50 U.S. and Canadian Groups Petition International Body
McAdam, New Brunswick, Canada—Fifty organizations from the United States and Canada have called upon the International Joint Commission (IJC) to require that the St. Croix River be opened up for passage of alewives (river herring). The lead groups in this effort are the Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF) (based in St. Andrews, NB, Canada), Maine Rivers (MR), and the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM).
This action is being taken because Maine state law since 1995 has blocked upstream passage of alewives past the Grand Falls dam, and efforts to amend the prohibition have been blocked by Maine lawmakers – even though alewife passage in the St. Croix is supported by the Maine Department of Marine Resources; Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife; Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans; U.S. Department of Interior; U.S. Department of Commerce; many conservation organizations and commercial fisherman; and the Maine Lobstermen’s Association and Alewife Harvesters of Maine.
The IJC, the US-Canadian governmental body with jurisdiction over the St. Croix River, and its International St. Croix River Watershed Board, heard a presentation about the petition and about the ecology and history of alewives in the St. Croix watershed during a public meeting held in McAdam, New Brunswick on Wednesday, June 17th.
The vast majority of those attending Wednesday night’s meeting supported opening up the river to alewives. Attendees in support included representatives of tribes, and conservation, sportsman and commercial fishing groups from the U.S. and Canada.
Alewives are a critical fish species to river ecosystems, serving as a source of food for striped bass and many other fish species, birds, and wildlife. In 1987, more than 2.6 million alewives swam up the St. Croix to their ancestral breeding grounds. With the closure of the river to alewives, however, this year’s alewife run has dropped to less than 4,000. The St. Croix has one of the largest spawning habitats for alewives in the entire U.S., but the unilateral action by Maine prevents alewives from reaching 98% of their traditional spawning habitat.
Alewife passage has been blocked because a group of inland fishing guides believe that alewives pose a threat to smallmouth bass, a non-native fish.
In a letter to the IJC, the three lead organizations (ASF, Maine Rivers, and NRCM) state: “Opponents of alewife passage have mistakenly relied on hunches in the face of solid scientific research showing that alewives pose no threat to the bass population.”
“The St. Croix is an international waterway; therefore, citizens on both sides of the border have the right to benefit from its resources, including alewives. Maine should not be allowed to prevent alewife restoration in this river. Doing so harms the environment, the marine fishing industry, and Canadian citizens in the region,” said Tom Benjamin, President of the New Brunswick Salmon Council, one of ASF’s seven regional councils.
“Alewives, a keystone species, play an essential role in maintaining the health of the St. Croix River and fisheries off the coast of Maine,” said Brownie Carson, Executive Director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “We used to be able to feed the people of Maine with the bounty of our near-shore ground fisheries. Now those fisheries are almost gone, and they won’t come back unless the St. Croix alewife run is restored.”
The St. Croix is potentially the most productive river in Maine for alewives. The Maine Department of Marine Resources says that if alewife passage were restored, the St. Croix would produce nearly as many alewives as the Penobscot and Kennebec Rivers combined.
“The St. Croix was designated a Canadian Heritage River in 1991, placing it in an elite group of Canada’s most historic and beautiful rivers,” said Bill Taylor, President of the Atlantic Salmon Federation. “Preventing alewives from accessing their native habitat throughout the watershed mars the river’s heritage designation and threatens efforts to reestablish Atlantic salmon in this internationally significant river.”
“Scientific studies show that alewives and smallmouth bass coexist in bodies of water from Canada to North Carolina,” said Bill Townsend, President Emeritus of Maine Rivers. “In fact, smallmouth bass seem to do better in lakes with alewives. Blocking alewives, a resource that commercial fishermen in both Maine and Canada need to get back on their feet, is misguided, and the IJC should stop Maine from doing this.”
ASF, MR, NRCM, and 48 other groups in Canada and the US are petitioning the IJC to initiate a review of this issue, with the objective of opening fishways at St. Croix River dams to alewife passage. Some of the other groups that have already signed on in support of this appeal include: the Maine Lobsterman’s Association, National Wildlife Federation, Alewife Harvesters of Maine, Fort Folly First Nation, Canadian Wildlife Federation, Trout Unlimited and its Maine Council, Trout Unlimited Canada, the Penobscot East Resource Center, the Maliseet Nation Conservation Council, the Downeast Lobsterman’s Association, and the Nature Conservancy of Canada.