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

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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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Lee Sochasky, who has managed the Milltown count for more than two decades, says heavy rains and record high water levelskept alewives from entering the river for much of their time-sensitive spawning cycle.

"Just over 16,600 alewives made it upstream before the high flows, but many others that were waiting have missed their spawning 'window' and have now gone back to sea," says Sochasky, who counted 36,168 last year. "Some of these might return next year to add to an expected large run of spawners in 2014. We have to wait and see what nature brings."

(The fish are detained in a research trap at the top of the fishway, counted by hand daily, and released unharmed.)

There are no official monitoring stations at the other dams, and nobody knows for sure if the fish have passed up the Grand Falls fishway or another at the Vanceboro dam, 35 miles farther upriver.

"If there had been a large run, a general observation would have let one know if they were gathering at those dams," Sochasky says, "but it was just too small a number of fish for someone to casually see what was going on with the flows as high as they were."

Canadian officials confirmed that the fishway at the Vanceboro dam -- which they control -- is also open to the fish.

"The fish have open passage from there on up, and they can be free to do what they want to do and what nature dictates to them," says Harvey Millar, Fisheries & Oceans Canada's area director based in St. George, New Brunswick. "It's a good thing for the fish, for Canada, and for the ecosystem of the river and the Bay of Fundy as well."

The fish are not being allowed beyond the Grand Lake Stream dam in the western half of the watershed for unrelated reasons associated with a state fish hatchery.

Scientific projections suggest the newly opened sections of the St. Croix -- which include Spednik Lake and Big Lake -- could support annual runs in excess of 10 million fish. If that happens, the potential benefits to the region's marine and riverine ecosystems could be tremendous, says Ted Ames, a Stonington-based groundfisherman-turned-fisheries researcher whose work on the collapse of inshore groundfisheries helped garner him a prestigious MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant.

"My historical work showed that these coastal populations of cod, haddock, white hake, and pollock lingered inshore as long as alewives remained in the area," Ames says. Dams put an end to the alewives and, thus, much of the bigger fishes' food supply in the late 19th century. "

Now that the fish are returning, Ames says "the potential is enormous." He outlines the possible benefits: an abundant supply of lobster bait that could itself be a $1 million a year industry; a food base that might allow inshore cod, pollock, and haddock stocks to become re-established in eastern Maine; runs of alewives returning to sea that could provide cover for salmon.

"I'm convinced recovery of valuable predatory fish will happen," Ames says. "Does that mean we will get to pre-Civil War abundances again? I don't know. That's looking at a crystal ball."

Brian Altvater, a Passamaquoddy tribal member who helped launch the recent campaign to open the river to the fish, is also upbeat about the potential ecosystem -- and socioeconomic -- effects.

"If we don't mess with nature, it will take care of itself, but when we plug the rivers with dams and abuse them, that's when we get into trouble," he says. "Whatever we do to our land and our rivers, we do to ourselves."

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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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