CALAIS, Maine — Careful monitoring of the annual alewife run up the St. Croix river has revealed that this year’s return was nearly five times the previous high for the decade.
Despite the jump, however, the numbers are no where near what they were in the mid-1980s before efforts began to limit their access and when the alewife run exceeded 2 million fish per year.
“It was a real surprise,” Lee Sochasky, executive director of the St. Croix International Waterway Commission, which conducts the annual count, said Tuesday.
Sochasky said the 2010 count of 58,776 alewives exceeded the total return of fish in the last eight years combined. She said that 90 percent of the fish came through in a six-day span. “We had days when 10,000 fish showed up at once.”
Alewives, like Atlantic salmon, go to sea to grow but return to their birth river to spawn and may return to spawn again in future years. The sudden increase in St. Croix alewife numbers this year is believed to be due to more fish returning to spawn for the second, third or fourth time in the Woodland Flowage.
“Each May to July, we monitor the annual run of alewives at the Milltown dam, at the head of tide, for agencies on both sides of the border,” Sochasky said.
As the fish swim upstream, they are caged, she explained. The cage is then partially lifted and, using a dip net, the fish are counted one-by-one.
The SCIWC’s count is the official count and is funded by support from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Fisheries & Oceans Canada and the New Brunswick Power Corporation.
Since 2000, the number of alewives returning to the St. Croix has ranged from a low of 900 in 2002 to a high of 12,261 in 2008.
Sochasky said that in the mid-1980s, the St. Croix alewife run exceeded 2 million fish as a result of fishway improvements. Fish numbers began to decline as sections of freshwater spawning habitat were closed off by inter-agency agreements beginning 1987. In 1995, the Maine Legislature increased the closure to cover nearly all of the alewife’s St. Croix spawning grounds due to concerns that the fish may negatively affect the state’s economically and socially important smallmouth bass fishery in that river system.
“This has always been an emotional issue,” Sochasky explained. She said that although a number of reasons contributed to the decline of the bass population in some lakes, alewives got the blame.
“Bass fishing is a large part of the economy in the Woodland Flowage,” she said. “It is the livelihood of a number of guides and sport fishermen. It’s a way of life.”
Sochasky said recently restored access — Maine reopened the Woodland Flowage in 2008 — to spawning habitat in the flowage, 14 miles above Milltown, New Brunswick, has helped with the alewives’ recovery.
Sochasky said that many of the concerns around the return of the alewives have recently been researched and the US/Canada International Joint Commission has recently released a draft plan to restore alewives to the St. Croix in careful balance with the smallmouth bass population.
“I think the draft plan is a good compromise,” Sochasky said. “It balances the need to restore alewives with the importance of the fishery.”
The IJC will hold a public meeting on this plan at 6 p.m. Eastern Time (7 p.m. Atlantic Time) on Wednesday, Aug. 4, at Princeton Elementary School on U.S. Route 1 in Princeton.
Interested individuals and organizations from both sides of the border are invited to attend and comment on the plan.
Additional information on the draft alewife management plan and public meeting are available on line at www.ijc.org/rel/st-croix-alewife or through (in the U.S.) Barbara Blumeris, 978-318-8737, and email Barbara.firstname.lastname@example.org,mil, (in Canada) Nadine MacKay, 902-426-2234, and email Nadine.MacKay@ec.gc.ca.