Historical Fisheries Alewife. Historically, alewives ascended the Kennebec River in immense numbers as far as Norridgewock Falls, 89 miles from the sea on the main stem.70 They ascended the Sandy River as far as Farmington and bred in Temple Pond until a dam was built at New Sharon in 1804.71 Alewives ascended the Sebasticook River at least as far as Stetson Pond in Stetson on the East Branch and Great Moose Pond in Hartland on the West Branch.72 It is probable that alewives ascended as far as Wassokeag Lake in Dexter on the East Branch, as Atkins73 stated that, "nearly every mile" of the 48 square miles of lake surface was accessible to alewives.
Seven Mile Stream was considered one of the "principal breeding places" for alewives in the Kennebec River.74 It is probable that alewives historically had access to at least Webber Pond and Three Mile Pond. Seven Mile Brook continued to support an alewife run until 1837, when the Augusta Dam finally cut them off.
The Cobbosseecontee Stream drainage was also a "principal breeding place" for alewives. Atkins75 gave the following account: "The first of these (Cobbosseecontee Stream) afforded an extensive breeding ground in its 21 square miles of lakes and ponds, but it was early closed. In 1787 we find the Town of Wales (then including Monmouth) appointing a fish committee, which the next year was designated a `committee to see that the fishways are kept open according to law.' The dams at Gardiner, however, were impassable, fishways were not maintained, and very early in the present century this brook of alewives were extinguished."
Atkins76 further stated, "Winthrop for several years appointed a committee to obtain the opening of a fishway through the dam at Gardiner. But they were unsuccessful; reporting on one occasion that Squire Gardiner refused to do anything about it. The stream is now obstructed by dams at Gardiner to such an extent as to render the opening of the upper waters to fish a considerable undertaking. There are eight dams within one mile of the Kennebec, and they are generally high. There are ten dams to the first lake, and most of the others are cut off by them."
Nehumkeag Stream and Worromontogus Stream, which enter the Kennebec River in Pittston below Augusta, were also rendered impassable at an early date.77 One can get some indication of the historical value and magnitude of the alewife runs on the Kennebec River system from the early Reports of the Commissioners of Fisheries of the State of Maine. The most important of the alewife fisheries occurred on the Sebasticook River and Atkins gave the following account:
"The most fish were taken in the Town of Clinton, now Benton, and the town was vested with the right to take the fish by their agents, a fish committee, subject to certain conditions. They were to distribute a certain number gratis to the poor, and then sell to the inhabitants at a set price, and finally could dispose of the residue as they saw fit. Great quantities were sold to strangers, the ordinary price being 25¢ a hundred. Newport also had full control over the fisheries in that town. There were free fisheries on all other parts of the river and its tributaries. Indeed, the fisheries were all free until a falling off in the supply warned the people that there must be some regulations. On this point we have the testimony of Mr. Beriah Brown of Benton, now 78 years old. Seventy years ago he followed the man who took the fish. Also of Maj. Japeth Winn, who has lived at Benton fifty-five years. The tributaries of the Sebasticook were very early obstructed by dams through which, in most cases, efficient fishways were left -- generally a mere gap, or a pile of stones; and the number of fish had been falling off for many years before the Town of Clinton assumed control of its fisheries. The dam at the upper falls at Clinton was built before the war of 1775, but a gap for fish was left in it. About 1809 a dam was built at the lower falls twelve feet high with no fishway. It stood five or six years, and in that time had so impoverished the fisheries that the selectmen cut it away, and allowed the fish to ascend to their breeding grounds. The town in 1814 obtained the act authorizing them to control the fisheries, and the first year after cutting away this dam the fishery was leased for two or three years to one James Ford, he agreeing to pay yearly 200 fish to each man, woman, and child in Clinton, and to sell as many more as should be wanted at a set price. From this time the fish increased again rapidly and the town began to sell the fishery yearly at auction. The price obtained varied from $500 to $1,200 or $1,500; the purchaser being bound to distribute gratis to the poor, and sell to all townsmen at a fixed price. The year of the closing of the Augusta Dam the fishing sold for $225. One or two years before for $500.
Mr. John Holbrook, 65 years of age, has lived in Newport all his days. Within his memory alewives came here in great numbers, with a few shad and now and then a salmon. Forty-five years ago they were not so plenty as formerly. Thirty years ago they began to diminish rapidly, and in a few years were entirely gone.
The obstructions on the Sebasticook now existing are six dams, situated as follows:
From Kennebec, miles.
34 Newport pond, outlet
The dam at Benton lower falls has a sluiceway twenty feet wide and three feet deep, near its west end, which was not closed during the last season until the 20th of June. With a suitable arrangement of the plank this might answer for the passage of fish. Over the upper dam a way might easily be constructed at the east end by bolting down some timbers and blasting a short passage out of the ledge.
