Though reduced in numbers, the St. Croix River’s alewives have a lot of friends.
At a legislative hearing Monday, speaker after speaker rose in support of a bill that would open most of the fishways at most of the river’s dams immediately to the small schooling fish, which has been blocked from most of the sprawling watershed since 1995.
Lobster, alewife and groundfishermen spoke in support of a full opening, as did environmentalists, anglers, and representatives of the Passamaquoddy tribal government, the US federal fisheries and inland fish and wildlife agencies, and the government of Canada, which has sovereignty over half the St. Croix watershed and controls a key border-spanning dam on the international river.
“It’s long since time to make the change,” said George Smith, retired longtime head of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, who had previously supported the closure. “I respectfully and regretfully have concluded that we were wrong in 1995. I think full restoration as soon as possible is the right way to go.”
Fishing guides from interior Washington County appeared isolated in their opposition to the restoration of the fish, which stem from their fears they will somehow harm smallmouth bass. None of the legislators on the marine resources committee appeared to champion their cause in the questions they asked during the six-hour hearing.
“Bass and alewives may very well co-exist in a perfect world,” said Dale Tobey, a guide and canoe builder from Grand Lake Stream who is vice president of the Maine Professional Guides Association. “But when you dump two and a half million hungry alewives into a fragile, stressed ecosystem, something’s going to die.”
Alewives, or “river herring,” spend most of their life in the oceans but travel up freshwater rivers in spring to spawn. An important source of food for larger fish, their numbers crashed after dams were constructed on Maine’s rivers in the 19th century. But after fishways were built and pollution reduced in the early 1980s, their annual run grew 13-fold to more than 2.6 million.
In 1995, however, legislators passed a law that ordered the fishways at the Woodland and Grand Falls dams closed to the fish because of the fishing guides’s concerns. The St. Croix alewife runs collapsed to just 900 fish in 2002, a decline of 99.7 percent. The legislature revisited the issue in 2008, but under pressure from the guides and one faction of the Passamaquoddy tribe, it ultimately decided to open only the Woodland Dam in Baileyville to the fish, depriving them of an estimated 94 percent of their habitat.
The current legislature is considering three bills. LD 72, sponsored by Passamaquoddy tribal Rep. Madonnah Soctomah, is an emergency bill that would require the Grand Falls Dam fishway be opened to the “unconstrained passage of river herring” by May 1, in advance of the species’ spring spawning run. This would immediately allow the fish access to more than 24,000 acres of habitat, compared to 1,174 today, and would likely lead Canada to open the fishway at the Vanceboro dam farther upstream — which they control — opening up thousands more acres.
Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, has proposed a similar bill, LD 748. The committee will hold a work session in the coming days or weeks where they will vote on whether to recommend any of the bills, or whether to combine LD 72 and 748.
There was overwhelming opposition at the hearing to a compromise plan put forward by Gov. Paul LePage’s administration. LD 584 embraces a gradual, staged approach to reintroducing the spawning fish to the river called the Adaptive Management Plan, which was drawn up under the auspices of an international treaty body, the International Joint Boundary Commission.
The compromise plan was condemned even by one of its co-authors, National Marine Fisheries Service biologist Rory Saunders, who said it was developed with many things off the table: Scientists were not allowed to include the upper watershed in their analysis and were required to maintain or increase smallmouth bass populations under their recommendations. The Adaptive Management Plan, he said, “would fall well short” of “fully restoring alewife” throughout the watershed, which was his agency’s goal.
Both the National Marine Fisheries Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service oppose the compromise plan and support “unfettered access” for the fish. “The best available science indicates that alewife have no negative impacts on overall water quality, zooplankton communities or recreational fisheries such as smallmouth bass,” US Fish and Wildlife regional director Wendi Weber wrote the international joint commission last week. “To the contrary, published scientific literature and experience demonstrate that alewife provide abundant forage for freshwater bass species” in more than 70 Maine watersheds where the two cohabitate.
George Lapointe, who was marine resources commissioner from 1998 to 2010, said the state had gone forward with the compromise strategy only “because it was the best deal that we could get at the time, not because it was the best deal for the alewife, the St. Croix River, or the environment. Things have changed since then.”
Even the Maine Professional Guides Association has withdrawn its support for the administration’s bill and is holding out against any further spread of the alewife to the watershed on the grounds that it â like the smallmouth bass â is not a native fish. “To date there is no conclusive proof that alewives were present in the system historically and none has been offered although promised frequently,” the group’s executive director, Don Kleiner, said in written testimony. “When the alewife run is on in freshwater, fish simply do not bite,” he added.
Speaking in support of the compromise bill, marine resources commissioner Patrick Keliher acknowledged that it represented an effort at political compromise and did not have a strong scientific basis. “There is a long and contentious history around this issue, and recognizing that the administration is supporting a measured and adaptive approach intended to give confidence to all parties with an interest in the watershed,” he said, noting it would re-open a third of the alewives’ spawning habitat.
“The administration has no problem with the science on the interaction of the [two species] — we believe it is very strong,” Keliher added in response to questions. “There is no evidence about negative interactions that I know about.”
Early 19th-century alewife runs passing Calais and Milltown, New Brunswick, near the river’s mouth, were described by witnesses as coming in “such quantities that it was supposed they never could be destroyed,” according to an official 1852 New Brunswick government report. Numerous scientific studies show that smallmouth bass — which were introduced into the St. Croix in 1877 — have lived harmoniously with spawning alewives in hundreds of Maine rivers and lakes.
Environmentalists and marine fisheries advocates say restoring the alewife population will benefit both the freshwater and marine ecosystems, because they are a source of food for smallmouth bass, cod and other species. One researcher estimated that if spawning runs were allowed access to the entire watershed, alewives could number more than 20 million, up from just over 31,000 now, with access confined to the lowest stretch of the river south of the Grand Falls Dam.
Historical fisheries researcher Ted Ames, a former groundfisherman who represents the Penobscot East Resource Center, said the destruction of the alewives contributed to the disappearance of inshore cod and haddock stocks in eastern Maine, and that their restoration could help bring them back. “It promises a renewal of groundfish in eastern Maine again,” he said. “It is an incredible opportunity.”
Canadian diplomat Aaron Annable said his government seeks “open passage” for the St. Croix alewives “as fast as possible”, noting that their presence “poses no threat to the basin’s smallmouth bas population.”
Ottawa’s stance — echoed in recent letters to LePage — likely dooms the governor’s compromise plan, which would require Canada to close the fishways of the Vanceboro Dam, which they control. Harvey W Millar, area director for southwestern New Brunswick at the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, told the Press Herald the fishway is currently open, and the decisions about what to do there were Maine to open the Grand Falls dam downstream would be guided by “good fisheries management practices based on scientific based information.”
“We’ve heard the concerns people have had about the bass and the alewives and our science has looked into that and we have concluded that the alewives pose no threat to the bass,” Millar added.