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.






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

Alewife –  Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife (

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)

About marinestudiesatcoa

Chris is a professor of marine ecology and policy at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine
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3 Responses to Alewives and Spring Cleaning

  1. Pingback: Alewives and Spring Cleaning | Frenchman Bay Partners

  2. Pingback: Never Smelt So Good: The 16th Annual Smelt Fry & Fisheries Celebration | Marine Studies at COA

  3. Pingback: Where to see fish this spring - Maine Sea Grant - University of Maine

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