At Clinton and Detroit the task would be easy, but they must be guarded against ice. At Newport the mill-dam would require a fishway, but presents no difficulty. The dam at the outlet hardly hinders the passage of fish. The river was not examined above this point, although the alewives used to run as far as Stetson Pond.
Of the branches we examined, the Pittsfield branch as far as Moose Lake or Pond, the Twenty-five Mile Stream, - and have gathered some information about others. The west branch from Moose Lake has three dams, one at Pittsfield and two at Hartland, neither of which presents any difficulty in constructing fishways; all three would require them. At Hartland there has been a dam for 67 years, but as long as the alewives came there was a hole left for them to pass into Moose Lake. Into the latter runs Main Stream, crossed by several dams which were not examined.
The Twenty-five Mile Stream is the outlet of Unity Lake. Near its mouth, in the Town of Burnham, is a dam built 35 years ago, 12 feet high. Seven miles up the stream is another dam, and beyond that Unity Lake. Tributary to Twenty-five Mile Stream is Sandy Stream of rapid flow, obstructed by two dams.
The streams draining Lovejoy's and Pattee's Ponds are obstructed each by one dam. The latter has a dam which has stood without a fishway for 60 years. The stream draining Plymouth Pond has four dams. The Vassalboro Stream is much obstructed, but was not examined.
All the lakes and ponds of Sebasticook River are admirably adapted to the breeding of alewives. The restoration of these fish would be a comparatively easy matter. Plenty of live fish or their spawn can be obtained at Augusta or below. The construction of ten fishways would give them access to the three largest lakes with a surface of 10,000 or 12,000 acres. If undertaken on the right scale and perseveringly carried forward great return might be expected in a few years. Abijah Crosby, of Benton, was an enthusiast on this subject who might have accomplished much had he been supported by the public opinion. He went so far as to introduce live alewives to Pattee's Pond, Unity and Newport Lakes; they bred there, the young fish were seen going down the stream, and some of them caught; fishways were built over several of the dams on the Sebasticook, and had that built at Augusta proved a success, the alewives would now have been again established in the Sebasticook River."
The Commissioners estimated the yearly catch of alewives in Clinton to be 3,000 barrels.78 There were approximately 400 alewives in a barrel79 which translates into an annual catch of 1,200,000 alewives at the Town of Clinton alone. Alewives produced in the Sebasticook River were subject to fisheries from the mouth of the Kennebec River to Winslow in addition to fisheries which occurred in the river itself.
Seven Mile Brook was also considered an important tributary for the production of alewives. The Commissioners of Fisheries in their First Report (1867) gave the following account:
"The Seven Mile Brook is a very important stream, although in size only third rate. It drains several ponds, and these formerly produced great quantities of alewives. The fishery has been regulated by six different acts. There are several dams on the stream which would require fishways should the alewives be restored."
There is mention of the alewife fishery in Seven Mile Stream as early as 1777 in the Town Records and by 1780 the town was auctioning the run to the highest bidder.80 In 1818, the "Fish Privilege" was at a premium and the following sums of money were paid to the town for the privilege: "Elisha Barrows paid $291 for one privilege, John Homans paid $56 for the one near Snells Mills and Samuel Folson paid $52 for the one near Homans' Mills".81 Based on the fact that the harvest at Clinton on the Sebasticook River was estimated to average 3,000 barrels annually and the privilege usually went for $500 to $1,500, it may be estimated that the fishery may have harvested 320,000 to 900,000 alewives annually on Seven Mile Stream.
The Sandy River was not considered a principal alewife tributary because of its lack of ponded habitat and dead water areas. Atkins and Foster82 gave the following account of anadromous fisheries of the Sandy River: "Although it has a great many miles of spawning ground for salmon, and but a limited extent suitable for shad or alewife. Both the latter, however, came into the river and ascended as far as Farmington. The lower part of the river maintained an excellent shad fishery.
But in 1804 the New Sharon Dam was built. This stopped shad and alewives but a fishway is said to have been maintained for a few years which permitted salmon to pass. A few years later another dam was thrown across the river nearer its mouth, and the fishways were no longer maintained."
Shad. The shad was a major species fished for in the Kennebec River, especially subsequent to the construction of the Augusta Dam in 1837. This dam prevented salmon from reaching the majority of its spawning habitat but, although the shad resource may have been reduced by 50%, there still remained over 20 miles of tidal freshwater from Merrymeeting Bay to Augusta.
Although the landings prior to 1887 are only estimates, Atkins reported that the average annual landings for shad in Bowdoinham, Dresden, and Woolwich were 120,000 fish for the years 1830-36. This same district was reported to have landed 180,000 shad in 1867 and the catch for the entire Kennebec River was estimated at 225,000 shad.83 In 1880, Atkins indicated that 108,000 shad were taken in the Merrymeeting Bay district.84 In addition, 5,800 were taken above Richmond; 16,744 between Merrymeeting Bay and Bath; and 10,000 below Bath for a total catch of 140,000 shad in the Kennebec River system.
