June 30, 2013

Alewives spawn optimism

Supporters expect noticeable benefits from the return of the species to the St. Croix River above Grand Falls Dam.

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

BAILEYVILLE - Here in the shadow of the Grand Falls Dam power house, the fish ladder is clear for alewives to climb, the boards that once prevented their passage having been taken away.

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People walk past the fish ladder at the Grand Falls Dam in Baileyville on June 5, the same day the Passamaquoddy Tribe and various federal and state agencies celebrated the return of alewives to the fishway. The event followed passage of a state law that reversed an 18-year-long blockade of the fish on the waters above Grand Falls Dam.

Photos by Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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From the top of the ladder, the schooling fish have access to a staggering expanse of spawning, nursing, and feeding habitat: more than 65,000 acres of river, stream, and lake bottom straddling the Maine-New Brunswick border.

Those who fought to persuade Maine lawmakers to let the fish over the dam have high hopes that the species will kick-start the recovery of living systems laid low by past overfishing, dam building and water pollution.

"The alewife is the fish that feeds all," says Newell Lewey, a member of the Passamaquoddy tribal council, which supported free passage for the fish. "They are going to be beneficial for groundfish in Passamaquoddy Bay and for species inland, because they are food for others."

Now -- despite weeks of heavy rain impeding their travels -- thousands of fish are on the move up the St. Croix River system, thanks to a change of heart by the Maine Legislature, which just a few years ago had banned them from the river.

"I am pleased that the political atmosphere was in favor of the alewives," says Newell's tribal council colleague Ed Bassett, who traveled to Augusta to ask legislators to let the fish pass. "This time the facts won out and fiction lost."

It's been quite an odyssey for the alewives, which are also known as "river herring."

The fish spend most of their lives in the oceans but travel up freshwater rivers this time of year to spawn. An important source of food for larger fish, their numbers crashed after dams were constructed on Maine's rivers in the 19th century.

Some scientists think their disappearance played a role in the destruction of Maine's inshore cod stocks, and that their restoration to the Kennebec, Penobscot, St. Croix and other rivers could contribute to the recovery of commercial fish.

Alewives were effectively shut out of the St. Croix River from 1825 to 1981, first because of impassable dams, and later because of pollution from lumber and paper mills. Meanwhile, smallmouth bass were introduced to the region by late 19th century sport fishermen, supporting fishing camps and guides across the watershed.

But with construction of a better fishway at the dam at the mouth of the river in the early 1980s, the alewives annual run grew 13-fold to more than 2.6 million fish.

Then bass guides got worried about the possible effects on smallmouth bass and Augusta lawmakers stepped in, passing a 1995 law that ordered the fishways at Grand Falls and the Woodland dam be closed to the fish. The St. Croix alewife runs collapsed to just 900 fish in 2002, a decline of 99.7 percent.

The Legislature revisited the issue in 2008, but under pressure from guides and one faction of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, ultimately decided to leave the Grand Falls fishway closed, depriving the alewives of an estimated 94 percent of their habitat.

The result of these laws has been nothing short of catastrophic, says Sean Mahoney of the Conservation Law Foundation, who fought against them in Augusta and federal court. "If those were humans, that would be genocide -- they tried to wipe them out," he says.

But this year the Legislature effectively rescinded both laws, a move supported by saltwater fishermen, environmentalists, scientific studies, and the U.S. and Canadian federal governments. On May 7, alewives began entering the river, passing through a counting station at Milltown, New Brunswick, opposite Calais. Ironically, the weather turned against them.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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The decision to open the fish ladder to alewives has supporters hoping the species will help kick-start the recovery of other fish. “The alewife is the fish that feeds all,” says Newell Lewey, a Passamaquoddy.

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Boards lying on a grate over the fishway at the Grand Falls Dam in Baileyville had been used to block passage of alewives. After nearly two decades, this year the fish are allowed to resume their annual journey.


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