Restoring Fish Habitats and Strengthening Resilience to Storms
Sea Grant's community partnerships in the Penobscot River Watershed
By Catherine Schmitt, Maine Sea Grant
Orland is a small town in eastern Maine, located at the confluence of the Orland and Penobscot Rivers near the head of Penobscot Bay. Like many New England towns, Orland finds itself confronting aging infrastructure left over from an industrial past: a dam across the Orland River at head of tide, once associated with the nineteenth-century lumber business and twentieth-century pulp and paper manufacturing. Today, the industries are gone but the dam remains, causing several problems.
A view of the Orland Village Dam looking downstream (seaward) at high tide. Note the water level is nearly over the dam. Image: Catherine Schmitt, Maine Sea Grant.
The dam sits precariously at the head of tide, just inches above a high tide that has likely crept upward with sea level rise. On monthly spring tides and during storms, incoming saltwater overtops the dam. This threatens the stability of the rock and timber dam structure, and may create water quality issues in the upstream impoundment, which is known as the Narramissic River and is surrounded by a picture-postcard village. Heavy precipitation events can cause downstream flooding, and the dam twice has had to be repaired after storms.
The dam also doesn’t do a very good job of passing fish. Each spring, hundreds of thousands of alewives and blueback herring ascend the Orland River on their way to freshwater spawning grounds. The fish support a small, town-operated harvest, one of a few dozen commercially harvested fish runs in the State of Maine. Atlantic salmon, federally listed as endangered and a NOAA “Species in the Spotlight,” are also present. But the fish ladder at the dam only works part of the tide cycle, and there is no dedicated downstream passage for outmigrating fish. The fish populations have likely suffered. But given the existing fish run and the great potential for even more fish, Maine Sea Grant is working with NOAA Fisheries, The Nature Conservancy, and the Town of Orland to evaluate options for improving fish passage, including possible dam removal.
Participants in the Orland River Day community paddle races along the Narramissic (Orland) River (looking upstream). Image: Catherine Schmitt, Maine Sea Grant.
The work is part of NOAA’s Penobscot River Watershed "Habitat Blueprint" or Habitat Focus Area. Building on the landmark efforts of the Penobscot River Restoration Project, NOAA offices are working together to ensure that the many of the tributaries and ponds in the Penobscot watershed are accessible for the fish and other aquatic wildlife that need to reach these waters. These areas are fragmented by more than 2,000 culverts and hundreds of dams that act as barriers to fish migration.
Maine Sea Grant’s role is to help communicate the costs and benefits of habitat restoration, and to address the information needs of local communities, such as Orland, who are considering improvements in fish passage. For the past year, I’ve been meeting with the town committee charged with evaluating options. One of my first tasks was to compile a history of river fisheries in Orland. We are finding that many towns, having been cut off from the sea so long ago, no longer think of themselves as “coastal communities.” Yet Orland was once a major fishing location for Native Americans and a colonial port, sending vessels to the cod fishing grounds of the North Atlantic. Local residents harvested millions of alewives, blueback herring, shad, Atlantic salmon, rainbow smelt, and other migratory fish.
Harvesting river herring (alewives and blueback herring) in Orland, Maine. The majority of the fish are sold by the town for lobster bait, with profits supporting schools and other municipal services, as is the tradition in Maine. Image: J. Beaty.
Providing information about fisheries heritage has been a special focus for Maine Sea Grant in the last few years, with the creation of the Downeast Fisheries Trail and related efforts. As part of our work with the Habitat Focus Area, we are also translating technical information from feasibility studies to help residents understand how their town might change if the dam were to be removed, and in the process learning more about local sense of place.