TREMONT—It is really hard for alewives to make it from Seal Cove to Seal Cove Pond.
The arduous journey isn’t very long, but the brook that connects the bodies of water has two pinch points that make it difficult for the small anadromous fish to swim from the ocean and into the pond to spawn.
One obstacle is the current dam, which can be seen from the road, that is home to a struggling fish ladder. The other is the remnants of a previous dam farther downstream.
In a healthy alewife run, the fish usually aren’t hard to spot when they arrive in the spring. They swim en masse up the stream by the hundreds and attract all types of birds and mammals who are looking for a snack.
Misha Mytar, a senior project manager with Maine Coast Heritage Trust, has been coming out to the run for about three years, and says there are few fish to find.
“I’ve been involved for three years and essentially seen no fish,” she said.
Sometimes she spots a handful here or there while walking the entire stream.
Mytar, with the help of the town of Tremont and Acadia National Park, is trying to change that.
The trust is embarking on a project to help smooth over the two rough patches in the journey to restore the fishway and get alewives back into the pond to spawn.
The trust is planning to start working on the downstream portion of the project, setting up a series of natural step pools with rocks to mimic nature. Eventually, in a later second phase, Mytar imagines they’ll do something similar for the current dam.
The trust recently received a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the project, combined with some private funds and money set aside by Tremont’s Town Meeting. In total, the project is expected to cost $300,000, with the first phase costing a little less than half of that.
The trust is polishing off the final design plans to possibly get the project started in August, though there is a small window for working in ponds, and everything is dependent on contractor availability.
The trust will then see how things work before starting phase two.
“Most of the folks who have been involved feel strongly that phase two will need to happen, but I think part of the strategy of starting downstream is to fix that site and we have some fish still in the system and we can start to see how improving the downstream site makes a difference,” said Mytar.
If that work does need to be done, she guesses it will take place within the next couple of years, depending on funding.
Alewives have been populating Maine waters for thousands of years and conservationists have been working to restore alewife runs across the state. The fish largely live in the ocean but return to the freshwater pond in which they were born to spawn.
Lawson Wulsin lives across the street from the fishway and can attest to how hard it is for fish at Seal Cove Pond because he’s been volunteering as a fish counter.
Around this time last year, Wulsin would walk down to the dam in the morning and around lunchtime and stare into the stream looking for alewives. He couldn’t find any.
But Wulsin did see some starting in May and then in small numbers with some regularity afterwards.
“It was incredibly exciting,” he said, though “it’s still a small fraction of what it should be, what it used to be and what it could be in the future.”
The Department of Marine Resources stocked Seal Cove Pond with 1,200 adult fish this year, which means that in about three years, the juveniles that were spawned in the pond could come back, hopefully to a spruced-up run.
“If everything goes according to our plans and we’re able to make these improvements, we’ll see those fish returning three to five years from now,” Mytar said.
Alewives are an important link in the food chain for several species and are an important bait source for fishermen. Tremont owns the fish ladder at the dam and has the rights to any fishing, though it hasn’t been healthy in a number of years. The town wants to see it returned to its former glory both for biological as well as possible future economic reasons, said Town Manager Chris Saunders.
“If it was a healthy fish run, they could theoretically lease it out,” he said, though that would take several years.
Having more runs along the coast is important because if one gets cut off, the species can continue to thrive, said Bik Wheeler, a wildlife biologist with Acadia National Park.
Protecting a species can be complicated and there are often a lot of obstacles standing in the way of progress. It can take years of planning and strategy to take even the smallest of steps forward.
Something special about this project is the cooperation between all the organizations and the bang-for-the-buck factor, Wheeler said. With a few minor tweaks that none of the groups could do alone, it could make large and immediate changes for the local population and an entire ecosystem.
“We have the opportunity to do something that’s relatively small and has a really big impact,” he said.