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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Smallmouth bass -- themselves introduced into the St. Croix in 1877 -- and sea-run alewives were shown to have lived harmoniously in hundreds of Maine rivers and lakes. Archaeological, documentary and topographic evidence suggests alewives were native to much of the watershed prior to the first, fish-impassable dams being built in 1825, a position endorsed by the government of Canada and the St. Croix board of the International Joint Commission. Early 19th-century alewife runs at Milltown were described by witnesses as coming in "such quantities that it was supposed they never could be destroyed," according to an official 1852 report by the New Brunswick government.

"The evidence we looked at said that we had alewives in the St. Croix beforehand and that other (river) systems have had high numbers of alewives and bass populations at the same time," says George Lapointe, who headed the Maine Department of Marine Resources from 1998 to 2010. "Alewives provide the Purina Chow for the ecosystem, providing food for smallmouth bass and big game fish and really for everything."

"Washington County is the poorest county in Maine, and if you restored the alewives you are talking about millions of dollars of income to small artisanal harvesters throughout the system," says Ted Ames of the Stonington-based Penobscot East Resource Center, a MacArthur Genius Grant winner who has researched the ecological impact of alewives in Maine. "It's like a Pandora's box, but one where all sorts of good things happen if you open it."

The alewives, Ames has predicted, would boost inland and marine fish populations (by being eaten by them), improve water quality on the lakes (by helping to consume the summer plankton blooms), improving life for guides and marine fishermen alike. "There are people who still think the world is flat, and you can't dissuade them of it," he says of the counter-arguments. "The science doesn't even enter into it."


As the evidence accumulated, the Legislature revisited the issue in 2008. Guides and municipal officials from northern Washington County opposed the idea of allowing the fish to travel farther upstream; the Canadian government, environmental groups, lobstermen and the chief of the Pleasant Point Passamaquoddies supported it. Scientific papers submitted to the committee also supported opening the fishways, although a Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologist argued they should not be allowed over the Grand Lake Stream Dam on the west branch of the watershed for fear they would complicate management of local landlocked salmon and the smelt they prefer to eat.

With Gov. John Baldacci behind the plan, "we were all set to go," recalls the bill's sponsor, Sen. Dennis Damon, D-Trenton, then a state senator and co-chair of the committee. "Then suddenly, a half hour before the hearing, the (administration) changed their position."

Damon and other observers say one man managed to turn Baldacci against the alewives: Bill Nicholas, then chief of the Indian Township band of Passamaquoddy, whose reservation is located near Big Lake. In meetings with the governor and in forceful committee testimony, Nicholas argued the alewives had never been in the river and never should be, and left many listeners with the impression he spoke for the tribe as a whole.

His speeches were compelling, Damon says, and ultimately legislators took only a baby step, ordering the Woodland Dam opened, but keeping Grand Falls closed, a net gain to the alewives of just nine miles of riverbed.

"In military parlance, it's called a command performance," says Paul Bisulca, a West Point graduate who at the time was chairman of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission, which represents all of Maine's tribes. "(Nicholas) went into that hearing and without any doubt represented the Passamaquoddy Tribe completely. How Billy was able to manipulate those people is beyond me, but there are some who can do it."

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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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