BRISTOL, Maine — The narrow and winding Pemaquid River runs from the sea several miles inland to a series of small ponds and lakes.
That connection, between saltwater and fresh, is a vital one for some forms of lice, including the alewife.
Now the Pemaquid River is about to become a lot more friendly for those springtime visitors, thanks to the construction of a new fish ladder.
The ladder is really a series of 18 man-made pools and small waterfalls to help the alewives make the 13-foot climb over the old dam at Bristol Mills. The town has had a fish ladder there for years, but it was an old, straight line, concrete structure that fish experts say was not especially hospitable to the fish.
Alewives are an important part of the natural food chain and need to swim upstream from the sea to spawn.
The Town of Bristol didn’t want to tear out the old dam because it provides an important water supply spot for fire trucks, and is also the town's very popular summer swimming hole.
So Bristol raised about half a million dollars from donations and local taxpayers to tear out the old ladder and build the new one.
Local stonemason Peter Anderson did much of the detailed work of laying up stones for the interior surface of the pools.
“To see fish using it will be wonderful, that’s obviously what we’re all waiting for, and when we see fish coming up the ladder I think you’ll see many big smiles,” Anderson said.
The ladder is modeled after the very successful fish ladder in nearby Damariscotta Mills. General contractor Mark Becker built that one over the past 10-12 years, and is also the general contractor for the Bristol Mills project. He said the ladder project still needs work to make it look good for people but should be all ready for the spring run of fish.
“That was the goal for this year: to get it ready for the run this spring,” Becker said.
He added that the Damariscotta Mills ladder project resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of fish getting from the river into the lake, and hopes the same thing will happen in Bristol.
“What I’m proudest of is the whole notion its another place in Maine people can go see these fish go upstream, to get to their spawning grounds, and maybe take that idea home to wherever they are and start thinking about fish that are in their own neighborhoods that might need help getting around.”
The new Bristol Mills fish ladder isn’t finished yet. The town has raised an additional $200,000 in donations to complete work capping it with stone, covering the exterior concrete, building a footbridge, and other measures. The town manager said they are hoping to qualify for a grant to finish off the area around the ladder as a town park.
The remaining stonework will be done this fall. The ladder will be opened to the river, and to upstream fish passage, in time for the start of the spring alewife run.