March 26, 2013

Alewives' passage in St. Croix hinges on passage of bills in Augusta

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — Though reduced in numbers, the St. Croix River's alewives have a lot of friends.

click image to enlarge

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

click image to enlarge

At a legislative hearing Monday, speaker after speaker rose to support a bill that would open most of the fishways at most of the river's dams immediately to the small schooling fish, which have been blocked from most of the sprawling watershed since 1995.

Fishermen who catch lobsters, alewives and groundfish spoke in support of a full opening. They were joined by environmentalists, anglers and representatives of the Passamaquoddy tribal government, federal agencies and the Canadian government, which has sovereignty over half of the St. Croix watershed and controls a key border-spanning dam on the international river.

"It's long since time to make the change," said George Smith, retired longtime head of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, who previously supported the closure. "I respectfully and regretfully have concluded that we were wrong in 1995. I think full restoration as soon as possible is the right way to go."

Fishing guides from interior Washington County appeared isolated in opposing the restoration, fearing that alewives will harm smallmouth bass. None of the legislators on the Marine Resources Committee appeared to back their cause in the questions they asked during the six-hour hearing.

"Bass and alewives may very well co-exist in a perfect world," said Dale Tobey, a guide and canoe builder from Grand Lake Stream who is vice president of the Maine Professional Guides Association. "But when you dump two and a half million hungry alewives into a fragile, stressed ecosystem, something's going to die."

Alewives, also known as river herring, spend most of their lives in the ocean but swim up freshwater rivers in the spring to spawn. An important source of food for larger fish, the alewife population crashed after dams were built on Maine's rivers in the 19th century. After fishways were built and pollution was reduced in the early 1980s, alewives' annual run grew 13-fold, to more than 2.6 million.

In 1995, legislators passed a law that ordered the fishways at the Woodland and Grand Falls dams closed to the fish because of the fishing guides' concerns. The St. Croix alewife run collapsed to just 900 fish in 2002, a decline of 99.7 percent.

The Legislature revisited the issue in 2008, but under pressure from the guides and one faction of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, it decided to open only the Woodland Dam in Baileyville to the fish, depriving alewives of an estimated 94 percent of their habitat.

The Legislature is now considering three bills.

L.D. 72, sponsored by Passamaquoddy tribal Rep. Madonnah Soctomah, is 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.

The opening would immediately give the fish access to more than 24,000 acres of habitat, compared with 1,174 today, and likely would lead Canada to open the fishway upstream at the Vanceboro dam -- which it controls -- opening up thousands more acres.

Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, has submitted a similar bill, L.D. 748. The Marine Resources Committee will hold a work session and vote on whether to recommend any of the bills, or whether to combine L.D. 72 and L.D. 748.

There was overwhelming opposition at Monday's hearing to a compromise proposed by Gov. Paul LePage's administration. L.D. 584 calls for a gradual, staged approach to reintroducing spawning alewives to the river. The so-called Adaptive Management Plan was drawn up under the auspices of an international treaty body, the International Joint Commission.

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