June 19, 2018
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Boosting Alewives

An international commission has struggled mightily to come up with a way to satisfy fishing guides and conservation groups to end the longstanding disagreement over alewives in the St. Croix River. Their compromise plan falls short however, and worse, would formalize the dangerous precedent of putting the needs of a non-native species (and the people who want to catch it) above a native one.

A plan written by scientists for the International Joint Commission, which deals with U.S.-Canadian border issues, would allow alewives access to one-third of their ancestral spawning grounds on the St. Croix River, which forms the border between Canada and the United States in Washington County. It would also set up a complex system for monitoring the growth of the alewife population. If the population of bass — a non-native fish — declined for any reason, the rebuilding of the alewife population — a native species — would be slowed, or even stopped.

The fact that the monitoring plan is so complex and makes no mention of the importance of alewives in the nearby marine environment shows that the document was meant more to quiet smallmouth bass fishermen and guides than to reach a conclusion based on the importance of alewives.

A better plan would allow alewives to access more of the St. Croix waterway, while closely monitoring Spednic Lake, the one place where the smallmouth bass population declined in the 1980s. Such a revision is supported by conservation groups including the Atlantic Salmon Federation. Bangor Daily News publisher Richard Warren is the group’s U.S. chairman.

Alewives, a type of herring that divide their lives between salt and freshwater, used to number in the millions in the St. Croix. Due to concerns raised by fishing guides that the fish were responsible for a decline in the smallmouth bass population in Spednic Lake, lawmakers ordered fishways on the St. Croix closed in 1995. Since then, the number of alewives in the river plummeted to 1,300 in 2007. The Canadian government has long said the closure violates international agreements. In recent years, the Canadian government has trucked alewives to a portion of the river above the Woodland Dam, which has allowed fish passage since 2008.

Alewives, which spend only about two months in the river, are an important food source for other fish and wildlife, including eagles. In the ocean, alewives are eaten by cod, pollock, haddock and other groundfish. Increasingly strict restrictions on groundfishing have failed to rebuild some of these populations. Having too little food available is likely part of the problem.

On the other side of the equation, there is little evidence that alewives have hurt the region’s bass population. In fact, some studies show that where alewives and other fish live together, the lakes have larger, healthier populations of the other fish. Further, it appears that taking water from Spednic Lake was responsible for the drop in the bass population there.

Given this information, the Joint Commission needs to rework its plan with an emphasis on rebuilding the alewife population while taking reasonable precautions not to harm the smallmouth bass.

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