AUGUSTA — A key legislative committee has endorsed a measure that would open most of the St. Croix River to alewives by the end of this month.
The emergency legislation, LD 72, received unanimous approval from the legislators at Monday morning’s vote. It needs final approval from the full House and Senate. The votes could take place as early as Wednesday.
If passed and signed by the governor, the bill would end the Legislature’s 18-year blockade against the small schooling fish, allowing spring runs of alewives to pass through the fishway at the Grand Falls Dam near Princeton and on through much of the St. Croix watershed. Scientists expect their numbers to increase from tens of thousands to ten million or more, and predict benefits for both the St. Croix and eastern Maine marine ecosystems.
“It’s the right thing to do for Maine, it’s the right thing to do for the [Indian] tribes, it’s the right thing to do for the fish,” said a visibly pleased Jeffrey Pierce, executive director of the Alewife Harvesters of Maine. “It will create food to help bring back cod and haddock and silver hake and pollock.”
The measure had been bitterly opposed by fishing guides from interior Washington County who fear the alewives will somehow harm smallmouth bass. Don Kleiner, executive director of the Maine Professional Guides Association said he was “disappointed,” but had no further comment.
Alewives, or “river herring,” spend most of their life in the oceans but travel up freshwater rivers in spring to spawn. An important source of food for larger fish, their numbers crashed after dams were constructed on Maine’s rivers in the 19th century. But after fishways were built and pollution reduced in the early 1980s, their annual run grew thirteen-fold to more than 2.6 million.
In 1995, however, Maine legislators passed a law at the behest of fishing guides that ordered the fishways at the Woodland and Grand Falls dams closed to the fish, whose runs collapsed to just 900 fish in 2002, a decline of 99.7 percent. The Legislature revisited the issue in 2008, but ultimately decided to open only the Woodland Dam in Baileyville to the fish, depriving them of an estimated 94 percent of their habitat.
LD 72, sponsored by Passamaquoddy Rep. Madonna Soctomah, would effectively undo the 1995 and 2008 laws, giving the fish unfettered passage through the two dams. It has the support of lobstermen, groundfishing interests, environmental groups, Indian tribes, and the federal governments of both the United States and Canada, which share sovereignty over the watershed, which straddles the Maine-New Brunswick border.
Canada has made it clear that they intend to let the fish pass the upstream Vanceboro dam as well, which they control. This means the fish will have unfettered access to the entire eastern branch of the watershed. On the west branch, the alewives will have access as far as the West Grand Lake Stream dam.
“Many of my colleagues in New Brunswick will be very happy when they hear this news,” said John Burrows, executive director of the Atlantic Salmon Federation. “They have been upset for two decades by the unilateral action of Maine in closing the St. Croix.”
The legislators unanimously rejected the LePage administration’s compromise proposal allowing phased reintroduction of the fish. A third measure similar to LD 72 was also rejected, making clear the committee’s intent.
Scientific studies have shown alewives and smallmouth bass successfully cohabit dozens of lakes, ponds and rivers in Maine. “It’s nice to see the science come out a step ahead of the politics and help make a good decision for the watershed and for the fish,” said University of Southern Maine research scientist Theodore Willis.