Present Fisheries Alewife. Since the early 1970s, water quality has improved dramatically and the tidal waters of the Kennebec River should support an alewife population similar to that found in the system after 1837. The tidal section of the Kennebec River is freshwater from the outlet of Merrymeeting Bay to Augusta, a distance of 20 miles, making it the only Maine river which will support significant shad and river herring runs below head-of-tide. This section of the river is excellent shad spawning and nursery habitat; it is marginal alewife habitat, but because of the large amount of accessible riverine area, the total production of alewives would easily approach two million fish, making it one of the largest runs in the State. While it is difficult to estimate the current population size, recent juvenile seine surveys show that the alewife is currently the most abundant of the three alosids (shad, alewife, and blueback herring).
American Shad. The water quality in the Kennebec River has improved dramatically since the era of gross pollution (the 1930s through the early 1970s). Since 1976, the Kennebec River has had adequate dissolved oxygen levels to support shad and other anadromous fish species in the lower river. DMR has been monitoring the shad resource in the Kennebec River. Experimental drift gill nets have been used to obtain an index of abundance for spawning adult shad and experimental seines are being used to obtain an index of abundance for juvenile shad. The present surveys indicate there is limited reproduction below the Augusta Dam and major areas of shad reproduction in the tributaries of Merrymeeting Bay, the Eastern, Cathance, and Abagadasset Rivers. Thus, the shad resource at the present time below Augusta is in a state of dynamic change. Because shad have a five-year life cycle and the stocks are reduced to extremely low levels, it is difficult to predict the rate of expansion. Based on experiences in other rivers, it is likely that significant recovery will occur within 2-4 life cycles. A very limited recreational fishery has developed below the Augusta Dam with approximately 30-50 adults being taken annually.
Rainbow Smelt. The lower Kennebec River provides the largest winter recreational smelt fishery in the State of Maine. Colonies of smelt camps have been reestablished in the Hallowell and Gardiner areas as a result of the dramatic improvement in water quality. In 1985 there were over 700 smelt camps on the tidal waters of the Kennebec River system, including the tributaries to Merrymeeting Bay.
DMR conducted intensive creel surveys of the Kennebec River winter smelt fishery from 1974-1982. The estimated annual catches were variable, ranging from 20,000-96,000 pounds. Some of the fish harvested by hand line fishermen are sold through local markets. There are presently no other commercial fisheries for smelt on the Kennebec River.
This fishery provides for 14,000-29,000 man days of fishing per year. Approximately 12% of the fishermen are nonresidents. Based on an economic survey conducted in 1982, it is estimated that the fishery at 1985 costs would have a value of approximately $500,000 based on direct expenditures.
Sturgeon. No current research or management activities are being conducted in the Kennebec River on these species. Shortnose sturgeon are on the Federal Endangered Species List and are thus afforded full protection. Based on research accomplished under AFC-19 and AFC-20, it was decided that the Atlantic sturgeon stock in the Kennebec River was at a critically low level and the river was closed to the taking of Atlantic sturgeon. In addition, a six-foot minimum length was implemented statewide. In May 1992, a statewide moratorium on the taking of both Atlantic Sturgeon and Shortnose Sturgeon was implemented.
Striped Bass. From the early 1930s through 1986, there was no evidence of striped bass spawning in the Kennebec River and those fish available to the sport fishery in later years were believed to be migrants from Chesapeake Bay and the Hudson River, with Chesapeake Bay being the major contributor.
Historically, this estuary supported the largest population of resident Maine striped bass, as evidenced by accounts of many small stripers taken in the winter smelt fishery and of the commercial winter fishery for large striped bass. Even after the construction of dams at head-of-tide on the Kennebec and Androscoggin Rivers, which prevented migration of fish to upstream spawning areas, spawning populations of striped bass survived in the Merrymeeting Bay area and supported a limited commercial fishery until the post-World War I era. Industrial pollution from the Androscoggin and Kennebec Rivers completely eliminated the remaining population, probably about the same time as the shad disappeared from the Bay in the early 1930s. In recent years the water quality has improved to the point that it is believed possible that a resident population can be re-established in this area. In 1982, a juvenile striped bass stocking and tagging program was initiated to reestablish a self-sustaining native population of striped bass to the Kennebec/Androscoggin complex. In September of 1982, DMR captured 319 juvenile striped bass (fall fingerlings) in the Hudson River and transferred them to the Androscoggin River; in October 1983, a total of 572 fall fingerling striped bass were transported from the Hudson River to the Kennebec River estuary. In 1984, striped bass fry were obtained from Multi-Aquaculture System, Inc. of Amagansett, New York, and raised to fall fingerlings by the USFWS at its North Attleboro National Fish Hatchery. The fry were purchased with private funds by a non-profit organization known as the "Committee to Restore Resident Stripers to the Kennebec River in Maine," and in September, 2,306 fingerling striped bass were released into the Kennebec at Richmond. In 1985 and 1986, striped bass fry were obtained from Ecological Analysts' Verplanck Striped Bass Hatchery. These fry, of Hudson River origin, were raised to fall fingerling size by the USFWS at its North Attleboro National Fish Hatchery. In 1985, 46,769 striped bass fingerlings were stocked and in 1986, 30,246. No striped bass were available in 1987, but 1987 marks the first year in over 50 years that natural production occurred in the Kennebec River, as evidenced by the capture of 26 young-of-the-year striped bass. From 1988-92, an additional 183,333 striped bass juveniles were stocked in the Kennebec/Androscoggin estuarial complex. Wild young-of-the-year striped bass have been caught annually since 1987 with numbers ranging from 1 to 26.96