February 13, 2013

The alewives argument

The Washington County fight to open up the St. Croix River to millions of alewives has brought together a once-divided tribe, created foes among inland smallmouth bass interests and mobilized advocates on just about every jurisdictional level. Now, a fish's fate – and a county's – hangs on what happens next.

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

This story was originally published on July 8, 2012.

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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

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MILLTOWN, New Brunswick - It's late in the alewives' spring run, and overnight just five fish have climbed the fish ladder at the Milltown Dam, which spans the St. Croix River on the Maine-New Brunswick border.

At the top of the ladder, which climbs around the back of the 131-year-old dam, the fish are waiting in a cagelike trap when Lee Sochasky arrives to count and release them. One 10-inch female -- fish No. 36,168 of the season -- is kept for scientific analysis. Big, healthy and filled with eggs, she is likely 5 years old, meaning she hatched in the straight stretch of river between here and the Woodland Dam, 10 miles upstream. In the intervening years she has likely traveled to Georges Bank and possibly as far south as North Carolina. This spring she -- and 36,000 other alewives -- headed home to the St. Croix to reproduce.

If the fish's advocates have their way, in future years she might be part of spring runs numbering in the millions.

Not everyone is happy the alewives are here, and others don't want to see their numbers grow. Some see them as an invasive pest that could undermine the ecology of the lakes and streams of the sprawling St. Croix basin, wiping out the sport fisheries on its many lakes and ponds. Others hold they are not only native to the St. Croix, they are essential to its restoration, a forage fish key to rebuilding populations of everything from salmon to cod.

The humble fish are now the subject of a federal lawsuit, a diplomatic appeal to an international body and a state of emergency declared by three chiefs of the Passamaquoddy tribe, who want the fish restored.

The future of the alewife runs -- currently confined to the lowest stretch of the river on orders of the Maine Legislature -- will likely be decided in Augusta, and lawmakers can expect to hear an earful. At stake is the ecological future of a 1,600-square-mile swath of lakes, rivers and forests in Maine and New Brunswick and an even greater expanse of undersea habitat in eastern Maine.

"This is as if you were honoring a mother who was nine months pregnant and wants to go to a hospital," says Clayton Cleaves, chief of the Pleasant Point band of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the native people of the St. Croix watershed. "Can you imagine if that mother was blocked from the hospital door? You'd have a riot."

"Alewives are ferocious and they kill a lake by eating all the plankton the other fish need to grow," counters Lance Wheaton, a fifth-generation fishing guide and owner of The Village Camps in Forest City, some 60 miles upriver, who has fought hard to keep the fish out. "I understand ocean fishermen need them for lobster bait, but what they're going to do is put all of us inland onto welfare."

Currently, the alewives are blocked from passing beyond the Grand Falls Dam, 19 miles north of here, on the orders of the Maine Legislature. An estimated 94 percent of their potential spawning habitat lies above that dam.

The 17-year battle over the fish's future has heated up in recent weeks. On May 31, the Conservation Law Foundation filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to compel it to force Maine to let the alewives through on the grounds that not doing so violates the Clean Water Act. Another environmental group, the Richmond-based Friends of Merrymeeting Bay, has announced plans to sue the EPA as well.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Jon Aretakis runs along Route 1 in Perry on June 9 as part of the 100-mile sacred run relay organized by members of the Passamaquoddy Tribe to call attention to a blocked fishway on the St. Croix River preventing alewives from reaching their spawning habitat. The tribe’s three chiefs later declared a “state of emergency,” calling on the state to remove the blockage.

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At the urging of bass anglers and other inland interests in the St. Croix River watershed, Maine lawmakers in 1995 closed the fishway at Grand Falls Dam so that alewives could no longer travel upstream to spawn.

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Lee Sochasky works with alewives at the Milltown Dam fishway in New Brunswick, Canada, last month. The International Joint Commission has put forward an “adaptive management plan” that may offer a compromise in the fight to open up the St. Croix River watershed to the fish.

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Lee Sochasky holds a specimen.

Staff Photographer


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