Visitors to the Penobscot Marine Museum's "Gone Fishing!" exhibition, opening later this month, will have a chance to stroll through a fishing weir on dry land and with no risk of being scooped up and sent to a sardine cannery.

This latest roadside curiosity, built in collaboration with Unity College art students, is a replica of the traditional fish traps used by Native Americans and later European settlers.

At one time weirs like this were a common sight on the Maine coast. Penobscot Marine Museum Photo Archivist Kevin Johnson noted 35 weirs between Searsport and Stockton Springs in documents from 1873. And though these mostly have been replaced by dragnet fishing boats, he said, they ushered in the mass fishing techniques that have both blessed and plagued the fishing industry and the habitats that sustain it.

"Gone Fishing!" will highlight the wider swings in this history on a timeline drawn from the trade journal National Fisherman.

Typically as fishing technology got better, it became easier to overfish, gutting pockets of the sea, which left gaps in the food chain and dead zones.

Dams built to power mills and generate electricity disrupted the migration cycles of Atlantic salmon, shad, alewives and other fish that use the rivers to get to and from spawning grounds. Industrial pollution diminished and contaminated catches.

"All these forces were working in tandem to fish us out," Johnson said.

In American or Canadian-style weirs, like the one replicated at the museum, a straight fence runs perpendicular to the shoreline into a bowl-shaped enclosure. Herrings swimming parallel to the shore at night would bump into the fence then swim alongside it into the bowl where they would circle instinctively until fishermen arrived in the morning to scoop them out, often by the tens of thousands.

In Maine, herring were used for lobster bait and canned as sardines. In glut times, surpluses were shunted into pet food and fertilizer. In 1962, Belfast Canning Co., which would later become Stinson Seafood Co., reported packing a million sardines a day.

For practical reasons, the replica weir at Penobscot Marine Museum will have only about 50 herrings — wooden cutouts wrapped in silver foil and zip-tied to a fence of donated seine netting. Unity College Art Professor Ben Potter, whose students made the fish said it wouldn't have been practical to do many more, and having just a few sort of worked with the theme of the show.

"Maybe the sparseness of the fish is the message there," he said.

The decline of the herring fishery has been well documented in Maine, in large part because the fish are used as bait for the state's world-renowned lobsters.

Johnson said he was thinking of a graphic way to invert the show's title so that it could be read in reverse: "Fishing Gone!"

"Because there are no more fish left," he said.

However, he was quick to say that the outlook isn't all doom and gloom. In recent years the removal of hydroelectric dams, most recently Veazie Dam, has brought back river herring — more commonly known as alewives — and other fish that migrate between fresh and saltwater.

"Gone Fishing!" will include features for those simply curious about the fishing industry, including replicas of new and old fishing boat pilot houses and an interactive exhibit that allows visitors to pull a lobster trap up from the basement while standing on a platform designed to tip like a dory.

Students from Herring Gut Learning Center in Port Clyde will present live displays of fish and kelp farming (aquaculture and aquaponics) in two aquariums in the exhibition.

"Gone Fishing!" opens Memorial Day weekend and runs from May 27 to Oct. 15. For more information visit