February 17, 2013

Rival measures would restore alewives into the St. Croix

Gov. Paul LePage's administration would move cautiously. A competing proposal would open river dams immediately.

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The future of spawning alewife runs in the St. Croix River will likely be decided by state lawmakers next month as they evaluate rival bills aimed at allowing the fish back into the watershed.

click image to enlarge

click image to enlarge

The competing bills take very different approaches. One, introduced by Gov. Paul LePage's administration, takes a slow and cautious tack to allowing the fish back into the river nearly two decades after they were locked out by state law. The other -- backed by environmental groups, commercial fishermen and the Passamaquoddy Tribe -- would open the dams immediately, a course of action endorsed by the federal governments of both the United States and Canada, whose territories the river system straddles.

Alewives, or "river herring," are a small schooling fish that spend most of their life in the oceans but travel up freshwater rivers in spring to spawn. An important source of food for larger fish, their numbers crashed after dams were constructed on Maine's rivers in the 19th century. Some scientists think their disappearance played a role in the destruction of Maine's inshore cod stocks, and think their restoration to the Penobscot, St. Croix and other rivers could contribute to the recovery of commercial fish as well. But on the St. Croix, inland fishing guides fear the fish might harm smallmouth bass and other sportfish by competing for food.

"It is the Passamaquoddies' vision that the entire watershed be available to river herring because it is an indigenous species and, like native peoples, they have been pushed back into smaller and smaller pieces of habitat," said Paul Biscula, the former head of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission, who is acting as a spokesman for Passamaquoddy activists on the issue. "If we can restore the viability of river herring runs, valuable fish like cod will be able to feed on them."

The LePage administration wants to implement a gradual, staged approach to reintroducing the spawning fish to the river. "I do not believe in one bit of my body that we will see a negative effect, but we want to do this in a way that tries to balance the polarization that has been part of the discussion on this issue since 1995," said Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources.

Alewives were effectively shut out of the river from 1825 to 1981, first because of impassable dams, and later because of pollution from lumber and paper mills. But from 1981 to 1987, their annual run grew 13-fold to more than 2.6 million.

In 1995, however, Augusta lawmakers passed a law that ordered the fishways at the Woodland and Grand Falls dams closed to the fish because inland fishing guides feared the alewives would harm the smallmouth bass populations in the region's lakes and ponds. The St. Croix alewife runs collapsed to just 900 fish in 2002, a decline of 99.7 percent.

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

Last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency directed the state to allow the alewives beyond Grand Falls, but then-Attorney General William Schneider countered that the agency's ruling was irrelevant. The Conservation Law Foundation has sued the state in federal court to compel action.

Environmentalists and marine fisheries advocates say restoring the alewife population will benefit both the freshwater and marine ecosystems, because they are a source of food for smallmouth bass, cod and other species. One researcher estimated that if spawning runs were allowed 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.

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