AUGUSTA — The Legislature passed a bill Wednesday to end an 18-year blockade that has prevented alewives from running in most of the St. Croix River.
L.D. 72 passed in the Senate by a vote of 33-0. The House voted 123-24 to enact the measure. The margins are sufficient to enact the emergency bill.
If signed by Gov. Paul LePage, the bill will take effect immediately and allow spring runs of alewives through the fishway at the Grand Falls Dam near Princeton, in Washington County, and through much of the St. Croix watershed.
The run of the schooling fish would begin before the end of this month.
If alewives are allowed to run, scientists expect the fish’s population to increase from tens of thousands to 10 million or more, and predict benefits for the St. Croix and eastern Maine marine ecosystems.
The Legislature approved the blockade of alewives in 1995 in response to fishing guides’ concerns that the fish were harming smallmouth bass, a non-native fishery in the St. Croix but a source of recreational income for some in the region.
Lawmakers who opposed the bill said they remained concerned that restoring the alewife run would harm the smallmouth fishery. Bill proponents said there is little scientific evidence that alewives endanger smallmouth bass.
Alewives, an important source of food for larger fish, spend most of their lives in the ocean but swim up freshwater rivers in spring to spawn. The 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, the annual run grew 13-fold, to more than 2.6 million.
The blockade approved in 1995 reduced the alewife run to just 900 fish by 2002, a decline of 99.7 percent.
The Legislature revisited the issue in 2008, but opened only the Woodland Dam in Baileyville, leaving an estimated 94 percent of the alewife habitat closed.
L.D. 72, sponsored by Passamaquoddy Rep. Madonna Soctomah, effectively would reverse the 1995 and 2008 laws, letting the fish pass through the two dams.
The bill is supported by lobstermen, groundfishing interests, environmental groups, Indian tribes and the U.S. and Canadian governments, which share sovereignty over the watershed straddling the Maine-New Brunswick border.
Canada has made it clear that it intends to let the fish pass through the upstream Vanceboro Dam, which Canada controls. That would give the fish access to the entire eastern branch of the watershed. On the western branch, the alewives would have access as far as West Grand Lake Stream Dam.
House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said he hoped the bipartisan vote would prompt LePage to sign the bill. A spokeswoman for LePage did not respond to a request for comment.
Steve Mistler — 620-7016