February 17, 2013

Rival measures would restore alewives into the St. Croix

Gov. Paul LePage's administration would move cautiously. A competing proposal would open river dams immediately.

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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"There's just no reason not to open the river," said Nick Bennett, a staff scientist at the National Resources Council of Maine. "Alewives are good for everything, including smallmouth bass."

Both bills before the Legislature would open more of the river to alewives, a move that local bass guides have long opposed, arguing the fish will compete with bass and other inland fish for food and that the fish are not native to the river.

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 conclusion that has been endorsed by the government of Canada and the St. Croix board of the International Joint Commission, an international body that negotiates disputes on the shared waterway.

Early 19th-century alewife runs passing Calais and Milltown, New Brunswick, near the river's mouth were described by witnesses as coming in "such quantities that it was supposed they never could be destroyed," according to an official 1852 New Brunswick government report.

Numerous scientific studies show that smallmouth bass -- which were introduced into the St. Croix in 1877 -- have lived harmoniously with spawning alewives in hundreds of Maine rivers and lakes.

State Rep. Madonna Soctomah, who represents the Passamaquoddy Tribe in the Legislature, is the lead sponsor of L.D. 72, an emergency bill that would require the Grand Falls Dam fishway be opened to the "unconstrained passage of river herring" by May 1, in advance of the species' spring spawning run. This would immediately allow the fish access to more than 24,000 acres of habitat, compared to 1,174 today, and would likely lead Canada to open the fishway at the Vanceboro dam farther upstream -- which they control -- opening up thousands more acres.

The administration's bill -- which has yet to be assigned a number -- would also open the dam, but in accordance with the principals of the Adaptive Management Plan, a compromise protocol that would allow a phased introduction of the alewives into the middle watershed.

Developed under the auspices of the International Joint Commission several years ago, the international plan prohibits alewives them from passing the next set of dams at Vanceboro (on the main river) and Grand Lake Stream (on the western branch). Biologists would carefully monitor the situation, stepping in to close fishways if alewives appeared to cause trouble at certain densities.

Keliher said the strategy would be to allow a controlled number of fish beyond Grand Falls for several years, presumably demonstrating they do no harm. Later, the state could evaluate whether alewives should also be allowed beyond Vanceboro. The Grand Lake Stream fishway would remain closed to prevent the alewives from disrupting operations at the state fish hatchery above the dam.

The administration's approach would work only if Canada could be persuaded to keep the Vanceboro dam's fishway closed. This may be a tall order. In December, Canada's foreign ministry wrote the State Department to express its desire for "the immediate reopening of all fishways" and expressing their desire "to open the Vanceboro Dam fishway to re-introduce alewives into Spednic Lake."

The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans wrote LePage on Dec. 14, encouraging him to "consider a more accelerated timeframe" for reintroducing the fish than that contained in the Adaptive Management Plan. Keliher said the administration did not consider the Adaptive Management Plan's numbers to be set in stone.

Environmental groups say the governor's bill represents an unnecessary concession to unsubstantiated concerns and will needlessly delay realization of economic and environmental benefits. The alewives are thought to be forage for cod and other groundfish and provide a source of bait for lobstermen.

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