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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"We've had elders at Indian Township -- the freshwater part of the Passamaquoddy Tribes -- who have testified in the past that there were not alewives in our waters until the fish ladders were put in," says Nicholas, who is no longer chief, but stands by his position. "Our elders were very, very knowledgeable, so I'm not going to go against that information that was provided to us by someone 100 years old."

"No one has been able to provide information that's credible that alewives made it above Grand Falls," he adds, calling them "the grandest, steepest falls in the river."

That final argument caught the interest of Ed Bassett, a member of the Pleasant Point band who now serves on the Passamaquoddy tribal council and had experience adjusting fishways for alewives. Over the past two years, he researched Nicholas' claims, the history of the river's alewives, and visited the Grand Falls dam site, where he found and walked the original riverbed where the falls were before 1905, when the dam was built and the river diverted.

"I know the kind of fish they are and the strength they have, and when I found the original channel that's when I realized something was wrong," says Bassett, who says the falls were deemed "grand" because of their length, not their height. "I remember thinking: this is wrong. This needs to be exposed."


The result was an hour-and-a-half-long video detailing the case for alewives being a native species, and accusing Nicholas of misleading the tribe and state. The video -- targeted at fellow tribe members -- has apparently shifted tribal public opinion in favor of the fish. "People have been afraid to talk, afraid that if you speak your mind there will be consequences, and that's even greater if you speak to the power structure," says Bassett, who hopes the video is helping undo that dynamic.

"Nicholas owes the entire tribe an apology," says Francis, the Passamaquoddy environmental activist. who says many tribal elders attested to the presence of alewives in the river. (The competing accounts are over oral history, not eyewitness testimony, as the dams blocked alewives from entering the river after 1825, nearly a century before the birth of the oldest living elders.)

Nicholas stands by his account. "They must be pretty desperate to be putting out a video to defame me when I have no power or authority to do anything," says the former chief. "You're talking about a very invasive species that could kill the fishery in our area."

The guides also remain adamant, and are unconvinced that big runs of fish won't harm the bass and landlocked salmon on which their rural region depends. "If the alewives come upstream and devastate the fisheries, your camp will only be worth half as much," says Wheaton. "My life is almost over -- I'm 67 or 68 -- but all those young families, I hate to think of it."

"Even by Washington County standards there is almost no economy up there -- sports camps are all there is," says Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, who represents the region and opposes opening the fishways. (The sprawling county has just 32,000 residents.) "If this proceeds, I hope and pray that those who are so confident are right, because if there is a mistake made it will be absolutely devastating for (the northern part of the county) to recover from it."

There is a third option, though few on either side speak of it, says Joan Garner Trial, a member of the regional IJC board. Since 2008, the IJC has overseen the creation of a compromise solution, an "adaptive management plan" that would let the alewives into more of the watershed, while carefully monitoring their effects on the ecosystem and taking necessary steps to restrict their numbers if problems arise.

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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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