The state committee charged with recommending whether to let alewives back into the upper reaches of the St. Croix River should base its decision on science, not anecdotes or politics, and approve a bill to allow the river herring unfettered access to spawning ground.
Standing before the Committee on Marine Resources on Monday, Maine Guides vehemently opposed bills that would permit alewives to return to waters north of the Grand Falls Dam in Washington County. They cited a time in the mid- to late 1980s when alewife numbers increased and bass populations — on which the guides’ livelihoods rely — diminished.
There is, however, no evidence that the two events were connected. A 10-year study by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and the New Brunswick Department of Natural Resources concluded that a lake drawdown of 9 to 14 feet made the bass’s protective rock habitat disappear and they were forced to compete for food and habitat with other fish.
The loss of habitat, not the alewives, was responsible for the bass decline. Alewives and bass coexist in many Maine waters. In fact, striped, smallmouth and largemouth bass are known to eat alewives.
Nonetheless, in 1995, the Maine Legislature voted to close the Woodland and Grand Falls fishways; the alewife population plummeted from 2.6 million in 1987 to 900 fish in 2002. The law was amended in 2008 to open the fishway at Woodland, but alewives have still been prevented from reaching 98 percent of their traditional spawning ground.
Considering the research, it’s puzzling why the LePage administration wants to take a compromise approach and limit the number of alewives allowed to return to the northern waters of the St. Croix.
Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, testified Monday in favor of LD 584, sponsored by Rep. Windol Weaver, R-York, to tie the allowable number of alewives to the health of the bass population, even though he said there is no evidence alewives harm bass.
“We believe the science is very strong,” Keliher said.
He’s right. Not only have studies confirmed that alewives and bass can and do coexist, research shows that healthy alewife populations benefit the larger freshwater and marine ecosystem. They protect migrating Atlantic salmon by acting as alternative prey for birds such as osprey and eagles. And nearly everything eats them, including tuna, cod, haddock, halibut, brook trout, lake trout, landlocked salmon, pike, white and yellow perch, seals, whales, otters, foxes and turtles.
Macauley Lord, who has written two books about fly-fishing and taught it for almost 30 years, told the committee Monday that he has caught smallmouth bass with alewives coming out of their mouths.
Ted Ames, a MacArthur Foundation ” genius grant” recipient, testified that restoring the sea-run alewives to the St. Croix watershed could benefit Maine’s groundfish stocks.
So limiting river herring to six fish per acre unless the bass population increases beyond a certain baseline, as LD 584 would do, smells like politics, not science.
LD 584 would also not be of great help to Maine’s important lobster industry. Alewives make good bait for catching lobster, and having more of them could prevent lobstermen from having to import expensive bait from away.
For once and for all, the committee should decide to let alewives freely return from the ocean to their river to spawn. To do that, it can support LD 72, sponsored by Rep. Madonna Soctomah of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, to authorize unconstrained passage.
“Our culture tells us everything is connected,” Brenda Commander, tribal chief of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, told the committee, speaking in favor of LD 72. “Environmental stewardship is fundamental to cultural survival.”
Culture, Atlantic salmon, the lobster industry, the broader environment and even bass fishermen could benefit from the alewives’ return. The state should remove the wooden board blocking the fish passage at Grand Falls Dam before the river herring’s spring spawning run. There is still time if LD 72 is passed on an emergency basis. Is there the political pluck?