by Nick Bennett, NRCM Staff Scientist and Watersheds Project Director
Good morning Senator Johnson, Representative Kumiega and members of the Marine Resources Committee. My name is Nick Bennett. I am Staff Scientist for the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM). NRCM is Maine’s largest environmental advocacy group with over 12,000 members and supporters. I am testifying in support of LD 72 and against LD 584.
It is very unfortunate that the Governor LePage did not throw his support behind LD 72 and take a stand for full restoration of St. Croix alewives. By doing so, he could have given a big boost to the Passamaquoddy people, Maine lobstermen, and struggling populations of groundfish in the Gulf of Maine. LD 584, which would place even more limits on alewife restoration than the International Joint Commission’s so-called “Adaptive Management Plan”, will accomplish none of these goals.
The economic importance of alewives 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 the federal government has dramatically lowered the allowable catch of other major sources of bait for lobstermen, such as Atlantic herring and menhaden, in recent years. With fewer alewives Atlantic herring and menhaden, Maine lobstermen must import more bait from away. This is expensive, and using fish from distant places increases the likelihood of importing exotic diseases. Sometimes, Maine lobstermen must even resort to using cowhides as bait due to shortages.
With an alewife potential equal to that of the Kennebec and Penobscot rivers combined, the St. Croix could be one of the best sources of Maine bait for Maine lobstermen. Why is the Governor perpetuating a policy that contributes to bait shortages? The St. Croix alewife run would likely be the largest in Maine if we just stopped blocking the river and allowed the existing fishways to function as designed.
On top of all the other benefits, restoring the St. Croix alewife run would cost nothing because the fishways are already there for alewives to use. Maine just needs to stop blocking them.
There is no evidence that alewives harm other fish. Alewives and smallmouth bass coexist in water bodies throughout Maine and the East Coast of North America.
Scientists with the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service support the free passage of alewives throughout the St. Croix watershed and oppose the plan for limited reintroduction that the governor says he supports. All of Maine’s tribal leaders also have asked the governor to support free passage for St. Croix alewives. NRCM and 50 other fishing, conservation and First Nation organizations in the U.S. and Canada, including the Maine Lobsterman’s Association, have all called for opening up the St. Croix.
Now it is up to this Committee, and eventually the full membership of the 126th Legislature, to right past wrongs and overturn the 1995 law blocking alewives from the St. Croix. We are confident that the Legislature will receive strong public support for doing so and that a restored St. Croix alewife run will bring the benefits alewife recovery has brought to Maine people, fish, and wildlife along other rivers.
I know that the Committee has received many documents today, but I want to call its attention to a few that I have attached because I believe others may not have included them with their testimony. These attachments are as follows:
Attachment A: This document is a discussion paper for the International Joint Commission. The excerpted section discusses the dramatic decline in osprey and eagle populations since the Legislature passed the 1995 law blocking alewives (full document available at http://www.ijc.org/rel/boards/saint/discussionpaper_alewife_oct2005.pdf).
Attachment B: This is an email from IFW’s eagle biologist, Charlie Todd. It describes the dramatically different fate of osprey and eagle populations on the Sebasticook River, where alewife populations have rebounded dramatically in the past decade. Osprey and eagle populations there are soaring!
Attachment C: This document is an IFW survey of Weber Pond in Bremen. It describes the excellent smallmouth bass fishing in this pond and the importance of maintaining sea run alewives’s access to the pond in order to keep the bass fishing excellent.
Attachment D: This is a recent article from the Portland Press Herald. In it, Commissioner Keliher stated: “I do not believe in one bit of my body that we will see a negative effect” from restoring alewives to the St. Croix (full article available at www.pressherald.com/news/rival-measures-would-restore-alewives-into-the-st_-croix-_2013-02-17.html?pagenum=1). NRCM agrees.
Attachment E: One of the leading opponents of alewife restoration in the St. Croix is Don Kleiner, Executive Director of the Maine Professional Guides Association. However, Mr. Kleiner has stated that sea run alewives are a great benefit to smallmouth bass and his guiding business in the St. George River watershed. Mr. Kleiner stated in a recent newsletter: In the Saint George drainage we are fortunate to have large numbers of sea run alewives that come to lay their eggs in the ponds each spring. As the small alewives begin to move back to sea with the first rains all of the predator fish begin to feed actively. Yesterday I was down in White Oak Pond with clients and many of the bass that they caught were actually potbellied from all of the feed they have been enjoying.
In closing, NRCM urges the Committee to vote ought to pass on LD 72 and ought not to pass on LD 584. The 1995 law blocking alewives was a self-inflicted wound on the ecology and the economy of the St. Croix River and the entire Gulf of Maine. The time has come to heal. Thank you for the opportunity to testify on this issue, and I would be happy to take any questions.