by Susan Sharon
There was a homecoming celebration on the St. Croix River in Baileyville today – for an ecologically and culturally significant species of fish. Alewives were almost completely driven out of the waterway that borders Maine and Canada, where fishing guides have long viewed the native fish as a threat to their livelihoods. For two decades the guides and their supporters in Augusta managed to block alewives passage at a fishway at the Grand Falls Dam in Baileyville. But as Susan Sharon reports, the barrier has now come down.
Alewives might not be as majestic as salmon, or as thrilling to catch as a smallmouth bass. But to Passamaquoddy natives, they’re a symbol of rebirth – the first migratory fish to head up the river every spring, something to be counted on to fill empty stomachs after a long, cold winter. “Sigonomeg,” the Passamaquoddy call them. It means “spring fish.”
“Just imagine gathering fiddleheads or dandelion greens, and having that staple of that along with alewives – I mean it must have been a welcome sight,” says Brian Altvater, Sr., chairman of the Schoodic Riverkeepers, a grassroots organization of mostly Passamaquoddy members that has been working to restore alewives to their native habitat for the past couple of years.
Environmental groups and others have been working on the plight of the “lowly” alewife for even longer. That’s because alewives are known “as the fish that feeds all,” the bread in the breadbasket for birds and other fish.
But most everyone credits Altvater with changing peoples’s hearts and minds about the fish, which were blocked from climbing a fish ladder at the Grand Falls Dam beginning in 1995. The conversion began with an education campaign with some members of his own tribe and spread from there.
“I think there was a lot of misinformation and misrepresentation out there by certain tribal leaders,” he says. “There wasn’t any one person that really, to me, made a difference. It was collectively that we were a team, and then we found out that we had other people on our team from both sides of the river.”
Members of that team include state and federal officials, environmental groups and representatives of the Canadian government, who gathered under a white tent near the Grand Falls Dam to celebrate the return of alewives to the St. Croix. Guests participated in tribal ceremonial dance and songs, including one dedicated to the alewife itself.
Recently, the Maine Legislature passed a bill that called for removal of seven boards blocking a fish ladder at the dam. Now the fish will be able to reach more than 50 percent of their upstream lake habitat, the same habitat where sport fishing guides feared alewives would harm the smallmouth bass population that was introduced to the region in the late 1800s.
Before their passage was blocked, the native alewife population stood at 2.6 million. Just a few years later it had plummeted to 900. For a time, the Canadian government even arranged to truck the fish upstream. Landis Hudson is the executive director of the group Maine Rivers.
“I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out if there’s any other situation where people have intentionally stopped the migration of a species, as has happened on this river – I can’t think of another case,” she says. “So, all the more important to be able to reconnect things and allow these native alewives back to complete their life cycle here.”
Hudson recalls fierce, political battles over the future of the alewife, also known as river herring, in Augusta and elsewhere. During one hearing, the 11-inch-long fish were even compared to piranhas, an omnivore with a reputation as a ferocious predator, something Hudson says the science does not bear out about alewives in the St. Croix.
And science has also played a key role in the outcome. Two years ago, the Conservation Law Foundation, backed by the Natural Resources Council of Maine, filed suit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over the policy’s effect on water quality. The suit was resolved last year when EPA agreed that there was no scientific rationale for excluding indigenous river herring – or other migratory species – from the St. Croix.
“When there’s persistence by a lot of people, sometimes a dam gives way. And that’s what happened,” says John Bullard, the regional director of fisheries for NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He knows a thing or two about lawsuits. He was sued three times last week alone.
But Bullard is among those celebrating the alewives return. And he and other federal officials are pledging to support one of the largest alewife runs in the nation.