August 19, 2012

Maine Voices: State alewife policy hurts fishing industry

Stringent limits on the species' reintroduction to the St. Croix River deprive fish harvesters of a critical source of bait.


AUGUSTA - Gov. LePage could have given a big boost to Maine lobstermen and fishermen by supporting full restoration of the alewife population in the St. Croix River.

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Alewives crowd into the Damariscotta Mills fishway in Nobleboro. From federal scientists to fishermen’s groups to Maine tribal leaders, a range of people support free range for St. Croix alewives, a reader says.

2005 File Photo/The Associated Press

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provided the governor with an opportunity to change state policy on St. Croix alewives when it recently concluded that the 1995 Maine law that blocks these fish violates the federal Clean Water Act. Instead, the governor rejected the EPA's decision and supported only very limited alewife restoration.

On Aug. 8, Maine Attorney General William Schneider sent a letter to the EPA saying that he disagreed with the agency's decision on Maine's 1995 law.

The letter then went on to say that the governor supports allowing only a small number of alewives into the river, as outlined in a plan developed by the International Joint Commission, which oversees the Boundary Waters Treaty between the United States and Canada.

That plan has no basis in science and is meant to mollify a small group of fishing guides who believe that native alewives pose a threat to non-native smallmouth bass.

The economic importance of alewives is clear. Maine scientists have linked the disappearance of coastal cod stocks to the dramatic decline in the number of alewives compared to historic levels.

Alewives spend their lives at sea but swim up rivers to spawn in the spring. Large numbers of cod used to follow these fish close to shore, where they could be caught more easily, supplying the Maine fishing industry with a lucrative catch.

Alewives are also the preferred spring bait for Maine's lobster industry. They are particularly important now because the federal government has dramatically lowered the allowable catch of Atlantic herring, the other major source of local bait for lobstermen.

With fewer alewives and Atlantic herring, Maine lobstermen must import more bait from away. This is expensive, and using fish from distant places increases the likelihood of importing exotic diseases. Sometimes, Maine lobstermen must even resort to using cowhides as bait due to shortages.

With an alewife potential equal to that of the Kennebec and Penobscot rivers combined, the St. Croix could be one of the best sources of Maine bait for Maine lobstermen. Why on earth are we perpetuating a policy that contributes to bait shortages? The St. Croix alewife run would likely be the largest in Maine if we just stopped blocking the river and allowed the existing fishways to function as designed.

On top of all the other benefits, restoring the St. Croix alewife run would cost nothing because the fishways are already there for alewives to use. Maine just needs to stop blocking them.

There is no evidence that alewives harm other fish. Alewives and smallmouth bass coexist in water bodies throughout Maine and the East Coast of North America.

Scientists with the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service support the free passage of alewives throughout the St. Croix watershed and oppose the plan for limited reintroduction that the governor says he supports.

All of Maine's tribal leaders also have asked the governor to support free passage for St. Croix alewives. The Natural Resources Council of Maine and 50 other fishing, conservation and First Nation organizations in the U.S. and Canada, including the Maine Lobsterman's Association, have all called for opening up the St. Croix.

The governor would receive broad support by supporting a change in Maine law to allow alewives full access to the St. Croix. He could do this by asking the International Joint Commission to use its authority to direct that the fishway at the Grand Falls dam be operated to allow alewives to pass. He could also support efforts in the Legislature to repeal Maine's 1995 law.

The path announced by the attorney general is likely to invite lawsuits, but it won't help Maine's lobstermen, alewife harvesters, commercial fishermen or the health of the St. Croix River. It will also prevent members of the Passamaquoddy Tribe from exercising their sustenance fishing rights.

Many people from diverse points of view urge the governor to reconsider his position on this important issue.

Nick Bennett is staff scientist for the Augusta-based Natural Resources Council of Maine.


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