Wednesday, December 4, 2013
A recent order by the federal Environmental Protection Agency that will open a substantial portion of the St. Croix River to migrating alewives has many fans -- and more than a few critics.
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.
2012 staff file photo/Gregory Rec
Both sides of the dispute may have valid points to make. But there may also be a valid compromise position that, if the EPA agrees, could offer a way around the controversy.
Alewives, also known as river herring, are a small fish with a potentially huge economic and ecological impact.
Their spawning runs upstream from the ocean now involve some tens of thousands of fish using only 6 percent of their estimated potential range.
But expanding it by opening now-closed fishways in upstream dams could balloon their numbers to the tens of millions.
Alewives can have impacts on game fish such as smallmouth bass, an important resource in upstream lakes for fishing camp owners and guides.
But while sportfishermen say the impacts are negative, others say they can be favorable to game species.
Biologists say alewives consume plankton that produce algae blooms that choke up waterways. But their impact is likely to be far wider than that: One former Maine fisheries official termed them "Purina Chow for the ecosystem," noting their roe provides food for the bass that sportfishermen value, and the fish themselves are widely used as bait by lobstermen.
Their most significant use, however, could be in helping inshore groundfish stocks recover. Some experts think the near disappearance of inshore commercial species is due to the lack of alewives lower down the food chain.
Over the past two decades, the state has acted twice to close the upper portions of the river to alewives, but the EPA has now overturned that ban by demanding that blocked fishways at the Grand Falls Dam be opened.
While dams farther upstream, at Grand Lake Stream and Vanceboro, were not specifically mentioned in the EPA order, the agency did say that alewives should be allowed into the "upper St. Croix."
An oversight board with both Canadian and American members established to deal with issues involving the river, which separates Maine and New Brunswick, says it will monitor the impact of the new fish run on the area between those two dams and the Grand Falls Dam.
Limiting alewives to this area could provide a useful test of whether or not the runs do more harm than good, offering the opportunity to calm the fears of sportfishing interests.
However, that depends on whether or not the EPA meant to include the two dams above Grand Falls in its order, something that could preclude a limited-area study over time.
Maine officials would be wise to determine the EPA's intent, and, if any leeway is permitted, vow to cooperate with the agency and with their Canadian counterparts to gauge the alewives' impact in a coordinated fashion based on science.