by Susan Sharon
MPBN news story
Scientists, tribal leaders and fishermen turned out in Augusta today in support of a proposal to immediately restore alewives to their traditional spawning grounds in the St. Croix River, along the eastern border with Canada. Alewives, or river herring, have been blocked for nearly two decades by a state law aimed at protecting the lucrative smallmouth bass fishery in the upper stretches of the river. Many Washington County fishing guides have argued that alewives were decimating the bass, which is a non-native species, but a popular sport fish. But as Susan Sharon reports, supporters of the bill now say science shows otherwise.
It’s a nearly 20-year-old fish tale about the ones that got away – more than two million of them. Back in the 80’s an estimated 2.6 million alewives traveled up the St. Croix River every spring to spawn in upstream lakes. But their numbers plummeted to fewer than 1,000 after the Maine Legislature agreed to board up a fishway at the Woodland Dam in 1995.
“One of the things that really saddens me is that our guides are here defending a non-native fish because they think it will be threatened by the restoration of a native fish,” said George Smith. “And I think we have to turn the corner on that.”
Smith, of Mount Vernon, has turned the corner. During a lengthy public hearing before the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee, Smith said he personally led the 1995 effort to block alewives from moving up the St. Croix to possibly compete with smallmouth bass. At the time Smith was the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. But since then, Smith says he has “respectfully and regretfully concluded he was wrong.”
“Having studied this issue for more than 20 years, listened to hours and days of passionate testimony right here, fished in rivers full of alewives and seen the benefits of all of our work to restore Maines’s natural resources, I think it’s time to let the alewives swim freely in the St. Croix watershed,” Smith said.
Over the years there have been attempts to broker a compromise between Washington County fishing guides, conservation groups and government officials over the restoration of alewives. But such an agreement has been elusive.
Alewives may be the base of the food chain for other fish, mammals and birds of prey and well-sought after as a type of lobster bait, but they are still considered the lesser species by people like Don Kleiner, executive director of the Maine Professional Guides Association. He says his group of 1,000 members opposes any effort to bring back alewives to the St. Croix.
“Guides in the region are dependent on a healthy smallmouth bass population,” he said. “Anything you do to damage the economy in Washington County should give you pause.”
Washington County, the committee was told, has an unemployment rate of 9.6 percent – and that climbs to 50 percent on the Passamaquoddy’s two tribal reservations. The region’s sport bass fishery is estimated to be worth $8 million to the region’s economy.
But the audience groaned when Kleiner suggested that alewives might not have numbered so extensively in the upper stretches of the St. Croix, and that alewives may, in fact, be an invasive species that could carry disease into the watershed.
That prompted this question from Democratic Rep. Mick Devin of Newcastle: “Is there any sort of evidence, is there any sort of data to back up any of your concerns and fears?”
Don Kleiner: “I don’t live in a data-driven world. I’m a guide. I can tell you about my economic impacts and my observations from the stern of a canoe or standing in the bow of a boat.”
Rep. Mick Devin: “I’m not a physicist but I’m not convinced the Martians are about to attack.”
Don Kleiner: “Okay. Fair point.”
Without evidence to back them up, Devin says such statements don’t seem credible. The Marine Resources Committee also heard from members of Maine’s Indian tribes, who stressed their historic reliance on migratory fish such as alewives for food and medicine.
And they heard from Marine Resources Commissioner Pat Keliher, who acknowledged that there is no scientific evidence of negative interactions between alewives and smallmouth bass.
Keliher says it’s theoretically possible that the St. Croix could support more than 20 million alewives, but that will never happen because of the two dams in place. Instead, the LePage administration is supporting an alternative bill that would gradually restore alewives to the river over the next 10 years.
“Is it as fast as people in this room would like? Nope,” Keliher said. “But it does help bring sides together, and it recognizes the value of a very lucrative, freshwater recreational fishing in those communities within Washington County.”
While the administration’s management plan is expected to cost $50,000, supporters of the alternative option point out that restoring alewives to the St. Croix will not cost a dime. All it will take is passing a bill to remove a plywood board from a pair of fishways on the river.