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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.