After nearly 20 years of exile from their native waters, alewives will once again migrate up the St. Croix River watershed. The Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF) is pleased that Bill LD 72 became law on Monday, requiring state officials to remove barriers to fish passage at Grand Falls Dam. The law comes into effect just in time as the alewives begin their up-river migration to their spawning grounds, and scientists are optimistic that a healthy run will be re-established.
Though the Grand Falls Dam originally provided passage for migratory fish species including alewives, the fishway was closed in 1995 amidst fears that alewives would out-compete small mouth bass, which are an introduced sport fish. Scientists argue that there is no scientific evidence to suggest that the two species can’t coexist. John Burrows, director of ASF’s New England Programs has been actively involved in the debate since the fishway was closed. He said, “Yes, alewives can consume a great deal of food during their freshwater life stage that is also eaten by small mouth bass, but there has never been any scientific evidence to suggest that the two species can’t coexist. In fact, they do coexist in other watersheds throughout the region.”
Since the St. Croix River forms the borderline between the United States and Canada, decisions that affect this watershed are normally made cooperatively through the St. Croix Board of the International Join Commission (IJC). The decision to close the fish way in 1995 was made unilaterally by the Maine Legislature, without consultation through IJC or with the Canadian Government. Nor were there consultations with Aboriginal groups, fishermen, or members of the public on either side of the border.
On Monday, that decision will be reversed, with a commitment from the Maine legislature to have the fishway operational by May 1. Lee Sochasky, whom ASF has contracted to monitor the alewife run, has been involved with fish assessments on the St Croix River since 1991. She will be counting alewives at Grand Falls Dam this year and is optimistic that the population will rebound.
She said, “Since the law was passed as an emergency action, it will be enacted immediately. This year we should be looking at runs on the order of 50-60 thousand fish, and the trend will be upwards from there.”
Historically, the St. Croix River alewife run numbered in the millions. In the years following the closure of the Grand Falls Dam fishway, the run dropped as low as 900. Since then the population has been maintained by physically transporting fish around the dam each spring.
This year, for the first time in almost two decades, alewives will pass through the dam uninhibited. With them, alewives bring an important source of marine derived nutrients into the watershed, which helps to support the health of the ecosystem, said Mr. Burrows. “Alewives are one of the most important fish species we have in the Gulf of Maine ecosystem. They are eaten by almost everything out there, and in a watershed that can support such a huge run, they are economically important too.”
Speaking on behalf of ASF, Mr. Burrows’ sentiments are echoed throughout many of the communities that have been affected by the fishway’s closure over the past two decades. “It’s frustrating that it took so much time and so many resources to reverse that decision,”, he said, “but the good news is that the river will be open. We’re in the early days of the next chapter of this River’s history.”