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Fish Ladder, Energy, and Choice

by: Paul Kando

Damariscotta Mills - It has been said that nothing would exist without energy. This village, which straddles the town line between Nobleboro and Newcastle, certainly would not. Luckily it does and even has a colorful renewable energy-history. In 1729 water-powered sawmills opened here at the head of the falls between Damariscotta Lake and the tidal headwaters of the Damariscotta River. In 1923 Central Maine Power Co. built a 5 megawatt hydroelectric power plant below the falls. Now owned by Canadians, this plant is still in operation. The saw mills, however, are long gone, only the mill pond and the village name remain to evoke their memory. Because the sawmills blocked the alewives' way to their natal waters in the lake, there were legislative concerns expressed about their access to the lake as early as 1741. The "New Stream" fish ladder was finished in 1807. Built of dry-laid field stones, it has severely deteriorated over two centuries of winter-frosts, spring thaws, floods, and occasional hurricanes. With whole sections in ruin, it became near-impossible for the fish to reach the lake yet again.

photo credit: DamariscottaMills.org

After years of stop-gap repairs, a thorough rebuilding project was finally launched in 2007 with the reconstruction of a crumbling section of wall forty feet long and twelve feet high. Since then restoration has proceeded in annual phases, each to be completed between the end of one year's alewife run and the beginning of the next. Timely completion of each phase is a must as the ladder must be open for both the upstream passage of spawning alewives and the downstream run of their young. Heavy machinery cannot easily access the middle section of the ladder, which includes sections most in need of repair. This makes reconstruction of crumbling pools and stone walls there especially challenging.

The restoration project is an impressive display of humans working with nature, not against it; the abundance of fish, birds, energy; and how life and death choices play out here daily. Huge schools of shoulder-to-shoulder alewives mass at the bottom, each 8 ounce, 11 to 12" fish a bundle of energy reserved for the torturous journey up ahead. Seagulls consider this a swirling mass of food - their source of energy. They hang out noisily. Now and then one dives to catch a fish. It must swallow it quickly: its peers would rather wrestle for a meal than fish for it. Far more seagull-energy seems to be expended on bickering than it would take for each bird to catch its own fish - child's play in this pool of wall to wall alewives.

The scene reminds me of humans. Even with plenty of renewable solar, wind, hydro, tidal, wave biomethane, and biomass energy available to us, we still send armies to "defend" energy sources that belong to others, as if they were our own. Lord knows, we also bicker amongst ourselves over every scrap of energy policy and how renewable energy might impact business models based on 19th century needs.

For the fish, surmounting the ladder means an opportunity to spawn, create new life, perpetuate the species. Failure means demise. Such challenges focus the mind. Decisions must be made. Failing to make them means default to someone else's choices. A few yards ahead there is a fork in the stream. Turn right and, after a climb, you reach your goal. Swim straight (seems easier from here) and get trapped. The way is blocked by an impenetrable iron screen. The only option is a stagnant pool whence twice a day the hapless get dumped on a conveyor, on their way to become lobster-bait.

We humans face a similar choice. One path requires transition to a future of enriched lives, human solidarity, and environmental sustainability, based on renewable energy. The other, an easier-looking straightaway of no change, traps us in an economy powered by hyped supplies of fossil energy extracted from under land, ice, and ocean. Unlike alewives, though, we are warned of two impenetrable screens blocking this smoother route: tightening fossil energy supplies, higher prices, shortages, depletion; and the threat of catastrophic, irreversible climate change. Ignore the warning and become trapped, forfeiting the future of grandchildren.

A growing international network of scholars and activists has been working on alternative scenarios in quest of a path to a hopeful future. Scientifically rigorous and humanly inspiring, the message of their Great Transition Initiative is that we can still create a better world by shifting our values and transforming our institutions. Critical to this transition is something the alewives facing their fatal choice don't have: awareness of the danger ahead and the need to revise our ways of living together on this planet. This is our time of choice. We need a vast global citizen movement to bear right at the fork. But only one or two alewives at a time can mount each of the 61 steps of the ladder, one by one until they add up to the more than 41 feet of rise from river to lake. We humans must start small as well, creating change locally, but in a way that inspires others to do likewise.

Enjoy the restoration festival. Marvel at the abundant energy, interdependence and zero waste ways of nature. Then, at home, watch this slideshow Decide or default. The fork ahead is right upon us. A future of happy grandkids or lobster-bait.