jucker

Optimal V for Fish Passageway - Photo Credit - Billy Helprin

Optimal “V” for Fish Passageway – Photo credit – Billy Helprin

On Friday, April 15th, we, as part of the Fisheries, Fishermen, and Fishing Communities class at COA, worked with the Somes-Meynell Wildlife Sanctuary to clean out and rebuild sections of the fish passages in Somesville in preparation for the spring alewife run. As part of our trip, we talked with Billy Helprin (Director of the Sanctuary), Bruce Connery (National Park Service), and Tim Garrity (Executive Director of the MDI Historical Society) about the history of Somesville and the fish passages. What follows is a snapshot of what we learned and experienced!

History of Somesville and Somes Sound

Historic Somes Sound Compared to Present Day - Photo Credit - Natalie Springuel

Historic Somes Harbor Compared to Present Day – Photo Credit – Natalie Springuel.  Inset picture of painting “Bar Island and Mt Desert Mountains from Sommes Settlement” by Fitz Henry Lane, 1850, courtesy Mount Desert Island Historical Society.

 

In 1762, Abraham Somes sailed from Massachusetts to Maine, where he established the earliest European settlement on Mount Desert Island (MDI). As requested by the governor of Massachusetts, which MDI was once a part of, Somes also established mills – sawmills, grist mills, and carding mills – powered by dams built on brooks. The flourishing industry made the town the most populated on the island and catalyzed further development throughout MDI. In honor of his work, the town and the sound adjacent to it were named Somesville and Somes Sound respectively.

Tim Garrity (Executive Director of the Mount Desert Island Historical Society) - Photo Credit - Billy Helprin

Tim Garrity (Executive Director of the Mount Desert Island Historical Society) Explaining the Historical Context of Somesville and Somes Sound – Photo Credit – Billy Helprin

In addition to mills, the geography and depth of Somes Sound made it a strategic place for shipbuilding and loading of materials. Somes Sound was carved out by glaciers, and its steep underwater slopes allowed large ships to enter and dock alongside its banks. The shipbuilding industry boomed in Somesville, and other industries (mills, granite quarries, and logging) expanded, establishing Somesville as one of the most prominent towns on MDI at the time.Today, Somesville is a quiet community with minimal industry where the spring alewife run is the biggest action on the water.

 

 

 

 

Alewives

Alewife - Photo Credit - Deparment of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife (httpmaine.govifwfishingspeciesidentificationalewife.htm)

Alewife –  Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife (http://maine.gov/ifw/fishing/species/identification/alewife.htm)

Alewives, together with blueback herring, are known as river herring. The name river herring reflects their anadromous life-style, which means they spend most of their life in the sea but return to the river, lake, or pond they were born to spawn. River herring are distinct from the related Atlantic herring, which spends its entire life cycle in the ocean.

Adults alewives reach 10 to 12 inches in size. Males usually return to spawn after three years, whereas the females stay at sea a year or two longer. Alewives typically migrate up river from early May to around mid-June on Mount Desert Island. The females lay their eggs in lakes, ponds, and still backwaters. A female alewife can produce between 60,000 to 100,000 eggs. Though these numbers might seem quite high, the actual number of survivors that make it past the juvenile stage can be as low as three.

Historically, almost every coastal river and stream in Maine had alewife runs. As dams were built along Maine rivers and river pollution increased, alewife populations began to decrease greatly. Alewives bring nutrients from the sea upstream and play an important role in the ecosystem of their spawning grounds. The young fish also incorporate phosphorus into their bodies as they grow, reducing the concentration of that nutrient, associated with algal blooms, when they emigrate.

Alewives were mainly caught for human consumption, as they preserved well in salt or when smoked. The introduction of refrigeration and the use of more sophisticated fishing gear, resulted in other fish becoming more popular as food. With ever decreasing populations, the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) put restrictions on the commercial fishery. With an initial 24 hour closure, the hope was to slow the decline. As population counts weren’t showing the desired recovery, 48 and subsequently 72-hour closures were implemented. The current state closures are from 6 a.m. on Thursday to 6 a.m. on Sunday, unless towns have further restrictions or closures.

The Somes-Meynell Wildlife Sanctuary

Over two hundred years after Abraham Somes first arrived on MDI, one of his descendents, Dr. Virginia Somes Sanderson, started working towards the creation of a wildlife sanctuary on Somes Pond. In 1985, this idea became a reality with the creation of the Somes-Meynell Wildlife Sanctuary and the donation of 33 acres along Somes Pond by Dr. Sanderson. Since then, the Sanctuary has grown to over 230 acres in the Somes Pond watershed. The Sanctuary was created for charitable, educational, and scientific purposes, and as such, has undertaken a variety of community and conservation projects in the area.

