PRINCETON, Maine — The tiny silver alewife — a sea-run river herring also called gaspereau — was described as both a vicious threat and the savior of both the sport fishing and groundfishing industries at a gathering in Princeton on Wednesday night.
The argument has raged for decades: Will opening existing dams to alewife migration into the lakes along the St. Croix River deplete food stock for sport fish? Or will it create a deeper ecological layer that will provide food for sport fish and, as they increase in numbers, provide vital bait fish for lobster fishermen and help return groundfish to the Maine coast?
At the center of the debate is a new management plan to allow alewives access to the St. Croix watershed in careful balance with the smallmouth bass population. The plan was created by the Canada-United States International Joint Commission and its International St. Croix Watershed Board. The commission is a joint panel that helps find resolutions to disputes and controversies around shared waterways between the U.S. and Canada. The St. Croix River forms part of the border between Maine and New Brunswick.
About 110 people turned out for a public discussion of the plan Wednesday night at Princeton Elementary School, many representing fishery agencies and advocacy groups, while others represented lodges, hunting and fishing camps and the Maine Indian tribes.
The International Joint Commission administers a century-old treaty governing Canada-United States border waters, and speakers at the gathering pressed the commission for action. Some asked to open the waterway to alewives, others wanted to keep it closed, while many asked the commission to gather more scientific-based data.
At Wednesday night’s meeting, Rep. Anne Perry, D-Calais, said the question boiled down to defining whether allowing alewives to swim upstream would be considered a restoration of a native fish or the introduction of a foreign species.
Lance Wheaton, a Forest City guide, said that Milltown Falls, also known as Salmon Falls, was a natural barrier to the sea, not a man-made dam, and that alewives were unable to travel upstream from there. “But in 1981, the Canadians blew up the dam and allowed free passage,” he said. “They destroyed that natural barrier. Alewives are predator fish.”
Dave Bookman, owner of Long Lake Camps, agreed.
“It would be the introduction of a foreign species,” he said. “Jobs would be lost and property values destroyed. It would be devastating to the fishery and would upset the existing ecosystem.”
“We’ll fight [opening the river] all the way until there is historic evidence that there were alewives beyond Grand Falls dam,” William Nicholas, Passamaquoddy governor of Indian Township, told the commission. “Yes, alewives were a sustenance fish for our tribe but never at Grand Lake Stream, at Pleasant Point.” Nicholas said that if the riverways are opened, the tribe will consider suing the commission.
But Peter Scott, also of New Brunswick, said he had fished the St. Croix for bass all his life. “The best bass fishing is where the alewives are,” he said.
Jeffrey Pierce of Dresden, the executive director of Alewife Harvesters of Maine, said that bass are a non-native species introduced in the 1800s, and that the Washington County economy could grow by up to $10 million annually if the alewife population were allowed to expand.
Alewives can be used, as herring are now, for lobster bait, and commercial fishermen said that if the population gets large enough, when it returns to the sea it could provide a food base to lure groundfish back to Maine waters.
The management plan proposes opening the Grand Falls fishway, allowing alewives up as far as the Vanceboro Dam at the outlet of Spednic Lake, the head of the main branch of the St. Croix River.
The plan proposes blocking alewives from Spednic Lake as well as West Grand Lake on the West Branch of the river.
Maine blocked passage at the Woodland Dam above Milltown in 1995. After the number of returning alewives dropped to 900 in 2002, Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans began trucking them above the Woodland Dam.
Maine opened the Woodland fishway in 2008 but still blocks alewives at Grand Falls, the next dam up the river.
New data revealed in July that the alewife migration through Milltown, New Brunswick, was at an 11-year high this spring with a count of 58,776.
That is still nowhere near what they were in the mid-1980s, when alewife runs exceeded 2 million fish as a result of fishway improvements.
The commission’s latest plan would allow alewives into about 30 percent of the St. Croix watershed while scientists study the interaction between alewives and bass.
Gov. John Baldacci has told the fishing guides they should agree to some compromise before the International Joint Commission exercises its authority to impose a decision. The commission, however, has indicated it will make a recommendation to each of the federal governments and it will be up to those governments to take action. There is no time frame set for the recommendations to be made.
Additional information on the draft alewife management plan and public meeting is available at www.ijc.org/rel/st-croix-alewife.