Although the landings do not reflect the loss of spawning and nursery habitat above Augusta due to the construction of the Augusta Dam, Atkins attributed this fact to the "use of a great number of far more efficient implements." A reduction of approximately 50% is indicated by the records of one weir in Merrymeeting Bay which averaged 5,961 shad yearly from 1826 through 1835, but caught only an average of 3,120 shad yearly from 1837-48 (no record for 1844).85 Shad historically ascended the Kennebec River as far as Norridgewock Falls (89 miles from the sea), the Sandy River a few miles from its mouth, and the Sebasticook River in small numbers to Newport.86 Atkins indicated that shad ascended the Sandy River as far as Farmington.87 Atkins mentioned several upriver sites where shad fisheries were conducted.
Following is a description by Atkins of the shad fishery at Ticonic Falls (Waterville):
"At Ticonic Falls there is an island in mid-stream, where great facilities existed for catching shad with dip-nets. This island was private property. The proprietor, from 1804 down to the extinction of the fishery, has stated that in the early days of his fishing he used to take $600 worth of shad yearly. As remarkable feats he mentioned that with the assistance of his three boys he had taken 1,000 shad and 20 salmon in an afternoon and that one day four men dipped out and boated ashore 6,400 large shad. There was a similar but less productive dip-net fishery on the falls at Skowhegan."
A shad fishery was also conducted on the lower Sandy River. Although shad are reported as originally migrating to Farmington, their path was obstructed at New Sharon.88 A few years later a dam was constructed nearer the mouth. Thus, some habitat loss occurred prior to the construction of the Augusta Dam. Also a dam was built at Kendalls Mills in 1834 and one at Somerset Mills in 1836 on the main stem of the Kennebec River just above Waterville.89 Although salmon could pass these dams at high water, there is no indication given whether alewives or shad did.
From 1896 through 1906, shad landings ranged from 322,800 to 1,028,600 pounds for an average annual yield of 802,514 pounds. If an average weight of 3 pounds per fish is assigned, it would indicate a catch of 267,500 shad. Subsequent to 1900, the landings declined and after 1919, the shad fishery suffered a complete collapse. Taylor attributed the collapse to industrial pollution.90 Smelt. The sea-run smelt, the smallest of the sea-run fish species, has played an important role in the river fisheries of the Kennebec River. It provided seasonal employment in the winter when jobs were scarce and today provides for a large recreational fishery.
The fishery for smelt was pursued on a small scale as early as 1814 on the Kennebec River by hook and line and small gill nets.91 Before 1850, smelt were mostly consumed locally and sold through local markets. Bag nets were introduced in 1852 and allowed for greater efficiency in harvesting and allowed expanded markets. After 1850, a great quantity of smelt were marketed in Boston and New York City. Bag nets were fished mainly between Bath and Richmond, with 114 bag nets employed in the winter of 1879-80. Bag nets accounted for approximately 1/3 of the catch. Below Bath, half-tide weirs were utilized. There was also a large hook and line fishery which developed in the Sasanoa River around 1878. Hook and line fisheries were also pursued in the tributaries of Merrymeeting Bay, especially in the Eastern River. Two of the earliest hook and line fisheries were at Hallowell and Gardiner, which were stated to be very productive around 1850.92 The hook and line fisheries in Hallowell and Gardiner had fallen off to quite an extent by 1880, which some attributed to the introduction of bag nets.
Smelt assumed a dominant role in our river fisheries in the late 1800s. The landed value of smelt in the late 1800s was two to three times the landed value of salmon, shad, or alewives. Smelt and shad were the two dominant sea-run fish species in the Kennebec River from the late 1800s through the early 1900s.
The smelt resource was less affected by dam construction or pollution than the other sea-run fish species, with possibly the exception of the shortnose sturgeon. Historically, it is probable that smelt ascended the Kennebec River only as far as Waterville to Ticonic Falls. While a significant but unknown amount of habitat was eliminated by the construction of the Augusta dam, a significant amount of habitat remained below the dam. This was also true for shad, but increasing pollution in the 1900s had a greater impact on shad than smelt as shad spawned later and were more dependent on the river for juvenile nursery habitat.
Smelt spawn generally during the spring high water run-off and the larvae quickly leave the upper tidal section shortly after hatching. Thus, they are not as subject to adverse conditions experienced in the river system during the summer months.
Although the smelt resource was not as adversely affected by dam construction and pollution as the other sea-run fish species, the landings decreased sharply in the late 1940s. The bag net fisheries ceased around the early 1930s.
The hook and line fisheries in Hallowell and Gardiner also disappeared.
The impact of the severe pollution experienced in the 1940s, '50s, '60s, and early '70s on the smelt resource itself is not known, but the severity of the pollution certainly impacted the use of the resource.