Fish are like people in at least one respect — some try harder than others, and you have to respect the ones that do.
That’s why it’s difficult not to be moved by the story of one American shad, we’ll call him Charlie, who tried to climb the fish ladder at the Brunswick dam 58 times over five days in 2003 without making it to his destination — the upper reaches of the Androscoggin River between the dam and the Great Falls in Lewiston.
Bruised and battered, he finally gave up.
Charlie was part of a Maine Department of Marine Resources study that planted telemetry units in some of the shad circling at the base of the dam, fish clearly trying to follow their biological spawning instinct, according to Neil Ward of the Androscoggin River Alliance.
Only a few hundred shad have actually climbed the Brunswick fish ladder since 1985, Ward reports, and the ones that do are often de-scaled and badly injured in the attempt.
That few hundred shad compares to the hundreds of thousands — perhaps a quarter of a million — that freely swam the river before the construction of the first dam in 1809, along with herring, Atlantic salmon and other natural species.
Clearly, the fish ladder isn’t working, hasn’t worked in 25 years and will never work.
It’s time for a new approach.
We call upon NextEra Energy (formerly FPL) to voluntarily work with state agencies to solve the problem, and soon.
Failing that, either the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the Maine DMR must order NextEra to adopt better technology for getting our natural fish species past the dam.
That will likely mean the installation of a fish lift, a sort of watery elevator, that would move the fish to the top of the dam. And that, according to Ward, could cost as much as $5 million.
But the payoff could be immense, for Lewiston-Auburn, and all of the communities between the Great Falls and Brunswick.
It could mean the re-establishment of sport fishing for natural species in the lower reaches of the river.
It is exciting to see the attention the Androscoggin River is receiving in the sport fishing press.
But most of the buzz is about the roughly 40 percent of the river between Lake Umbagog and Bethel for its growing trout fishery, and some for the brown trout and bass fishing between Rumford and Lewiston.
But the lower third of the river has suffered because of the three dams between Lewiston and the sea.
The two dams above Brunswick, the Pejepscot and Worumbo, are of later design and already have working fish lifts.
But, so long as some species cannot pass the Brunswick dam, the lifts are of little use in restoring the river’s natural ecology.
And, until that happens, the communities along the lower reaches of the Andro, including Lewiston-Auburn, are being deprived of both the full enjoyment of the river and the economic benefits of a restored fishery.