To the editor:
Over the past year, I was a member of the Bristol dam committee. However, this letter reflects my own views and not the opinions of all members of the committee.
The committee met twice a month to listen to a variety of experts on subjects ranging from water bird habitat on the Pemaquid River to comparative fishway design to possible dry hydrant locations in Bristol. We heard from the parks and recreation commission and from the fire department. We heard from many in the community on the perceived threat to water levels in the lakes above the dam and the reluctance to lose a cherished swimming hole. And we heard from others in the community who would love to see the full restoration of Bristol’s historic alewife run.
From the get-go, the committee decided that all proposals for alternatives to the current dam would preserve water levels in the marsh above the dam and all upstream lakes. We also decided that we needed to preserve, in one way or another, the other benefits that the dam provides – a convenient source of water for the local fire department and a place for freshwater swimming.
The committee came up with three options, A, B, and C, all of which maintain water levels and provide easy access to water for the fire department and a swimming area. They also provide what’s missing in the current dam setup: effective fish passage for alewives and other migrating species.
Even with much volunteer time and ongoing maintenance and tweaking, the current fishway allows for relatively few fish to make it to the waters above the dam. The lakes above could well support 600,000 to over 800,000 adult alewives. Since volunteer counts started in 2013, the number of alewives able to make it to the top of the current ladder has ranged from about 14,000 to 133,000.
Although there’s been much discussion of the dam, its history, and the options proposed, there are several points that haven’t been part of the conversation, points that are worth considering.
1) As expensive as they are, fish ladders aren’t silver bullets for fish migration. Even state-of-the-art fishways rarely work better than 60 percent efficiency. A large number of fish never successfully make it through. Also, the number of fish getting through unharmed doesn’t include the fish, many of them juveniles, who are injured or killed falling over the dam on their way back to the ocean.
2) Alewives were historically an essential part of a complex web of ecological connections. For tens of thousands of years, alewives evolved to arrive in our waters each spring, providing a critical food source for many species of fish and wildlife when they are doing their best to feed their young. If we love the water birds that live in the wetlands above the dam, then we need to think about the food that sustains them. And even before they reach our shores, alewives nourish the ocean food web. Restoring alewives to their former role is thought to be a crucial step in reversing the dramatic declines of groundfish that once figured so prominently in our coastal economy.
3) The alewife won’t wait forever. Until recently, the fish were stocked by the Maine Department of Marine Resources, a practice that ended in 2012 with the goal that fish passage would soon improve. As with other species, including Atlantic salmon and inshore cod, once the number of fish reaches a critically low number, it can be impossible for those fish to rebound. The history of our alewife run shows that relying on a few interested citizens to successfully operate and maintain a complex fishway is not a sustainable solution, because interest comes and goes over the decades. That is just one reason why public funding for fishways has all but disappeared.
4) Healthy and abundant alewife runs represent an increasingly important source of local bait for lobstermen at a time when Atlantic herring have become more scarce and costly than ever. If the run were fully recovered, it could again be harvested. Based on the current price for a bushel of alewives ($25 depending on location and availability), DMR estimates a total revenue of $70,432-$100,000 that would be divided among the town and the harvester. If we value these human uses, we should pay serious attention to what sustains alewives and protect those resources.
5) Unencumbered fish passage would encourage growth in the eel population, as well, another resource that has potential for harvest, if the numbers are strong.
6) Though much-loved by a segment of the public, the swimming hole is perhaps one of the most dangerous public recreation areas in the Midcoast. Children swim immediately adjacent to the dam’s operating sluice and penstock and clamber about on the spillway of the dam with little regard for the fact that only a rickety homemade fence separates them from the 12-foot drop to jagged rocks below.
Assessments of the 100-year-old dam reveal that it has no historic value, but it and its swimming hole are cherished by some who grew up with it.
That said, we perhaps have an opportunity to weigh the value of our own history with a longer one. Option B of the dam proposal allows for a new swimming area, one with much-improved safety, just north of the current dam, an area that could include more parking, picnic tables, possibly basketball hoops, a playground, etc. Ellingwood Park would also allow for a convenient dry hydrant for fire protection.
The loss of the familiar is the price we’d pay. But by replacing the current dam with a nature-like fishway, we’d maintain the current benefits of the dam and restore an annual run of fish that supports birds and larger fish and offers a mesmerizing display of leaping silver bodies churning the water from the harbor to the lakes above. Damariscotta Mills and Winslow have yearly alewife festivals that bring tourists and people from nearby communities to watch this impressive event – not unlike a solar eclipse in its mystery. Restoring this annual alewife run can benefit us in ways we can hardly imagine at the moment.