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. This bill would stop Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IFW) from blocking the fishway at Sheepscot Dam to migrating alewives, Atlantic salmon, and other native sea-run fish. IFW has been blocking this fishway for about 40 years. This policy has no basis in science. This Committee has dealt with similar issues before, particularly on the St. Croix River.
At 1,200 acres, Sheepscot Pond represents 40 percent 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 Atlantic salmon, 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.
The economic importance of sea-run fish in Maine is clear. Maine scientists have linked the disappearance of coastal cod stocks to the dramatic decline in the number of alewives compared to historic levels. 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.
In February 2017, DIFW and DMR convened a meeting of the Aquatic Animal Health Technical Committee (AAHTC) to look specifically at the disease risk to the Palermo Fish Rearing Facility of opening up the Sheepscot Pond fishway to migratory fish. IFW claims, without evidence, that opening up the pond might cause disease at the Palermo facility. The AAHTC is comprised of public and private fish pathologists in Maine and other states on the East Coast and definitively concluded that opening the fishway to migratory fish would not increase any risk to the 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.
Sea lamprey are also important players in Maine’s aquatic ecosystem. Fear about them because they are ugly is misplaced. They do not threaten game fish or people in Maine. Fred Kircheis, who worked for decades as a fisheries biologist with IFW, wrote a report on sea lamprey in 2004. This report concluded that:
healthy river and lake ecosystems in Maine must contain viable populations of native species assemblages and that managing rivers to exclude certain organisms, specifically sea lamprey, is not warranted. Sea lamprey provide demonstrable biological benefits with no appreciable negative impact to Maine rivers and their protection and restoration should be encouraged.
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 lamprey are still found throughout the system and in Long Pond without issue.
However, all of these species have dropped more than 90 percent 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, misinformation, and pollution, they are going to need a lot of help to get back to their former numbers. LD 922 would be a step in the right direction
Please vote ought to pass on LD 922. Thank you for the opportunity to testify. I would be happy to take any questions.
 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
 Personal communication from John Coll, USFWS to Andy Goode, ASF via email. December 7, 2016.