Tradition has called the Damariscotta a river, but ecologists call it an estuary – the tidal interface between river and ocean where freshwater and saltwater ecosystems mix. The tidal range in the Damariscotta is significant – as much as eleven feet – and at low tide there are extensive areas of the upper estuary that can be inaccessible.
The waters of the Damariscotta are some of the cleanest coastal waters in the State of Maine. Our local wildlife and our economy both rely on clean water to stay productive and healthy. The Coastal Rivers Conservation Trust, the Great Salt Bay Sanitary District, and all the communities along the estuary have worked very hard over many years to clean up these waters.
Protecting key freshwater wetlands and shore land nearby and eliminating sewage sources has made it possible to observe an abundance of wildlife and enjoy clams, mussels, scallops, and oysters straight from these waters.
Did You Know?
- The estuary occupies an ancient valley uncovered by receding glacial ice more than 10,000 years ago. It is believed to have been named “Damariscotta” by Native Americans, meaning “a place of many fish” though alternative origins of the word have also been suggested.
- The Damariscotta River Watershed covers an area of 103 square miles, stretching from the headwaters of Damariscotta Lake to the Atlantic Ocean. The watershed includes at least 25 upland natural community types such as maritime spruce-fir forests, salt marsh habitat, vernal pools and oak hardwood forests. The estuary is the region where the fresh and salt water mix from the head-of-tide in Damariscotta Mills to Fort Island, where the impact of fresh water becomes negligible.
- Everything on the land and in the water within the watershed, has the potential to drain into the estuary. The estuary provides a wide variety of natural resources and services, as well as aesthetic and recreation value. The combined value of fisheries and businesses associated with the Damariscotta River Estuary annually was determined to be $13 million in 1994 (Damariscotta River Estuary Project).
- Huge heaps of discarded oyster shells (middens), some as deep as 30 feet, have been carbon-dated to 2,200 years old. The Whaleback and Glidden middens are the largest and are open for public viewing via trails.
- Each May, thousands of alewives (a small herring-like fish) migrate upriver into Great Salt Bay and then climb a 40-foot fish ladder to spawn in freshwater Damariscotta Lake. Built in the early 1800s, the fish ladder is the oldest in the United States!
- The river is 12 miles long from Thrumcap Island to the bridge in Damariscotta/Newcastle. Choke points and swift currents are found just off Fort Island, at Glidden Ledge, and at the Goose Ledges, as well as the entire section from the Route 1B (Main Street) bridge to the main Route 1 bridge.
- Between 1779 and 1924 as many as 29 shipyards built more than 400 ships, including 5-masted schooners, full-rigged ships, brigs, barks, and sloops. 28 ships were launched in 1847 alone.
- By 1840, almost all the trees along the shore had been cut down. Timber was needed for shipbuilding, housing, exports, and to fuel the numerous brickyards which lined both sides of the river – as many as 9 on the western shore.
- Reddish areas along the shore identify sites where brick-making was located. Deep marine clays along the river spawned a thriving brick-making industry that began around 1830 and lasted only until 1850. Bricks were loaded onto boats and delivered to many expanding cities, including New York and Boston. Unopened kilns full of fired brick can still be found and they attest to the precipitous crash of this market.
- 30 billion gallons of water surge through the river on each tidal cycle. The estuary provides habitat for seals, osprey, eagles, lobsters, horseshoe crabs, and numerous species of fish, including striped bass, bluefish, herring, flounder, and many more.
- Aquaculture is one of the major economic interests on the river, with 30 leases totaling over 100 acres. 80% of Maine’s oysters are grown here, as well as blue mussels and hard-shell clams.