Rights to a River: fish without water and people without food

Editors Note: This Outreach piece was written by College of The Atlantic student, Emma Ober ’20, for an assignment in the COA Fisheries, Fishermen, and Fishing Communities class in the spring of 2019. 

Rights to a River
Fish without water and people without food
by Emma Ober

As the weather finally begins to warm, Maine’s forests start to wake up; bird song fills the air, leaves begin to coat the canopies of trees, and hopeful sprigs of green poke up from the mud. For those who know how to look more closely, similar signs of spring appear as rivers and streams in the area begin to fill with life. 

On Saturday, May 18th, 2019, students from College of the Atlantic’s class on Fisheries, Fishermen, and Fishing Communities traveled to a dam on the Pennamaquan River in Pembroke, Maine. Our host, Chris Bartlett from Maine Sea Grant Extension, showed us around the area and told us about some of his work. Chris also invited Ed Bassett, a member of the Passamaquoddy tribe to talk about his experiences and perspectives. Chris led us down a small path to a rocky area next to the water. Looking down into the the rapids, everything looks completely normal for a few seconds, until suddenly it becomes apparent that what looks like rippling water flowing over smooth rocks is in fact the bodies of hundreds of sleek, gray fish fighting their way upstream. You can put your hand in the water and feel them slide past you as vast densities of these incredible organisms pass through the water. Students were perching on the rocks grabbing fish with their bare hands like some hilarious parody of a brown bear that has replaced it’s fur with a Patagonia puff jacket. 


Hallie Arno (left) and Truth Muller (right) celebrate catching River Herring from below the Pembroke Dam

The fish the students were catching are called River Herring. This is the name given to two species of nearly identical anadromous fish (species that live in the ocean and spawn in freshwater): Alewives, Alosa pseudoharengus, and Blueback Herring, Alosa aestivalis, that both migrate from sea up New England rivers to lay their eggs in freshwater ponds and lakes. The journey undertaken by these small fish is a very difficult and treacherous one, but they continue to push forward every year, returning to the same lake or pond where they were born. In the past, River Herring have run up nearly every river in Maine, however the increase of dams, pollution, and overfishing have wiped them from many rivers and drastically reduced their numbers throughout the state. The fish we were seeing that day were victims of a dam system; unable to migrate up the poorly designed fish ladder because of the high water, the alewives are stuck below passage, waiting for water flow to lower so they will be to travel to their spawning habitat upstream on the Pennamaquan. Struggles like these are commonplace all along the coast, with fish being denied access to their normal breeding grounds by the presence of man-made obstructions like dams. Luckily, many people and organizations throughout the state are working hard to bring back the historical abundances of these fish.


A quick snapshot of the fish as they try to pass the rapids below the dam


Right: The dam and poorly designed fish ladder that the Alewives are trying to get up. Photo Credit: Hallie Arno

Below: One of the fish ladders in the dam system. Fish ladders help fish move up the river past the dam by providing different smaller pools where they can rest from the current before they move up the next “rung.”


Ed Bassett is one of these people; he has served on the Passamaquoddy tribe’s environmental department since he was hired in 2002 because of his GIS and mapping expertise. He was generous enough to join us on Saturday and sat at a picnic table with the class to discuss his history and the projects he is doing with resource management. Much of Ed’s work with the department has been focused on alewives. However, Ed shared that his first interaction with alewife fish management was not necessarily that positive, at least in terms of legal consequences. One day Ed was canoeing with a friend on one of the rivers in Downeast Maine and came across a chicken-wire dam that private landowners had put up to capture alewives in the river behind their house. Seeing all the fish running up into the dam, Ed acted on his first instinct and broke open the wire to let the fish through. The young Ed was caught and reprimanded for tampering with private property. Luckily, no one pressed charges, and all Ed had to do was to repair the damages. “I shouldn’t have done that,” he told our class, “but I just got so emotional seeing the fish blocked from migrating.”
Today, Ed is just as passionate, but a bit less impulsive with his work. He still does work to report and take down illegal dams, but this is done through legal channels with the tribal council and other conservation groups. “I don’t want to cause trouble these days, I just want to work with people,” Ed says.


Ed Bassett talking to me and another student about his tribe’s history with the state government. Ed is holding a device that lets him place an underwater camera in the river and send live video to his phone of the fish swimming by. Photo credit: Chris Petersen

Unfortunately, history with the Maine government has not inspired Ed’s trust. For Ed, the conflict began when settlers came to the US and began infringing on the tribal way of life. It stems from the doctrine of discovery in place at that time. Any explorer who landed in an “undiscovered” land, could claim it for their country, ignoring the native people that had lived there long before they came. “We didn’t even matter, it was like we were the same as the animals,” Ed says. The tribe struggled to adapt to the new invaders. The Passamaquoddy people never recognized land and resource ownership the way the settlers did. History has examples where some chiefs did not understand what settler governments were trying to do and ended up selling large amounts of land for depressingly small prices. The relationship with the state is still filled with tension to this day. Ed explains how “the state doesn’t trust native people.” He talked about the history of conflicts between tribal people and the government, mentioning a number of cases where tribe members have been unfairly prosecuted for crimes surrounding resource use. 

