OAKLAND — On Wednesday, town leaders could decide to remove a barrier between Messalonskee Lake and Messalonskee Stream, a move the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine says could promote the spread of invasive species.

Essex Hydro, the company that owns the dam on Messalonskee Lake, has asked the town for permission to remove about 15 percent of a fish screen, now located at the outlet of the lake, during daytime hours this fall.

In order to spare workers the difficulty of raking leaves from it every day during the fall, Essex wants to remove the screen, first installed in the 1940s to prevent salmon from leaving the lake.

In a letter to the town, Essex, which acquired the dam in 2010, said Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection researched the issue and concluded “that the fish screen serves no purpose because land-locked salmon no longer are stocked in Messalonskee Lake.”

David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, said the group opposes the move because the barrier could be preventing the spread of invasive species.

Taking down a portion of any fish screen for any period of time is a bad idea, he said.

“If the fish screen is serving a purpose and you take it down for any length of time, you might as well take it down permanently,” Trahan said. “It’s like being at a fenced-in animal farm. Would you consider taking that fence down for a week or so?”

Trahan said Messalonskee Lake has had significant problems with invasive species over the years.

He remembers fishing brook trout and salmon from the lake when he was a child, but now fishermen catch more bass and pike “if you can get through the milfoil,” he said, referring to another invasive aquatic species that grows in the lake.

Trahan said there could be undocumented invasive species that would benefit if the screen is removed even temporarily.

Once an invasive species gets a toehold, Trahan said, it can be almost impossible to remove it.

“The game is over,” he said. “That will change that ecosystem forever.”

He said he would support a careful study of the issue.

“We want to hear that there will be no biological impact from taking that fish screen out,” Trahan said.

However, Jason Seiders, regional fisheries biologist with Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said the screen is woefully ineffective at preventing the spread of invasive species.

The screen was installed to prevent adult salmon from leaving the lake at its outlet when they felt the urge to spawn.

The species the state stocks in Messalonskee — brook trout, brown trout and splake — tend to head to the lake’s inlet, on the opposite side of the lake from the screen, at spawning time.

The concerns about invasive species are not well-founded, Seiders said, because the screen doesn’t stop them anyway.

“Biologically, it’s not of concern,” he said.

The screen was designed to stop adult salmon and would need a much finer mesh to stop juvenile invasives, he said.

Northern pike and black crappies can and do pass through the screen, he said, and they have established themselves in the lake, the stream and the lower parts of the Kennebec River.

Seiders said the screen also fails to stop the spread of milfoil, because small fragments of that plant also can get through the barrier.

Andrew Locke, vice president of Essex Hydro, said the company submitted the request to the town in an effort to be transparent and to work with the community.

“We want to go through the right channels,” he said.

Locke said he is confident the town will make the right decision, and that the company will abide by whatever that decision is.

“At the end of the day, if we find there are no fish in there that are escaping because of the fish screen being pulled out, then it makes sense,” he said. “But if some are, then that’s something that has to be decided by the town.”

Peter Nielsen, Oakland town manager, said the council has sought comments from two local environmental groups, the Belgrade Regional Conservation Alliance and the Friends of Messalonskee, to help the council make an informed decision.

The conservation alliance, he said, has indicated that it will take no position on the matter.

Calls to Charles Baeder, executive director of the conservation alliance, seeking comment were not returned.

Friends of Messalonskee member Ned Hammond, who is working with the town on this issue, was not available for comment today.

Friends of Messalonskee plans to give a presentation to the council during its meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the Oakland Town Office, according to Nielsen.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287
[email protected]