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Fish Return to River Near Dam Site

May 28, 2000

WINSLOW, Maine (AP) _ Standing just below a dam, children and adults dipped long nets into the rippling Sebasticook River and in a moment, their nets were brimming with silvery alewives trying to make their way upstream.

The nets were emptied into five-gallon buckets, and soon more than 7,300 of the fish were dumped above the Fort Halifax Dam, giving the sea-run fish access to miles more of their native waters.

``It was really just amazing,″ said Betsy Ham, who joined conservationists and anglers in the effort in early May. ``If you walked in to scoop them up, you were slipping and sliding on alewives. We were just scooping and scooping and handing them over as fast as we could.″

This year’s alewives run is special. Alewives have not migrated in such numbers this far upstream in more than 160 years because the Kennebec River was blocked off by a hydroelectric dam nearly 20 miles downstream in Augusta.

Thousands of alewives, which are about a foot long and weigh about a half pound, are now swimming freely past the spot where the Edwards Dam once held them back.

The fish, known as ``poor man’s salmon,″ are smoked and eaten by aficionados but, perhaps more importantly, are an important food source for larger fish as well as birds like eagles and ospreys. They return to the rivers each spring after a long run at sea.

For years, they were vacuumed up by a special machine and moved over the Edwards Dam in Augusta. But the machine couldn’t make up for nature, and many of the fish were left below the dam.

Last July, conservationists cheered as heavy equipment ripped into the 24-foot-high dam and removed the timber and concrete structure that stretched more than 900 feet across the Kennebec, opening another 17-mile segment of free-running river to the Atlantic.

Eight weeks after the dam was gone, striped bass were back in such large numbers above the former dam that fly fishermen were having a field day and guides were preparing for an influx of new anglers.

Now come the alewives.

Of the tens of thousands swimming upstream, those that stay on the Kennebec’s main stem hit another dam, in Waterville, while those following the Sebasticook River where it branches off to the east encounter the Fort Halifax Dam.

But rather than cursing the remaining dams, conservationists are celebrating the return of alewives to waters where they had not been able to swim unhampered since before 1837 when the Edwards Dam was erected to power mills that had sprung up along the Augusta riverside.

``Essentially the whole nation is watching,″ said Matt O’Donnell, who took over four months ago as head of the Maine Marine Resources Department’s effort to restore alewives and shad to their historical habitat in the Kennebec River basin.

The removal of Edwards Dam, he said, has also opened up new habitat and spawning areas for Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon, as well as striped bass and smelt.

Fishermen know that with the arrival of alewives the stripers cannot be far behind, said Bruce Bowman, president of Kennebec Valley Trout Unlimited, a recreational fishing and conservation group.

The Edwards Dam, which is 40 miles upstream from the Atlantic Ocean, was the first hydroelectric dam in the country ordered removed against the wishes of its owners. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, in denying a new operating license for the dam in 1997, decided that the environmental interests outweighed the structure’s value as an energy source.

Conservationists view the Edwards Dam as a model of what can happen in other states where dams impede the migrations of valued fish. They are hoping federal officials will seek removal of a few dozen dams and seek changes at hundreds of others when their licenses come up for renewal.

In Oregon, the PacifiCorp utility has been asked to consider knocking down the 77-foot-high Soda Springs Dam in exchange for relicensing seven other hydroelectric projects in the area. It would let spawning salmon and trout swim freely in several more miles of river.

Nationwide, more than 250 hydroelectric projects are up for relicensing in the next 15 years. Dozens of them are in California and Washington state, and several are in Oregon and Idaho.

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