ST. STEPHEN, New Brunswick – The Maine Legislature’s Committee on Marine Resources will listen Monday to the public’s views on three bills that affect St. Croix River alewives.
The committee will hold a public hearing in Augusta on bills to open a fishway at the Grand Falls dam to allow alewives to return to historic spawning beds in the international river.
A bill by Rep. Windol C. Weaver, R-York, aims to open the fishway using the Adaptive Management Plan proposed by the Canada/United States International Joint Commission in 2010.
This would make the recovery of alewives contingent on the population of smallmouth bass in the area not dropping.
Environmentalists support bills sponsored by Madonna Soctomah of the Passamaquoddy Tribe and W. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, to open Grand Falls to unconstrained passage.
Emergency clauses in these two bills would require the state to open the fishway by May 1 if two-thirds of legislators vote in favor.
A simple majority can pass the other bill but, without an emergency clause, it would not take effect until 90 days after Legislature adjourns. The last of the alewives come up the river by early July.
“We certainly think it’s going to be a very big deal,” Ed Friedman of Bowdoinham, chairman of the Friends of Merrymeeting Bay, said recently.
Like most environmental organizations, the Friends of Merrymeeting Bay would prefer the entire St. Croix drainage be opened to alewives without restriction.
The International Joint Commission, which administers the Canada/United States Boundary Waters Treaty, proposed the Adaptive Management Plan to allay concerns of Maine sport fishing guides who linked more alewives to fewer bass after NB Power opened a better fishway at the Milltown Dam in 1981.
Others, including maine Commissioner of Marine Resources Patrick Keliher, connect the drop in smallmouth bass to opening the Vanceboro Dam at critical times, draining spawning beds in Spednic Lake at the head of the river.
The alewife population at the Milltown counting fence grew from 169,620 in 1981 to 2,624,700 in 1987.
The state blocked the fishway at Woodland, above Milltown but below Grand Falls, in 1995. The alewife count at Milltown plummeted to 900 in 2002.
Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans trucked alewives around the Woodland Dam. Maine reopened the Woodland fishway in 2008, allowing the fish access to about 2 percent of their former spawning areas.
Last year, the Atlantic Salmon Federation reported 36,216 alewives at Milltown. Keliher believes that, under the state’s plan, the St. Croix alewife population would increase to 3 million, enough to sustain commercial fishing, in 10-12 years, he said in February.
The bill the government supports would keep alewives out of Spednic Lake and West Grand Lake. The other bills do not mention these fishways above Grand Falls.
However, once the alewives reach the foot of the Vanceboro Dam, American authorities have no legal say on how much farther they go. The fishways at Vanceboro and the one above at the Forest City Dam are on the Canadian side. Like the Milltown fishway, they fall under Canadian jurisdiction, Harvey Millar in St. George, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ Southwest New Brunswick Area manager, confirmed in an interview Friday.
Right now, both the Vanceboro and Forest City fishways are open. Unless Canada closes them, nothing stops alewives that get above Grand Falls from continuing on to Spednic Lake, East Grand Lake and extreme upper reaches, contrary to the Adaptive Management Plan.
“Canada believes in good fisheries management that is based on sound science,” Millar said. “Sound science and fisheries management, and working with our partners.”
“Canada wants open fish passage on the St. Croix River right through the system,” he said. “Science shows that alewives pose no threat to smallmouth bass.”
American federal authorities seem to support Canada’s stance. In a Feb. 28 letter to the Maine Legislature’s Committee on Marine Resources, John K. Bullard in Gloucester, Mass., regional administrator of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service, reaffirmed the agency’s support for “securing unfettered access” to alewives in the St. Croix. The NOAA does not support the Adaptive Management Plan, even though its technical staff helped prepare it, the letter states.
Keliher and MacDonald, sponsor of one of the three bills, said in February that attempts in the past to open all fishways on the St. Croix unrestricted never got enough support to pass in the Maine Legislature.
Millar cannot say absolutely what will happen when the first alewife reaches Vanceboro.
“This is an international river,” he said. “I think we can’t go wrong if we base it on science and monitor it as we go along.”