Eighteen years ago, the Legislature approved a blockade that prevented alewives from running up the St. Croix River.
In a historic decision that largely went unnoticed, that blockade will be lifted in a few days after Gov. Paul LePage opted not to veto LD 72.
The bill takes effect Tuesday. The emergency legislation requires the state to ensure, by May 1, that the fishways on the Woodland Dam and the Grand Falls Dam be reconfigured or operated in such a way that “allows the unconstrained passage of river herring.”
“It’s a historic moment,” said Rep. Madonna Soctomah, who represents the Passamaquoddy Tribe in the Legislature. Soctomah sponsored LD 72. “It’s a really good day for Maine people and the environment.”
Alewives spend most of their lives in the ocean but swim up freshwater rivers in the spring to spawn.
If alewives are allowed to run freely along the St. Croix, scientists expect the fish’s population will increase from tens of thousands to 10 million or more. The Legislature approved the blockage in 1995 in response to fishing guides’ concerns that alewives were harming smallmouth bass.
But proponents of the bill contend there is no evidence to support that theory, and they say alewives are an important source of food for larger fish and birds of prey.
“There have been other attempts made in the past to lift the blockade,” said Assistant House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan. “I think this is pretty historic.”
McCabe said the show of overwhelming support for LD 72 persuaded the governor to let the bill become law.
Earlier this month, the Senate voted 33-0 and the House voted 123-24 to enact the measure to remove the blockades.
The governor chose to take no action, according to spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett.
“This bill will become law without the governor’s signature,” Bennett said. “He could not put his signature on this bill.”
Bennett said the governor supported a more moderate bill proposed by the Department of Marine Resources that would have allowed alewives to run in the middle of the St. Croix watershed but not in all of it.
That plan would have prevented alewives from accessing Spednic Lake, West Grand Lake, and all points upstream of those lakes.
The governor’s plan would have required biologists to carefully monitor the impact alewives were having on fisheries.