BRUNSWICK — At first glance, the fish ladder at the Brunswick Dam appears to be fully functioning.
For two species of fish, Atlantic salmon and river herring, it is.
But for the swarms of American shad gathered beneath it, the concrete ladder's winding steps are a labyrinth to nowhere, the spawning grounds at the upper reaches of the Androscoggin River an unattainable goal.
Many shad have tried. Many have died. Most, such as "Charlie," who state researchers observed in 2003 attempting to climb the ladder 58 times, have given up.
On Friday, about 20 people associated with the Androscoggin River Alliance gathered on the Frank J. Wood bridge to ask NextEra Energy to fix the ladder.
It won't be cheap, perhaps up to $5 million, according to Stephen Hinchman, the lawyer representing the alliance. But Hinchman believes NextEra, a national, publicly held company currently operating with $845 million in cash reserves, can afford it.
And the shad, which have lost 95 percent of their historic habitat in Maine, need it, Hinchman says.
"That dam is essentially a giant cash register for NextEra," Hinchman said. "The question is: Are they going to be a good corporate neighbor and give back to the public its resource?"
Steve Stengel, a spokesman for NextEra based in Juno Beach, Fla., doesn't dispute that the fish ladder isn't working for shad. Stengel said the company is working with the Maine Department of Marine Resources and the Department of Environmental Protection to find a solution.
Stengel wouldn't project a timetable to find a remedy.
"We've been working on this for some time," he said.
But Hinchman said NextEra already knows the fix. It's called a fish lift, a watery elevator that carries the shad up and over the dam. The two dams above Brunswick, the Pejepscot and the Worumbo, already have fish lifts.
Hinchman and Neil Ward, the program director for the alliance, believe NextEra is simply waiting for the public and the state to force the company's hand. They say the company is worried about setting a precedent for the dams it operates in other places.
"We're talking about a couple million dollars," Hinchman said. "That's nothing to these guys."
And, Hinchman said, the company should pay for all of it.
"The shad is a public resource," Hinchman said. "They don't have a right to take that resource away from us."
The ladder was originally built in 1985, a condition for a 30-year license issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to NextEra's sister company, Florida Power and Light.
For the salmon and herring, the ladder worked. But it never worked for the shad. Over the past 25 years, the state Department of Marine Resources estimated only 200 or so shad have made it over the dam.
Yet, according to Ward, underwater video cameras have shown large schools of shad gathering at the foot of the ladder.
"Their instinct tells them to go up the river, but they know the ladder will hurt them," said Ward, adding that shad that have attempted the climb often end up bloody and descaled.
Ward and Hinchman said restoring the shad runs, which used to average 250,000 fish a year, would be a boon for the river and the Lewiston-Auburn economy.
Results from a Department of Marine Resources study concurred, estimating that restoring the shad runs to 150,000 fish could contribute $2 million a year to the river valley economy through commercial and recreational harvesting.
Additionally, Hinchman said, shad migrate to the ocean to become a keystone forage fish for Atlantic cod and haddock, two fish stocks reportedly in steady decline in the Gulf of Maine.
"You'll never bring back cod and haddock stocks without shad," Hinchman said.
For Ward, whose family has spent four generations on the Androscoggin, restoring the shad runs is personal.
"My grandfather once fished for Atlantic salmon on this river," Ward said. "Then, after several generations of pollution, everybody was told stay away from the river. It was putrid. You wouldn't want to be standing where we are right now."
But now, Ward said, the river is on the rebound. Bringing back the shad runs, he said, would be another major victory.
It's unlikely to come easy. Ward is hopeful a key reclassification of the river will clear the way for the Department of Marine Resources to make NextEra replace the ladder. If not, he said, his group could take legal action.
"We don't want to fight with these guys," he said. "We're hoping they'll come to the table on their own."
And if they don't?
"We told our (financial backers) that this could be a long fight, but we're going to stay with it," Ward said.