Billy Helprin (Director of the Somes-Meynell Wildlife Sanctuary) - Photo Credit - Katie Clark

Billy Helprin (Director of the Somes-Meynell Wildlife Sanctuary) – Photo Credit – Katie Clark

One of these projects involves the restoration of anadromous fish species in the Mill Pond watershed, which includes over 1,000 surface acres of lake and stream habitat. This project began in 2005 and brings together a diverse group of organizations and individuals to restore and protect historic runs and nursery habitats of native fish populations, including alewives, American eels, and sea lampreys.

Mikey and Nick (COA Students) with (National Park Service) - Photo Credit - Billy Helprin

Mikey and Nick (COA Students) with (National Park Service) – Photo Credit – Billy Helprin

So far, this project has involved repairing and modifying four deteriorated fishways, installing an educational exhibit at the historic Mill Pond, and collecting data of alewife populations during their spring spawning runs. Volunteers sign up to count the number of alewives that move through the fishways in the spring, and this data is collected and compared to past years to monitor the recovery of the species. Scale samples are also taken and later analyzed by the Division of Marine Resources to assess fish age and number of repeat spawners.

Photo Credit - Natalie Springuel

Photo Credit – Natalie Springuel

And the restoration seems to be working! Almost no fish were counted in 2004 before fishway restoration efforts began. The fish responded rapidly after the passage was improved and stewardship efforts were undertaken. The Somes Pond-Long Pond Alewife population has more than doubled from where they were even five years ago. The numbers have jumped from fewer than 15,000 in 2011 to over 35,000 in 2014. And there are high hopes for the numbers in 2016. Alewives usually take four years to reach sexual maturity. Because of the higher numbers in 2012, the Sanctuary is hoping for a step up in numbers this year, potentially as many as 50,000 alewives! Check out the full data chart here.

The Fish Ladder Field Trip

After the information session with Billy, Bruce, and Tim, the class grabbed waders and hopped in! We were all really excited to get some hands-on experience working with the fishways.

Mill Pond Fish Ladder - Photo Credit - Natalie Springuel

Mill Pond Fish Ladder – Photo Credit – Natalie Springuel

At the fishway directly off of Mill Pond, we worked to clear out branches and other debris caught in the ladder over the winter. This involved using rakes and shovels to feel for blockages. The class removed a large piece of a branch that had been stuck, and the water flowing through the passageway instantly picked up speed. We also found a baffle, one of the wooden sections that make up the fish ladder, that had lost one of its pieces. We removed the broken baffle in preparation for rebuilding and replacement. One of the students laid on top of the baffles to check each one for structural integrity – some of us thought she was crazy!

Chris Petersen and COA Students at the Somes Pond Fish Passageway - Photo Credit - Natalie Springuel

Chris Petersen and COA Students at the Somes Pond Fish Passageway – Photo Credit – Natalie Springuel

At the fishway near the cemetery, the class ran into a bit of trouble. One of the boards put in to prevent alewives from trying to travel straight up the dam instead of using the intended passage was not going in. To deal with this issue, the class got resourceful. Using our classmates and tools as stabilizers, Chris Petersen and Katie Clark jumped on the boards until they sat level on the creek bottom. In the process, Chris flooded his boots, and consequently, his socks, but we were rewarded for our efforts with a perfectly placed dam.

The middle fishway needed the most work by far. Winter storms had broken some of the walls and clogged the brook with debris and shifted stones. The class spent a majority of the time working on this passageway, which included chipping chunks of cement blocks to make a nice V-shaped channel and reinforcing the tumbled down walls. We are delighted to report that the fishway looks much stronger and more open than it did before!

Middle Fish Passageway - Photo Credit - Billy Helprin

Middle Fish Passageway – Photo Credit – Billy Helprin

Despite leaky waders, including Melisa’s right boot, the class had an amazing time helping with the preparation of the fish ladders. It allowed us to hopefully make a tangible impact on a species in our region and to interact with people who put an incredible amount of work into the preservation of this environment for the future. We were able to engage with our community in a way that truly felt important and useful. By literally jumping into the work on the creeks, we were able to engage with the past, present, and future of the Somes Pond alewife run, and that was truly a rewarding experience.

For more information on the history of Somesville, the Somes-Meynell Wildlife Sanctuary, the Somesville Fish Passage Restoration Project, or the other amazing work happening at the Sanctuary, check out the Sanctuary website and the Sanctuary Facebook Page.

The Whole Gang - Photo Credit - Michael Marion (National Park Service)

The Whole Gang – Photo Credit – Michael Marion (National Park Service)

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