Senator Maker, Representative Kumiega, and members of the Marine Resources Committee:
My name is Nick Bennett, and I am the Staff Scientist for the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM). NRCM is Maine’s largest environmental advocacy group with more than 20,000 members and supporters. I am testifying in support of LD 922, which would reopen the fishway at the Sheepscot Pond Dam. NRCM has a long history working on restoration of sea-run fish. We have worked on the Fort Halifax Dam removal, the Edwards Dam removal, the Penobscot River restoration, and the reopening of fish passage on the St. Croix.
The economic importance of sea-run fish is clear. Maine scientists have linked the disappearance of coastal cod stocks to the dramatic decline in the number of alewives compared to historic levels1.
Alewives spend their lives at sea but swim up rivers to spawn in the spring. Large numbers of cod used to follow these fish close to shore, where they could be caught more easily, supplying the Maine fishing industry with a lucrative catch. Alewives are also the preferred spring bait for Maine’s lobster industry. They are particularly important now because of herring shortages.
The ecological importance of alewives is equally clear. Almost everything eats them: cod, haddock, whales, mink, otter, eagles, and osprey, to name a few. Former Department of Inland Fisheries and
Wildlife Commissioner Ray “Bucky” Owen has called the alewife “the most important fish species in Maine” because of the role it plays as a food source for so many animals.
At 1,200 acres, Sheepscot Pond represents 40% of the historic alewife habitat above Head Tide in the river. It has the potential to support a run of at least 280,000 alewives. There is no scientific reason to keep these fish and other native species, such as sea lamprey, out of the lake. Sea-run fish restoration in other watersheds in Maine has brought major benefits, as the attached publication from Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife entitled, “Maine’s Sebasticook River: A Rare and Critical Resource for Bald Eagles in the Northeast,” shows.
In February 2017, DIFW and DMR convened a meeting of the Aquatic Animal Health Technical Committee to look specifically at the disease risk to the Palermo Fish Rearing Facility of opening up the Sheepscot Pond fishway to migratory fish. This committee is comprised of public and private fish pathologists in Maine and other states on the East Coast. This committee definitively concluded that opening the fishway to migratory fish would not increase any risk to this facility. I have attached a copy of the minutes from this meeting to my testimony.
In addition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Lamar Fish Health Center has analyzed 5,000 samples of alewives, blueback herring, and American shad from Maryland to Maine from 1997-2016 and did not detect any diseases being brought in from the ocean by these species.
Alewives, American eel, sea lamprey, and American shad are found in hundreds of coastal rivers like the Sheepscot on the East Coast from Georgia to Quebec. They have never been identified as a problem to lake health, human health, or to other fish species. These species have been in the Sheepscot for thousands of years, and lampreys are still found throughout the system and in Long Pond without issue.
However, all of these species have dropped more than 90% from their historic levels. Given the tremendous obstacles these native species face, such as dams (see attached map of Maine with dams
indicated), poorly designed culverts, and pollution, they are going to need a lot of help to get back to their former numbers. At Sheepscot Pond, the Legislature can easily and inexpensively lend them a hand by passing LD 922 and opening up a fishway that is already in place to allow sea-run fish migration.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify. I would be happy to take any questions.
1 See, for example, P.19 in Ted Ames. 2004. Atlantic Cod Stock Structure in the Gulf of Maine. Fisheries Research
29(1) 10-28. Accessed at https://www.coastalfisheries.org/wp-content/uploads/ames_cod_paper.pdf