Five years later, the policy of blocking alewives was looking increasingly anachronistic.
AUGUSTA — By May 1, alewives could have a clear path up the St. Croix River drainage for the first time in 18 years. After a contentious hearing March 25 which lasted almost four hours, the work session April 1 at which the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee unanimously approved a bill opening two dams on the lower St. Croix was almost anti-climatic.
Sen. Chris Johnson, D-Somerville, the committee’s co-chairman, said after the five-minute work session, “That was the fastest report we’ve dealt with in almost two years.” Because LD 72 was approved unanimously, it went to the House’s consent calendar Tuesday, bypassing a floor vote, and could receive final votes in the House and Senate in the coming days.
Passage for alewives was blocked in 1995 after the Legislature approved placing flashboards on the St. Croix dams’s fishways after guides in the Grand Lake Stream area claimed alewives were decimating the small mouth bass fry they depend on for their 12-week season. The blockage was maintained despite efforts to repeal the law in 2001, and a more determined campaign in 2008 that opened only 1 percent of spawning habitat to alewives which, with their fellow forage fish, the blue-backed herring, are known as river herring.
But five years later, the policy of blocking alewives was looking increasingly anachronistic. As former Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Commissioner Buck Owen said at the hearing, “We’re spending $60 million on the Penobscot River to remove dams and improve fishways for anadromous fish, including alewives. On the St. Croix, we can do if for free.”
In 1994, the last year the fish had free passage, 2.6 million alewives ascended the St. Croix drainage, perhaps the most fertile in the state. By the next year, fewer than 1,000 were counted.
Owen noted that at the time, he and then-Marine Resources William Brennan opposed closing the dams, but their testimony was disregarded. He said the loss of small mouth bass fry wasn’t caused by alewife competition, but by a massive drawdown of Spednic Lake by 10 feet a few years earlier that eliminated spawning habitat.
The alternative to LD 72, which calls for full passage, was LD 584, requested by the LePage administration, which called for implementation of an “adaptive management plan” written in 2010 which would restore alewives gradually and halt passage if small mouth bass numbers declined.
But even Marine Resources Commissioner Pat Keliher, who testified for the bill â which was unanimously rejected by the committee â said he saw no evidence that alewives negatively affected small mouth bass numbers.
“We’re comfortable with the science,” he said, referring to studies showing no adverse impact.
And George Lapointe, marine resources commissioner from 1998-2010, said he “agreed with the [adaptive management] plan in principle” at the time “not because it was the best thing for alewives, the St. Croix River or the environment,” but because “it was the best deal we could get.” It was never implemented.
Since then, Lapointe said, “things have changed.” Maine’s Indian tribes, who were divided on the issue in 2008, were unanimously in favor of passage, and representatives of the Passamaquoddies, Penobscots and Maliseets all testified for LD 72, sponsored by Rep. Madonna Soctomah of the Passamaquoddy tribe.
Other support for the bill was delivered by the Canadian government, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Environmental Protection Agency, and Maine environmental groups, including Maine Audubon and the Natural Resources Council of Maine. EPA had served notice that restricting fish passage violated the Clean Water Act, though the state disagreed.
Only the Maine guides continued to argue against either version of alewife passage, with their lobbyist, Don Kleiner, trying to cast doubt on the studies showing no impact on bass. After saying that alewives “may have a disease impact,” he was challenged by committee member Rep. Michael Devin, D-Newcastle, who asked, “Do you have any evidence for that?” Devin later added, “Martians may be landing in Maine soon, but I wouldn’t call it likely.”
Several supporters of passage said alewife runs of as many as 11 million fish were possible on the St. Croix, but other speakers said the dam spillways would still limit passage. DMR’s Keliher said that the 2.6 million fish reported 20 years ago might be the maximum unless fishways are rebuilt.
“They only have two weeks to make the passage, and there are only so many fish that can fit through,” he said.
Lobstermen use alewives as baitfish and several speakers noted that with bait prices rising, stronger alewife runs could help moderate that trend.
George Smith, who as Sportsman Alliance of Maine director testified for the 1995 bill blocking the river, said, “We made a mistake that we should undo,” adding, “I’m really hoping this is the last round on this issue.”