The fishway on Sheepscot Pond has been closed to migrating fish for years, and this year will be no different.

A controversial bill that would have opened the fishway during the months when some species of fish migrate along the Sheepscot River in Lincoln and Waldo counties has been postponed indefinitely in the Legislature.

In its place is compromise reached in March that outlines the steps that need to be taken before the fish passage can be opened.

For the Palermo property owners that showed up in force in February to testify against L.D. 922 during a public hearing at the Joint Standing Committee on Marine Resources, the move is a victory.

As it now stands, fish passage at the lake is open all year, except from mid-April to the end of June, when migrating alewives, eels and sea lampreys are on the move through waterways along the coast of Maine.

The bill would have opened the Palermo lake to those species during that time.

“We’re relieved. We’re really, really pleased,” Lynda Pound said.

Town residents turned out in force, and that should be celebrated, she said.

Pound is a member of the Sheepscot Lake Association and one of many who rallied to defeat the bill and have worked to keep alewives and sea lampreys out of Sheepscot Pond — which is known in Palermo as Sheepscot Lake.

They maintain that the lake, which was created in its current form when it was dammed in 1949, is not the same body of water it was before the migrating fish passage was blocked. It now is home to a self-sustaining population of togue, or lake trout.

They fear alewives and other migrating species will bring diseases that will jeopardize both the lake’s sport fishing and the fish being reared at the Palermo State Fish Hatchery, the fish cultural station managed by the state Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife at the south end of the pond, below the dam and fishway.

Before any action to open the lake to alewives an other migrating species occurs, they wanted studies of the lake to be completed to see what measures would be needed to protect the fishery, something that some lawmakers on the Marine Resources Committee said they also wanted to see.

Rep. Jeffrey Pierce, R-Dresden, the bill’s sponsor, said Friday he had gained enough support in both legislative chambers to pass the bill and to overcome a veto, but he agreed to the indefinite postponement.

The move comes after Pierce met with Gov. Paul LePage, Inland Fisheries & Wildlife Commissioner Chandler Woodcock and Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Kelliher in March.

“We came up with an agreement that works for everyone,” Pierce said.

The focus of the meeting was putting in place measures at the fish rearing station at Sheepscot Pond to prevent the spread of disease.

Pierce said the fish-rearing station poses the biggest threat for potential infection, because young fish are brought in from locations across the state to be reared at the station before they are large enough to be stocked in lakes across Maine.

Under the deal reached at that March meeting, Pierce agreed to postpone the bill indefinitely. The Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife is expected to add appropriate biosecurity measures to protect the fish rearing station, identify funds for an engineering study, and build and maintain the system. Pierce and IF&W are expected to secure money from private sources to help the department with the system. The commissioners of both departments are expected to determine the appropriate time line for reopening the fish passage once disease prevention measures are in place.

Only then would the gate blocking fish passage be removed.

The agreement is detailed in a memo from LePage to Pierce, with copies to both commissioners.

“It’s a great outcome for everyone,” Pierce said. “The residents will be able to enjoy not having infectious diseases caused (at) the fish rearing station, and they won’t have to worry about lake levels dropping, and they will have a healthy lake.”

Pierce said even with the fish passage closed, more than a dozen species of fish are brought to the lake in the form of live bait. Maine fishing rules allow 17 forms of foreign bait to be used at the lake.

“That’s not consistent with biosecurity for the rearing station as the reason they can’t open the guillotine gate at the fishway,” he said.

Residents and property owners were surprised when they learned the bill had been submitted during last year’s legislative session; no one in the town of about 1,500 east of Augusta in Waldo County had sought the opening of the fish passage, and the bill’s sponsors included no local lawmakers.

They also didn’t have a chance to testify at the legislative public hearing in 2017. Records of testimony at that time show that majority of speakers favored reintroducing alewives to the lake.

Over the summer, their state senator, Senate President Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, was able to gain approval for a second public hearing, which was held in February.

Because of that, Pound said residents, property owners and lake association members will remain vigilant against any measures to change the lake.

“We averted a disaster,” she said.

More than three decades ago, a population of sea lampreys established itself in the lake, unable to leave because successive dry seasons lowered the lake level to the point that they couldn’t get out. For years afterward, fish caught in the lake either carried scars from the lampreys or were pulled out with lampreys still attached.

“It’s taken many decades to say we have very few sea lamprey,” she said.

And while the compromise reached last month indicates fish passage will be open to migrating fish, Pound said no money has been appropriated to fund the measures outlined.

Pierce, who is the founder and executive director of Alewives Harvesters of Maine, remains committed to reintroducing alewives to their historic range, which includes Sheepscot Pond.

“We talked … today about the time line,” he said. “Hopefully by November this can all be done.”

If it isn’t, he said, it won’t be long until January comes. By then, a new governor will be elected and it’s likely the new administration would have different department heads.

“I can bring another bill forward if the agreement is not honored,” he said.

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

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