AUGUSTA, Maine — The contentious issue of whether to open the St. Croix River watershed to sea-run alewives drew more than six hours of impassioned testimony Monday during a public hearing before the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee.
The hearing centered on two pieces of proposed legislation related to alewife restoration in the St. Croix River watershed. The bill that garnered the most support, LD 72, sponsored by Passamaquoddy Tribal Rep. Madonna Soctomah, proposes emergency measures that would “ensure the fishways on the Woodland Dam and the Grand Falls Dam located on the St. Croix River are configured or operated in a manner that allows the unconstrained passage of river herring” by May 1 of this year. A second bill, LD 748, sponsored by Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, proposes similar measures.
Reversing their stance from 2008, Passamaquoddy chiefs and tribal members joined environmentalists and fishing industry advocates to support passage of LD 72.
A competing measure that reflects the Department of Marine Resources’ position, LD 548, sponsored by Rep. Windol Weaver, R-York, would align alewife restoration strategies with an adaptive management plan approved in 2010. That plan aims to address concerns raised by fishing guides about whether the introduction of alewives would decimate the bass population.
Much of the testimony Monday matched scientific studies against experience acquired by fishing guides and camp owners during decades of living and fishing in the St. Croix watershed.
The Down East alewife controversy has been alternately simmering and raging since the late 1980s, when some began to suspect that the presence of the fish had contributed to the collapse of the smallmouth bass fishery in Spednic Lake, which is part of the St. Croix watershed.
The St. Croix is a border water, separating Canada from the United States in places, and a joint international council has been trying to find a solution to the alewife conflict for years.
Although studies of other river systems have shown that alewives and bass can coexist with no adverse effects to either species, fishing guides and others in the Grand Lake Stream area have maintained that alewives were to blame for the bass collapse, and have expressed doubts that alewives were ever able to swim freely into areas of the upper St. Croix.
Those guides rely on the smallmouth bass population to draw clients who want to fish for them. For decades, the region has enjoyed a reputation as a top-notch destination for bass anglers.
A number of those guides and sporting camp owners, including Dale Tobey of Grand Lake Stream and John Arcaro of Sebec, repeated those concerns to the committee Monday. They also argued that young alewives in lakes competed with young bass for food.
However, Macauley Lord, an author and fly-fishing instructor from Brunswick, testified that Maine rivers with alewives are among the best places he’s fished in almost three decades.
“To a smallmouth, alewives are food,” Lord said. “I have caught big smallies with alewives coming out of their mouths or with their bellies full of them. … As soon as we get a strong run of alewives in the St. Croix, I will go back up there.”
Those who have fought for alewife passage in the St. Croix system have largely blamed the bass woes on the water-management practices that were in place at dams on the river. Of particular concern — and likely to blame, alewife proponents say — were massive water drawdowns that left Spednic’s bass eggs high and dry.
During Monday’s hearing, many also argued that sea-run alewives, which would swim up the St. Croix, differ from alewives from land-locked waterways, which have damaged sport fish populations in the Great Lakes and other Midwestern areas.
In 1995, the state passed a law that ordered fishways at two dams to be closed to alewives. In 2001, efforts were made to open up fishways through legislation, but Down East guides and others fought back and kept the river largely closed. According to previous BDN stories, the number of returning alewives dropped from millions in 1995 to just 900 fish by 2002.
The battle was renewed again in 2008, and restrictions on alewife passage were reduced, allowing the fish to move up the river through Woodland Dam.
George Smith, former executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, told the committee Monday that the 1995 decision to close fishways at the two dams, which he supported at the time, was a mistake. He noted that bass fishing in other Maine rivers where sea-run alewives migrate has not suffered.
“I think it’s time to let the alewives swim freely in the St. Croix watershed,” Smith said. “I respectfully and regretfully have concluded that we were wrong in 1995. I think full restoration as soon as possible is the right way to go.”
Ted Ames, a researcher, commercial fisherman and founding board member of the Penobscot East Resource Center in Stonington, argued that passage of LD 72 would yield economic benefits for Maine’s struggling groundfish industry. He said the lack of sea-run alewives, specifically from the St. Croix watershed, is why populations of cod, haddock and other groundfish are dwindling, especially in the Penobscot Bay area.
The impact that passage of LD 72, which represents the best chance to restore “historically famous St. Croix River herring runs,” could have on Maine’s groundfish stocks represents an “incredible opportunity,” that extends beyond sport fishing to commercial fishing, Ames said.
David Cousens, president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, echoed Ames’ perspective, telling the committee that restoration of the St. Croix alewife run, as envisioned by LD 72, would greatly benefit lobstermen by improving access to local bait sources.
Opponents of LD 72 countered that overfishing, not the inability of alewives to swim up the St. Croix River, led to the decline of groundfish stocks.
Witnesses also offered differing testimony on whether alewives could be found in St. Croix watershed lakes prior to 1970. Some opponents of LD 72 testified that alewives only started showing up at inland fishing grounds within the past generation, while supporters of opening the fishway argued that archeological and tribal evidence indicates the presence of alewives in the area for hundreds of years.
Rep. Beth Turner, R-Burlington, who represents District 11, which includes much of the St. Croix River watershed, said that after six hours of testimony, proponents had not convinced her that any of the three proposals would benefit the region. She said she would oppose all of them.
“I would always err on the side of caution and with those who live and work in the area,” she said.
BDN Outdoor Editor John Holyoke contributed to this report.