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September 8, 2020

Dam upgrade brings Cobbosseecontee watershed closer to commercial fishing

One man on top of a cement mixer watches two other men near a stream lowering equipment into the water Courtesy / Upstream A work crew begins pouring concrete at the American Tissue Dam, owned by Kruger Energy, on Cobbosseecontee Stream in Gardiner. The dam is being upgraded to allow migratory fish passage.

An upgrade to a dam on Cobbosseecontee Stream in Gardiner will allow migratory fish passage for the first time in 259 years and bring the large Cobbosseecontee watershed closer to producing enough fish for commercial fishing.

Montreal-based Kruger Energy is upgrading the American Tissue Dam to allow downstream fish passage improvements for eels and alewives and upstream passage for eels. The changes are required to be done for 2021's fish migration under the dam's 40-year license approved in April 2019.

The Maine Department of Marine Resources has estimated that fish passages in the three dams on Cobbosseecontee Stream would allow 3 million or more adult alewives to migrate the stream a year, enough to support commercial fishing in the watershed. Alewives attract cod, and are also used as bait in the lobster industry. Baby eels, commonly known as elvers, are an increasingly lucrative industry and were being sold for $2,300 a pound in 2018.

"This is a dream come true after five years of hard work and the very first efforts writing comments for federal relicensing," said Tina Wood, president of Upstream, an environmental group working on restoring sea-run fish to the Cobbossee watershed. "This is a big piece of the puzzle of fish passage and watershed health."

The license requires installation of upstream eel passage by June 1, 2021; downstream eel passage by May 1, 2021; and downstream diadromous fish passage by Aug. 15, 2021, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

Cobboseecontee Stream was fist dammed at its head of tide in 1761, and is the second-largest coastal watershed in Maine still impassible to native migratory fish. The first is the Presumpscot River-Sebago Lake watershed. The Cobboseecontee Stream watershed comprises 20.3 square miles of lakes and ponds; the largest are Cobbossee, Maranacook and Annabessacook lakes.

Ongoing fish passage effort

The dam is in the middle of three and the only one used for hydroelectric generation. The upstream Little Falls Dam, owned by Gardiner, West Gardiner and Litchfield, holds back Pleasant Pond, and was upgraded for fish passage several years ago.

The American Tissue Dam was built in 1900 about a mile upstream from the stream's confluence with the Kennebec River. The dam is river-run — meaning its purpose isn't to hold back water, but for the water's flow to generate energy. It produces about 5,430 megawatt hours of energy a year, according to its license application.

The dam is a fully owned subsidiary of Kruger Energy Inc., which owns 15 dams in Maine. Kruger officials couldn't immediately be reached for comment on the project Tuesday. The dam and its powerhouse were damaged by fire in the 1970s, and rebuilt, including a new powerhouse, to continue operation in 1983.

The dam closest to the river, the Gardiner Paperboard Dam, hasn't operated since 2000 and still doesn't allow alewive passage, but Kruger must provide upstream passage for alewive for when it does. An effort has been underway since 2004 to remove the Gardiner Paperboard Dam, which was built near the confluence with the Kennebec more than 180 years ago.

Historically, Cobbosseecontee Stream supported runs of diadromous fish — those that live in saltwater, but are born and return to spawn in freshwater — including striped bass, blueback herring, alewife, rainbow smelt, American shad, Atlantic salmon and American eel.

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