Sunday, December 8, 2013
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Lee Sochasky keeps a count of alewives at the Milltown Dam fishway in the Canadian province of New Brunswick last month. An effort is under way to overturn a 1995 Maine law, a move that could open fishways at other dams on the St. Croix River between Maine and Canada and expand the fish’s reach into a sprawling international watershed. But that effort has its detractors, too.
Photos by Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer
The compromise plan was condemned even by one of its co-authors. National Marine Fisheries Service biologist Rory Saunders said it was developed with many things off the table: Scientists were not allowed to include the upper watershed in their analysis and were required to maintain or increase smallmouth bass populations under their recommendations.
The Adaptive Management Plan, he said, "would fall well short" of "fully restoring alewife" throughout the watershed, which was his agency's goal.
The National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oppose the compromise plan and support "unfettered access" for the fish.
"The best available science indicates that alewife have no negative impacts on overall water quality, zooplankton communities or recreational fisheries such as smallmouth bass," U.S. Fish and Wildlife regional director Wendi Weber wrote to the international commission last week. "To the contrary, published scientific literature and experience demonstrate that alewife provide abundant forage for freshwater bass species" in more than 70 Maine watersheds where the two cohabitate.
George Lapointe, who was Maine's marine resources commissioner from 1998 to 2010, said the state went forward with the compromise strategy only "because it was the best deal that we could get at the time, not because it was the best deal for the alewife, the St. Croix River or the environment. Things have changed since then."
Even the Maine Professional Guides Association has withdrawn its support for the administration's bill. It is holding out against any further spread of alewives to the watershed, on the grounds that it -- like the smallmouth bass -- is not a native fish.
"To date there is no conclusive proof that alewives were present in the system historically and none has been offered although promised frequently," the group's executive director, Don Kleiner, said in written testimony. "When the alewife run is on in freshwater, fish simply do not bite."
Speaking in support of the compromise bill, Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher acknowledged that it represents an effort at political compromise and does not have a strong scientific basis.
"There is a long and contentious history around this issue, and recognizing that the administration is supporting a measured and adaptive approach intended to give confidence to all parties with an interest in the watershed," he said, noting that it would reopen a third of the alewives' spawning habitat.
"The administration has no problem with the science on the interaction of the (two species) -- we believe it is very strong," Keliher said in response to questions. "There is no evidence about negative interactions that I know about."
Numerous scientific studies show that smallmouth bass, which were introduced into the St. Croix in 1877, have lived harmoniously with spawning alewives in hundreds of Maine rivers and lakes.
Environmentalists and marine fisheries advocates say that restoring the alewife population would benefit the freshwater and marine ecosystems because alewives are a source of food for smallmouth bass, cod and other species.
One researcher estimated that if spawning runs had access to the entire watershed, alewives could number more than 20 million, up from just over 31,000 now, with access confined to the lowest stretch of the river, south of the Grand Falls Dam.
Historical fisheries researcher Ted Ames, a former groundfisherman who represents the Penobscot East Resource Center, said that the destruction of alewives contributed to the disappearance of inshore cod and haddock in eastern Maine, and that the restoration could help bring those species back.
"It promises a renewal of groundfish in eastern Maine again," he said. "It is an incredible opportunity."
Canadian diplomat Aaron Annable said his government seeks "open passage" for the St. Croix alewives "as fast as possible," saying their presence "poses no threat to the basin's smallmouth bas population."
Ottawa's stance -- echoed in recent letters to LePage -- likely dooms the governor's compromise plan, which would require Canada to close the fishways of the Vanceboro Dam.
Harvey W. Millar, area director for southwestern New Brunswick in the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, told the Portland Press Herald that the fishway is now open, and the decisions about what to do there if Maine opens the Grand Falls Dam downstream will be guided by "good fisheries management practices based on scientific based information."
"We've heard the concerns people have had about the bass and the alewives, and our science has looked into that and we have concluded that the alewives pose no threat to the bass," Millar said.
Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at: