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

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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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Once divided on the issue, the Passamaquoddy have engaged in a full-court press to open the river to alewives. In May, they petitioned the International Joint Commission -- the bilateral organization that coordinates activity on the shared international waterway -- to open the Grand Falls Dam. Environmental groups have argued for years that the commission has the power to do so under a 1909 boundary treaty.

In early June, a dozen tribe members participated in a two-day, 100-mile spiritual run to draw attention to the issue. The following week, the tribe's three chiefs declared a "state of emergency" and demanded the state "immediately remove this blockage and allow these fish to pass." The chiefs of the state's Penobscots, Maliseets and Micmacs joined them as signatories to a June 21 letter to Gov. Paul LePage urging him to support their forthcoming effort to get the state Legislature to reverse itself.

"This is, in fact, a natural disaster," says Vera Francis, a Passamaquoddy environmental activist at Pleasant Point. "It is our (chiefs') duty to stop the potential destruction of a species -- (something) that denies us access to food and sustenance."

"Quite frankly, it's scientifically, economically and legally unsupportable for the state to have this law on the books that prevents the dam owners from operating perfectly good and efficient fish passages on the St. Croix," says Sean Mahoney, director of the Conservation Law Foundation's Maine office.

1995 MAINE LAW CLOSED FISHWAYS

How did it come to this?

From 1825 until the modern fishway here in Milltown was built in 1981, alewives had trouble getting into the river. Those that did encountered a toxic environment until the late 1970s, when the paper plant at Woodland installed new pollution controls in accordance with the federal Clean Water Act. Fewer than 200,000 fish passed Milltown each year toward the end of this period.

But with cleaner water and a better fishway, alewives began a stunning recovery. Between 1981 and 1987, their annual run grew thirteenfold to more than 2.6 million. Alewives traversed pre-existing fishways at the Woodland and Grand Falls dams to spawn in Spednik Lake (near Vanceboro) and Big Lake (below Grand Lake Stream).

Then lawmakers in Augusta stepped in, passing a 1995 law that ordered the fishways at Woodland and Grand Falls to be closed to alewives. The St. Croix alewife runs collapsed to just 900 fish in 2002, a fall of 99.7 percent. "If you wanted a law that was effective in extirpating alewives from their native habitat, that law worked," says Mahoney.

That was precisely the intention of the aptly named Act to Stop the Alewives Restoration Program in the St. Croix River. Alewives, lawmakers held, would harm the smallmouth bass fishery in area lakes by competing for food. Fishing guides pointed to the sudden collapse of the bass population in Spednik Lake, the body of water created by the Vanceboro Dam, as evidence of the destructive power of alewives, which they claimed were an invasive species that never lived in the river.

"Salmon Falls at Milltown was a natural barrier to the sea," says Wheaton, who insists alewives never entered even the lowest range of the river. "These were a tremendous set of falls and all of the research shows the Indians always had to go below Salmon Falls to get their alewives."

EVIDENCE SUGGESTS ALEWIVES WERE NATIVE

Subsequent research cast doubt on the guides' assertions. The Spednik Lake bass crash appears to have been at least partly the result of the Vanceboro Dam operator having lowered the lake's level at an inopportune time for the bass, leaving their egg nests high and dry.

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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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