GRAND LAKE STREAM, Maine — The decades-old debate over the introduction of alewives in the St. Croix River watershed is heating up again.
Sport fishing guides and camp owners from the area are seeking to cut off alewife access to the upper St. Croix River, essentially reversing legislation passed in 2013 that opened the waterway to the so-called river herring via fishways at dams on the river.
A public hearing on LD 800, sponsored by Rep. Beth Turner, R-Burlington, on behalf of the Grand Lake Stream Guides Association, will take place at 10 a.m. April 27 before the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee.
The measure calls for a fishway on the Grand Falls Dam to be configured or operated in such a way as to prevent passage of alewives into the lakes that form the headwaters of the St. Croix River, including Grand Falls Flowage, Big Lake, West Grand Lake and Spednic Lake.
Grand Lake guide Dale Tobey said reintroducing alewives to the St. Croix River in 2013 gives the alewives access to freshwater bodies such as Grand Lake where they are not native. As a result, alewives will destroy sport fishing for smallmouth bass and salmon and ruin the economic landscape of the Grand Lake area, he said.
“The whole lifestyle of this area is all tied to having a good fishery to work in,” Tobey said.
Alewives decimated fishing in Spednic Lake in 1980 by outcompeting small mouthed bass for food, said Tobey and fellow guide Louis Cataldo.
“We started noticing that our bass fishing was going to pieces,” said Cataldo.
Alewives also adversely affect salmon, because although the salmon eat them, the alewives aren’t nutritionally sufficient, they said. When a salmon eats alewives, it produces an enzyme that then prevents them from reproducing, Cataldo said. Meanwhile, the alewives eat smelt, which meet salmon’s nutritional needs, causing a shortage of smelt, according to the supporters of LD 800.
Moreover, with the fishways open for alewives, it’s allowing salmon migration to lakes from streams, which cuts short the salmon season by a month from its usual April to June.
Down East guides and others went to the Maine Legislature and were successful in 1995 in getting legislation passed that cut off alewife access to the river at Woodland Dam and Grand Falls. That legislation remained in place until the passage of LD 72 two years ago, which allowed the alewives up river via fishways on the Woodland Dam and the Grand Falls Dam.
Part of the contention with the alewives lies in a dispute over whether the fish are native to the area.
Tobey and Cataldo said that before dams were built on the St. Croix, three natural barriers would have kept the alewives out of the big lakes. Those natural barriers were at Salmon Falls near Calais, Sprague Falls in Baileyville and, above that, Grand Falls, and would have been too steep for the alewives to traverse on their own.
According to a study by Steven J. Whitman, a civil engineer and land surveyor who now owns and operates a sporting camp in Princeton, any natural barrier of 18 inches or greater in vertical height will block and restrict herring and alewives. All three of these falls displayed such characteristics even before dams were built, his study says.
Whitman said that this proves alewives are not native to the upper St Croix.
“The river was very restricted. It was very steep. It had vertical [barriers]. The velocity [of the water] was tremendous,” he said. “It became very apparent the fish never migrated up into these areas.”
But former Passamaquoddy Tribal Rep. Madonna Soctomah, who sponsored LD 72, disagrees. She said alewives are, in fact, native to the St. Croix River and should be left alone.
“[Alewives] are part of the food chain,” she said. “I don’t know why people are opposed to that. I’m sure they like to eat.”
“All of the science … supports the reintroduction of alewives into the St. Croix Watershed,” said Paul Bisulca, a former legislative representative for the Penobscot Nation and member of a group called Schoodic River Keepers. He was one of the major drivers behind Soctomah’s bill.
Soctomah cited a 2006 study, “ Two Reports on Alewives in the St. Croix River,” published by Maine River, an organization formed in 2003 out of a Natural Resources Council of Maine project to advocate for free flowing, healthy rivers.
The study examined diet, size and growth of several species of fish, including salmon, alewives and smallmouth bass in 10 lakes in Maine.
“We found no evidence from available historic data for Down East Maine lakes that the presence of alewives systematically harmed smallmouth bass in terms of length, condition or growth,” the study says.
Written in part by T.V. Willis, a research scientist with the Aquatic Systems Group of the University of Southern Maine, the study also referenced Meddybemps Lake in Washington County, where “populations of bass and alewives have coexisted for over a century.”
In addition, Willis indicated that smallmouth bass tournaments in the past few years had showed similar returns in lakes with alewives and lakes without, “suggesting that the quality of sport fishing for bass does not differ systematically between lakes with and lakes without anadromous alewives.”
Alewives are critical for all predators throughout the St. Croix Watershed, said Edward P. Ames, visiting research scientist and board member at Penobscot East Resource Center in Stonington. Their existence protects salmon by providing alternative prey to other predators such as birds.
Both Ames and Bisulca said without alewives, the numbers of cod, haddock and other species are vastly diminished because they have nothing to eat.
Alewives are an increasingly important source of spring bait for Maine’s lobster and halibut fisheries, Ames said.
The Maine Department of Marine Resources hasn’t taken a stance on the bill, said Jeff Nichols, director of communications for the agency. Calls this week to the state department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife have not been returned.