A Glimpse at Georges River’s Wondrous and Fragile Ecosystem
An essay by Board Member Steve Hirshberg
In midcoast Maine we enjoy access to all 39 miles of the St. George River as it flows from the mountains near Lake St. George in Liberty downriver to Thomaston Harbor. From there the river flows as a 12-mile saltwater estuary into Muscongus Bay.
Our mission statement at the Georges River Land Trust is to preserve and protect this watershed, while at the same time encouraging recreational use by all for hiking the Georges Highland Path, canoeing, hunting, and fishing. Many individuals make their livelihood within this 252-square mile watershed by traditional forestry and farming, as well as lobstering and fishing. Climate change and regrettable human actions present risks to this splendid and complex ecosystem. The Land Trust views climate change as the single greatest challenge we face in the years ahead.
Invasive plants, fish, insects and wildlife species are already present here. We can take action, and we are now doing so. Rebecca Jacobs of the Knox-Lincoln County Soil and Water Conservation District recently conducted an extensive multi-part training about invasive plant species for the Land Trust. If we have the knowledge and we make the effort then we can reverse adverse effects and improve environmental outcomes.
Northern pike are a non-native fish species which presents the single greatest predatory risk to our cold-water native brook trout population in the Georges River. Northern pike were illegally introduced to the Belgrade Lakes in the 1970s. In 2013, these fish were again illegally introduced to our watershed via a pond in Warren. The consequences have been devastating. Last winter a 20-pound northern pike was harvested through the ice at Seven Tree Pond in Union. Fish of that size devour great numbers of all species, and they even eat their own! The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IFW) encourages all anglers to kill northern pike. These ravenous toothy predators have now extended their range as far upriver as Sennebec Pond in Appleton.
Allen Brook in Appleton is a St. George River tributary. It is now a vulnerable native brook trout spawning habitat because northern pike are present. Climate change has severely impacted our native brook trout population in the watershed. Over the last four summers, but especially in 2016, 2017, and 2018 we experienced very low water flow, warmer water temperatures and reduced oxygen levels. These environmental factors cause lethal stress to cold water fish species. Trout mortality rates soared in the Georges River, and anglers were encouraged not to trout fish in the hottest summer months.
On the bright side, and as a solid testament to the overall health and richness of our watershed, we are experiencing good annual alewife returns in the St. George River. Alewives are an anadromous species of river herring. They spend most of their lives in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Maine. The fish return annually to spawn in clean, cold freshwater lakes.
In our watershed, alewives spawn every spring at Quantabacook Lake in Searsmont, Waldo County. It’s not an easy 48-mile journey each way through the river and up to the lake, but they are hearty and determined swimmers. Alewives are harvested annually as an important source of bait for local lobstermen. A fish weir at the head of tide in Warren is erected every spring. The harvest is carefully monitored and controlled, while allowing for open fish passage as needed to allow enough alewives to spawn and reproduce. There are many finned and winged predators everywhere along the way to the lake such as northern pike, largemouth bass, ospreys and bald eagles.
Physical obstacles also impair fish passage. However, the single biggest threat to safe alewife passage is the failing, leaky 1971 concrete dam at Quantabacook Lake. A three-year multi-agency cooperative effort is underway to replace and/or repair this dam in order to improve fish passage, while at the same time maintaining the water levels of the impoundment for waterfront homeowners. This project began when the dam owner, a farmer in Searsmont, contacted Georges River chapter of Trout Unlimited (TU) to say she noticed that the passage of alewives was impaired. TU contacted the IFW and the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR). Now the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service and the DMR are working together to complete an engineering survey and to implement a long-term solution. Federal grant money is available to see this project to completion.
Another obstacle for the alewives to overcome is beaver dams. The industrious furry critters have erected two of their own dams on Bartlett Stream, the tributary water to the St. George River from Quantabacook Lake. Every morning of every year during the alewife run the beaver dams must be breached by human volunteers to allow the fish to access their spawning waters.
Then, every night after their dams have been breached the eager workers make quick and solid repairs. The precarious task of breaching the dam every morning is no fun for the humans, and we’re pretty certain that the beavers view the whole process as greatly amusing.
It is especially important that the dams are open after spawning because alewives migrate ‘backwards’ when they return to the ocean. That is, they travel down the river tails first! If a fish plunges downstream tail first into the dam’s fresh tangle of sticks and branches they’ll become stranded and drown. On the morning of June 10th, 2020 when we breached the Bartlett Stream beaver dam, a school of 3,000 spawned out alewives emerged from the deep upstream pool and spilled through the narrow opening. This was a splendid 20-minute sight to see. Spawning in the lake was immediately confirmed when the post mortem examination of a stranded female’s ovaries revealed that she had recently broadcast all her eggs into the lake.
The Georges River Land Trust is proud to lead in contributing to a healthy and promising future for wildlife and humans within the greater watershed. Help us to continue doing what we do for the greater ecosystem. Please donate to help us protect this treasured river today!
Georges River Land Trust Georges River Chapter Trout Unlimited
Board member Vice President and Board member