by John Holyoke
In the coming weeks and months, you’re likely to hear a lot more about a small fish that has become very controversial in parts of Down East Maine.
Merely mention the word “alewife” in some places — Grand Lake Stream, chief among those — and you’re likely to hear grumbles or groans, or end up in a heated debate.
Let’s start with a basic premise and work from there: Free-flowing rivers, where fish aren’t constrained to certain segments by dams, are good for the environment.
Now, let’s move to a premise that’s sure to raise the ire of many: Alewives are good, too.
Their role in ocean and river ecosystems is essential. Their absence is costly and noticeable.
And for the past 15 years, the state of Maine has done its best — or worst, if you prefer — to limit the range of alewives that are trying to swim up the St. Croix River and spawn in fresh water lakes.
According to the International Joint Commission, which monitors trans-border environmental agreements, the blockage of the dams has eliminated access to more than 98 percent of the alewives’ projected habitat in the St. Croix, which serves as the border between Maine and New Brunswick. The stock has dropped from 2.7 million returning fish in 1987 to just 900 in 2002, according to the St. Croix International Waterway Commission.
It would be easy to read those numbers and come to the conclusion that something should be done.
The IJC thinks so, too, and is considering a management plan that would incrementally increase alewives, while monitoring the effect those incoming fish have on the region’s smallmouth bass.
Ah, the bass.
The non-native bass in the St. Croix watershed — and the fact that many guides target those fish with their clients — are the chief reasons the alewife conundrum exists at all.
In the 1980s, after alewives had been allowed into the St. Croix en masse, the bass population in Spednic Lake crashed.
Spednic is an absolute Down East jewel, and is understandably cherished by guides and clients alike.
Those guides blamed the presence of alewives for the population collapse, despite the fact that there’s no evidence such a collapse had ever been caused by sea-run alewives in other lakes in Maine. Others suspect that fluctuations in the water level at Spednic left bass eggs out of water, and resulted in the collapse.
Now, more than 20 years later, those same guides still blame the dastardly alewives.
Perhaps they’re right. Perhaps they’re not.
Either way, the state can’t afford to drag its feet on the alewife issue any longer.
Building in protection for Spednic Lake, then allowing limited numbers of alewives into the lake in the future — with a keen eye toward reaching a scientific conclusion on the lingering issue of successful co-habitation — makes sense.
So, too, does allowing the free-swim of alewives to much of the rest of their traditional range in St. Croix drainage.
An IJC proposal is up for discussion in coming weeks, with the goal of re-establishing an alewife run in the St. Croix watershed.
A public meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Aug. 4 at Princeton Elementary School to discuss the plan.
Many groups have already lined up in opposition to the proposal, saying it doesn’t go far enough. Not enough alewives will be allowed into the lakes of the drainage, some say.
And Spednic, a valuable alewife nursery, is essentially off-limits during the reintroduction effort.
The guides who rely on bass have a legitimate concern for their financial well-being in this matter.
But everyone involved — guides included — share an environmental responsibility to do the best they can for the waters they say they cherish.
Closely studying the impacts of alewives makes sense.
So does supporting a reasonable plan to restore traditional alewife runs.
Veazie count at 1,258
Salmon conservationists will be interested to learn that fish have continued to return to the Penobscot River over the past few weeks, even as the water temperature has risen dramatically.
Over the past three weeks — since Oliver Cox’s last trap report — 249 salmon have been counted at the Veazie Dam according to Cox, a fisheries biologist for the Bureau of Sea-Run Fisheries & Habitat.
“The rains of last week did help bring water temperatures down to 21 C (70 F), and we got a noticeable bump in salmon,” Cox wrote. “However, high water temperatures have returned.”
As of Thursday morning, the water was 79.3 degrees. Three weeks ago, it was at 66 degrees.
Atlantic salmon are temperature-sensitive, and when the water gets warmer in the summer, salmon runs typically slow.
Since the fish trap at the dam was activated in May, a total of 1,258 salmon have been trapped. That total is higher than the five-year and 31-year averages, but lags behind the totals set on the same dates in 2008 and 2009.