AUGUSTA — The Legislature Wednesday moved closer to enacting a bill that would end an 18-year blockade of alewives from running in most of the St. Croix River.
The bill, L.D. 72, passed the Senate, 32-3, on Tuesday. On Wednesday the House voted 123-24, to enact the measure. The margins are sufficient to enact the emergency bill. If signed by Gov. Paul LePage, the bill would allow the spring runs of the schooling fish to begin before the end of the month.
The bill lifts a blockade passed by the Legislature in 1995 amid concerns from fishing guides that the alewives were harming smallmouth bass, a non-native fishery in the St. Croix, but the source of recreational income for some in the region.
Concerns that restoring the alewives run would harm the smallmouth fishery persisted among lawmakers who opposed the bill. However, proponents said there was little scientific basis that the schooling fish endangered the resource.
The bill, if signed by the governor, would allow spring runs of alewives through the fishway at the Grand Falls Dam near Princeton and through much of the St. Croix watershed.
Scientists expect alewives’s numbers to increase from tens of thousands to 10 million or more, and predict benefits for the St. Croix and eastern Maine marine ecosystems.
Alewives, also known as “river herring,” spend most of their lives in the ocean, but swim up freshwater rivers in spring to spawn.
An important source of food for larger fish, the alewife population crashed after dams were built on Maine’s rivers in the 19th century.
After fishways were built and pollution was reduced in the early 1980s, the annual run grew 13-fold, to more than 2.6 million.
The 1995 blockade action by the Legislature reduced the alewives run to just 900 fish in 2002, a decline of 99.7 percent.
The Legislature revisited the issue in 2008, but only opened the Woodland Dam in Baileyville to the fish, thus closing off an estimated 94 percent of the alewive habitat.
LD 72, sponsored by Passamaquoddy Rep. Madonna Soctomah, would effectively undo the 1995 and 2008 laws, letting the fish pass through the two dams.
The bill is by supported lobstermen, groundfishing interests, environmental groups, Indian tribes and the U.S. and Canadian governments, which share sovereignty over the watershed straddling the Maine-New Brunswick border.
Canada has made it clear that it intends to let the fish pass the upstream Vanceboro dam, which Canada controls. That would give the fish access to the entire eastern branch of the watershed. On the western branch, the alewives would have access as far as West Grand Lake Stream dam.