The Passamaquoddy people have been tied to the rivers and these resources since far before settlers came to America. For thousands of years, men, women, and children would wade into the rushing waters, bubbling with fish, and harvest them by hand, filling enough baskets to feed the tribe through the winter. Today, anadromous fish are even more important. Ed explained how the amount of pollution that runs into rivers has made almost all freshwater species toxic for human consumption. The tribe now relies on fish from the ocean for a lot of their food since they accumulate fewer toxins. Because alewives spend much of their life in saltwater, they would be a good candidate to supply food for the tribe. However, increased fishing pressure and dams from outside groups have seriously reduced fish populations, leading to the need for stricter management of the resource. Though they were not responsible for these declines, the tribe is still affected by the lack of fish and the associated management restrictions. Today, state and federal laws have seriously infringed on the tribe’s rights to fish in ancestral waters. Ed talked about tribal fishermen being allowed to harvest from islands that were within the tribal territory, but as soon as they stepped their feet in the water, it no longer counted the sustenance fishing and they could get in trouble.

Ed is trying to help improve the situation, both for the fish and the community. The dam we are standing below has an interesting story itself. Chris explained how the dam system on this river wasn’t built as a power supply, like many similar structures throughout the state. Instead, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife hoped that by damming the river, it could create more marshland habitat for the Ring-Necked Duck, a species that could provide another target for sportsmen in the area. Hearing from Chris and Ed, it seems to me like the area has clearly favored the rights of the sport industry to use this waterway, far more than the indigenous tribes, commercial fishermen, and even the anadromous fish themselves. Many dam owners are required to invest in structures to help anadromous fish bypass the obstructions. However, from what I could see, the Pembroke dam fish ladder is clearly more for show. Though we observed what had to be many hundreds of fish filling the river below the fish ladder, the fish counter installed at the top of the dam showed that mere 37 had managed to pass the obstruction over the last day. It doesn’t seem to me like there is much incentive from dam owners to do anything to address this. The dam itself was rebuilt a few years ago, but the last work on the fishways was in 1958, so it’s no wonder they are functioning so poorly today.

Chris-Bartlett-redChris Bartlett, a Sea Grant employee, explains the fish counting device installed at the top of the dam system. This shows how many fish are managing to make it past the dams and up into the river and can also help track how the population is doing. Through increased monitoring and data collection, the town has been able to reopen the recreational fishery that allows people with a recreational license to take 25 fish, provided they stay a certain distance from the fishway. Looking at the numbers on the fish counter shows a very sad picture about how much the dams are affecting the fish. All the numbers on the counter were in the single digits. Going from seeing the water below the dam teaming with so many hundreds of fish to realizing how few of them are able to make it past the obstacle is very sad and disheartening. It shows you how much these fish are being disadvantaged and completely prevented from making it through their migration.

Ed talked about how in another watershed the sportfishing industry strongly advocated for the continued blocking of alewives at a dam. Worried about alewives competing for resources with their target sports fish in the upstream lakes and ponds, they wanted to block the River Herring from coming up the river. When listening to a recording of this meeting, Ed was appalled by what the sport fishing groups were doing and was worried about misinformation being spread. He has set about on a project trying to change the way people view the River Herring in this watershed. When he describes it he talks about how incorrect statements and advocacy against the River Herring changed the history of the area. His job, he says, is to go back and rewrite it back to the truth. Ed has been conducting research into the history and challenges of the alewife runs in this area, reading documents and books, talking to historians, and going out into the field to investigate the current assumptions about fishery. “The thing with GIS is you can’t just sit in front of your computer and assume your mapping is going to be accurate. You have to go out and groundtruth it.” And that’s just what Ed is doing. He’s working to prove the presence of these fish back through history and hopes to see them restored, once again able to flood the rivers on their journey to their rightful birthplace. For him, it’s not just about restoring the fishery. He talks about the tribe’s connection to the natural world around them “whatever happens to the resource happens to us…it’s not just about bringing back sustenance for the people, it’s about bringing back the whole ecosystem.”

Interested in diadromous fishes in downeast Maine? Here are some more sites that might be of interest:

Diadromous fish videos: Elvers, alewives, Somesville and downeast Maine. A previous post in the marine studies at COA site with 3 videos focusing on diadromous fish and downeast rivers in Maine.

At the Downeast Fisheries Trail website there are articles on river herring, both a fisheries then and a fisheries now article written by Julia Beaty (then and now) and Natalie Springuel (then).

The Downeast Salmon Federation is involved in a project to replace and repair the fishways on the Pennamaquan, you can read more about their work here.

The Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries is also doing fish restoration work in Hancock County, focused in the Bagaduce Watershed and Estuary.  The Downeast Salmon Federation, Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries, and COA are three of the partners in the Downeast Fisheries Partnership.

The Maine Department of Marine Resources has a Sea-Run Fisheries division with a webpage and links to general information, programs and projects on the diversity of diadromous fishes that occur in Maine.


About marinestudiesatcoa

Chris is a professor of marine ecology and policy at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine
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