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Alewives at Nequasset Lake

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Nequasset Alewife Run

Nequasset Lake is the site of an historic alewife run.  Each spring, adult alewives migrate to Nequasset Lake to lay their eggs.  The eggs hatch in late spring, and the fish spend the first few months of their lives growing in Nequasset Lake.  In late summer/early fall, the young alewives migrate out to sea, where they grow to adults.  Alewives are a vital part of the foundation of the food chain in the Gulf of Maine.  The fish that spawn at Nequasset Lake have supported an historic alewife fishery at the Nequasset Dam site for hundreds of years. The fish count and the fish ladder are both important for keeping this run healthy and sustainable.

The Ladder - The fish ladder makes it possible for alewives to reach Nequasset Lake to spawn.  Without the ladder, the alewife run at Nequasset would disappear.

The Count - The fish count helps the run in several ways.  It allows us to estimate the total number of fish that reach the lake to spawn.  By comparing the number of fish that reach the lake to the number that are harvested, we can figure out the health of the run.  According to the Maine DMR, xx% of the fish that arrive at Nequasset must reach the lake for it to be sustainable.  The count also helps us to evaluate how well the ladder is working to get fish to the lake and identify if there is anything that can be done to improve the movement of fish within the ladder. 

Nequasset Fish Ladder Restoration

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“This restoration project has not only effectively improved this historic fishery and retained an important local economic asset, but has galvanized the local community. Hundreds of concerned citizens and a wide array of conservation organizations have been involved, and we’ve increased the awareness of and pride in this critical natural and cultural resource.” – Carrie Kinne, KELT executive director

The Project

In 2014, the Nequasset Fish Ladder was rebuilt and restored to make the annual migration of alewives into Nequasset Lake possible for many years to come.  Both the ladder and dam are important to the town’s infrastructure and culture.  The Bath Water District, the Town of Woolwich, the Woolwich Fish Commission, the Woolwich Historical Society, and KELT worked together to rally community support, funding, and expertise.

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How it all started…

Bath Water District Superintendent Trevor Hunt came to KELT in early 2011 with a plea for help: Could KELT help manage an appropriate restoration of the crumbling fish ladder at Nequasset Dam in Woolwich?   The old concrete pool and weir ladder was built in 1955.  This restoration needed to ensure maximum fish passage and be easy for the Bath Water District crew to maintain.  The fish ladder is owned and maintained by the Bath Water District, and it is managed by the Woolwich Fish Commission.  KELT came on board to manage the project.

Engineering and Construction

Engineering design was completed by Wright Pierce, with review by state, national, and university fish passage experts.  Construction was completed by the Woolwich based firm Atlantic Mechanical.  The new ladder is similar in design to the old ladder because it was successful at attracting fish and getting them over the dam, but there are some important modifications.

improvements for the new Ladder

An additional pool was added to the lower section of the ladder to make the slope more gradual.


Old Ladder


New Ladder


The pathway to the ladder and harvest pool was improved.


Old Ladder


New Ladder


The design of the top section of the ladder that crosses the dam was changed to a denil style fishway in order to slow the speed of the water.

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Old Ladder

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New Ladder


Durable aluminum baffles instead of wooden ones are used.

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Old Ladder


New Ladder


Nequasset Dam and Fish Ladder History

Alewives have long been important to Maine communities for food and for fishing bait. 

As a result, laws were created as early as the 1700s that protected them. All mills had to have chutes so that the alewives could complete their spawning runs into the Lake. When the first dam at Nequasset Lake was built, it, too, had to provide a passageway for the alewives to get into the lake to spawn. Laws continued to be put in place throughout the 18th and 19th centuries for the protection of the life cycle of the alewives.

Historic Nequasset Fish Ladders

Fish ladder designs changed over time.  The initial structure was a wooden fishway that was last rebuilt in 1889.  A stone fishway was built with the concrete dam that was constructed in 1920.  The 1955-2014 ladder had a design closest to that seen today.  This concrete ladder was built after the 1954 hurricane season completely washed out the old fish ladder structure.

Nequasset Alewife Harvest History

Alewives have been harvested from Nequasset Lake for hundreds of years.

Nequasset Lake was important to the Native Americans and early setters of Woolwich just as it is to residents today. Native Americans caught large quantities of alewives as the fish came up the falls to spawn in the lake and streams every three years. The Native Americans dried and smoked the fish for their use in winter when other food was scarce. They also taught the first white settlers how to dry and smoke the alewives for their own use.

Old town laws in Woolwich gave widows residing in the town two bushels of alewives free a year, for the asking.  These old rules are kept alive, and to this day, Woolwich widows are able to stop by the harvest site for their fish.

The harvest continues today, with alewives sold smoked or fresh

Nequasset is one of Maine’s 19 remaining alewife runs still open to a commercial harvest. The town contracts out the management of the alewife harvest, and the fishing takes place below the dam.  The same local family has been managing the Nequasset alewife harvest for long term sustainability for over 60 years.

The harvest chute, the fish house, and the smoke house are the three key parts of the Nequasset alewife harvest. The fish are harvested Thursday through Sunday from sunrise to sunset, whenever they are running.

Alewives are either sold by the bushel for lobster bait or sold singly, salted and cold smoked.  Adult alewives are preferred bait for the spring lobster fishery in Maine and eaten smoked by people hankering for a traditional taste. Watch for bones!

Nequasset Fishladder Videos & News

Nequasset Fish Ladder Restoration Time Lapse Video


Time Lapse Video of the Construction of the New Nequasset Fish Ladder

See the 2014 construction of the new Nequasset Fish Ladder and learn about what makes Nequasset a unique fish passage site.

Videos Showcasing the Nequasset Fish Ladder and Alewife Harvest


Nequasset Fish Ladder Restoration Project Video

This 6 minute video tells the story of the Nequasset alewife run and KELT’s work in the Woolwich community to restore the ladder and ensure a successful run of alewives for decades to come.


Not Just a Fish Tale

Bowdoin College students Sam Mayne and Adrienne Hanson prepared a video about alewife restoration and the importance of alewives to fisheries in the Gulf of Maine. The Nequasset fish ladder restoration is highlighted.


Casco Bay Stories: By the Bucketful with Alewife Harvester Steve Bodge

Casco Bay Stories, a program of the Casco Bay Estuary Partnership, interviewed Steve Bodge about the Nequasset alewife harvest and his role harvesting fish and protecting alewives.


Newsworthy Nequasset

Nequesset Fish Ladder Reconstruction Stories

Nequasset Fish Count and Alewife Run Stories

Nequasset Alewife Harvest Stories

Nequasset Displays

Funding and Partners

The Bath Water District, Maine Coastal Program, NOAA/Trout Unlimited, and individual private donors all provided funding to support design, construction, and outreach for the Nequasset Fish Ladder Restoration Project.

Thank you to all of the volunteers and partners who have supported the Nequasset Alewife Run and the Nequasset Fish Ladder Restoration!

Bath Water District                                    National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
Town of Woolwich                                      Woolwich Fish Commission
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service                        Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment
Maine Dept. of Marine Resources             Maine Coastal Program
Wright Pierce                                              Atlantic Mechanical
Woolwich Historical Society                      Trout Unlimited
Bates College                                              Bowdoin College
University of Southern Maine (USM)