More than two years ago, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association joined the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the Atlantic Salmon Federation, Maine Rivers and nearly 50 other conservation, sporting, and commercial fishing groups in petitioning the International Joint Commission (IJC) to reopen the St. Croix to alewives. These groups were evenly split between the US and Canada. Maine blocked the St. Croix alewife run in 1995 at the request of fishing guides near Grand Lake Stream who believed that alewives caused the decline of smallmouth bass in Spednic Lake in the 1980s. There is no scientific evidence to support this claim, how-ever. Alewives and smallmouth bass coexist happily in thousands of other watersheds.
We petitioned the IJC to open up the river because of the repeated unwillingness of the Maine Legislature to overturn its terrible 1995 decision. As a result of the closure of the St. Croix, alewife numbers collapsed from more than 2.5 million in the late 1980s to only 1300 in 2007. The population has recovered to about 50,000 fish since the Atlantic Salmon Federation staff, with the blessing of Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, started trucking fish around the Woodland Dam. The Maine Legislature also reopened the Woodland impoundment which comprises about 2% of historic alewife habitat. However, the run is tiny compared to what it could be and cannot support any commercial harvest. The Maine Department of Marine Resources estimates the St. Croix has the potential to support a run of more than 20 million fish. This is as many alewives as the Penobscot and Kennebec rivers combined could support.
The IJC is a six member commission made up of three Americans and three Canadians. It oversees the U.S.-Canada Boundary waters treaty of 1909. The treaty states the following about the IJC: “This International Joint Commission shall have jurisdiction over and shall pass upon all cases involving the use or obstruction or diversion of the waters” between the U.S. and Canada.
Given the clear mandate in the Treaty giving the IJC sole authority of international waters between the U.S. and Canada and the clear ecological and economic value of alewives, we have been surprised and disappointed that the IJC has not acted forcefully to undo Maine’s terrible law. The IJC developed a plan for restoration of alewives to the river that no one working for alewife restoration supports because it is so timid.
The plan placed a stronger emphasis on protecting small mouth bass than restoring alewives, which reinforces the incorrect perception that alewives are somehow harmful to smallmouth bass. They are not. Smallmouth bass eat alewives, not the other way around. In fact, just about everything eats alewives. Alewives make great lobster bait. Striped bass eat alewives. Cod, pollock, haddock, halibut and hake also eat alewives. Research from the Penobscot East Resource Center links the drastic drop in nearshore populations of these important food species in part to the decline in alewives. Where alewives come in close to shore, these other species follow. Without alewife restoration, restoring our nearshore ground fisheries likely will be impossible.
Alewives have other ecological benefits too. Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IFW) recently did an eagle survey on the Sebasticook River, where alewife numbers have rebounded dramatically due to the removal of the Edwards and Fort Halifax Dams and the installation of fish passage at dams upstream. IFW counted 35 eagles in a three-mile stretch of river below Benton Falls. The only other time IFW sees aggregations of eagles on this level is when they artificially enhance food availability by putting out carcasses or where ice fisherman have left out fish for eagles to eat. IFW also noted unusually large concentrations of osprey nests in the area.
The benefits of alewives are clear. A restored alewife run on the St. Croix will provide bait for lobstermen, help depleted groundfish stocks and feed many species of wildlife that prey on fish. Elsewhere in Maine people are working hard to restore alewives for these reasons, but no river in the state holds as much promise for alewife restoration as the St. Croix. Restoring St. Croix alewives would also be virtually free. The fishways already exist at the dams on the river; the State of Maine just needs to stop blocking them.
Once again another season has passed without the IJC letting alewives into their historic spawning grounds. At a meeting in Canada in June, a local IJC representative stated that it could only advise and could not just order alewife restoration in the St. Croix. We believe this clearly contradicts the plain language of the Boundary Waters Treaty, and we strongly urge the IJC to act before yet another spring run of fish is stopped cold.