AUGUSTA — Though reduced in numbers, the St. Croix River’s alewives have a lot of friends.
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.
The compromise plan was condemned even by one of its co-authors. National Marine Fisheries Service biologist Rory Saunders said it was developed with many things off the table: Scientists were not allowed to include the upper watershed in their analysis and were required to maintain or increase smallmouth bass populations under their recommendations.
The Adaptive Management Plan, he said, “would fall well short” of “fully restoring alewife” throughout the watershed, which was his agency’s goal.
The National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oppose the compromise plan and support “unfettered access” for the fish.
“The best available science indicates that alewife have no negative impacts on overall water quality, zooplankton communities or recreational fisheries such as smallmouth bass,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife regional director Wendi Weber wrote to the international commission last week. “To the contrary, published scientific literature and experience demonstrate that alewife provide abundant forage for freshwater bass species” in more than 70 Maine watersheds where the two cohabitate.
George Lapointe, who was Maine’s marine resources commissioner from 1998 to 2010, said the state went forward with the compromise strategy only “because it was the best deal that we could get at the time, not because it was the best deal for the alewife, the St. Croix River or the environment. Things have changed since then.”
Even the Maine Professional Guides Association has withdrawn its support for the administration’s bill. It is holding out against any further spread of alewives to the watershed, on the grounds that it — like the smallmouth bass — is not a native fish.
“To date there is no conclusive proof that alewives were present in the system historically and none has been offered although promised frequently,” the group’s executive director, Don Kleiner, said in written testimony. “When the alewife run is on in freshwater, fish simply do not bite.”
Speaking in support of the compromise bill, Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher acknowledged that it represents an effort at political compromise and does not have a strong scientific basis.
“There is a long and contentious history around this issue, and recognizing that the administration is supporting a measured and adaptive approach intended to give confidence to all parties with an interest in the watershed,” he said, noting that it would reopen a third of the alewives’ spawning habitat.
“The administration has no problem with the science on the interaction of the (two species) — we believe it is very strong,” Keliher said in response to questions. “There is no evidence about negative interactions that I know about.”
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.
Environmentalists and marine fisheries advocates say that restoring the alewife population would benefit the freshwater and marine ecosystems because alewives are a source of food for smallmouth bass, cod and other species.
One researcher estimated that if spawning runs had access to the entire watershed, alewives could number more than 20 million, up from just over 31,000 now, with access confined to the lowest stretch of the river, south of the Grand Falls Dam.
Historical fisheries researcher Ted Ames, a former groundfisherman who represents the Penobscot East Resource Center, said that the destruction of alewives contributed to the disappearance of inshore cod and haddock in eastern Maine, and that the restoration could help bring those species back.
“It promises a renewal of groundfish in eastern Maine again,” he said. “It is an incredible opportunity.”
Canadian diplomat Aaron Annable said his government seeks “open passage” for the St. Croix alewives “as fast as possible,” saying their presence “poses no threat to the basin’s smallmouth bas population.”
Ottawa’s stance — echoed in recent letters to LePage — likely dooms the governor’s compromise plan, which would require Canada to close the fishways of the Vanceboro Dam.
Harvey W. Millar, area director for southwestern New Brunswick in the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, told the Portland Press Herald that the fishway is now open, and the decisions about what to do there if Maine opens the Grand Falls Dam downstream will be guided by “good fisheries management practices based on scientific based information.”
“We’ve heard the concerns people have had about the bass and the alewives, and our science has looked into that and we have concluded that the alewives pose no threat to the bass,” Millar said.
Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at: