AUGUSTA, Maine — A bill that opens the entire St. Croix watershed to sea-run alewives for the first time in nearly three decades went into law Tuesday without the signature of Gov. Paul LePage.

The bill, LD 72, An Act to Open the St. Croix River to River Herring, breezed through the House and Senate and was sent to LePage’s desk on April 10. Under Maine law, the governor has 10 days, excluding Sundays, to sign or veto bills or they become law automatically.

Rep. Madonna Soctomah of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, who sponsored the bill, said it came about because Native Americans, sportsmen and others wanted to let alewives swim their natural course.

“This is a survival issue,” she said.

The bill became law with only about a week to spare before its contents become relevant. It requires state officials to remove barriers in fishways at Grand Falls Dam in Washington County by May 1 in order to allow alewifes to migrate upriver. It would be the first time since 1995 that the fish would have full access to the St. Croix River watershed.

The issue came to a head in the 1980s when some claimed that the presence of alewives in the watershed harmed sport fishing in Spednic Lake, according to a previous report in the Bangor Daily News. Legislation was enacted that blocked fishways at Grand Falls and Woodland Dams, though the latter barrier was removed in 2008.

During a lengthy public hearing last month before the Marine Resources Committee, tribal representatives, lobstermen and an advocate for Maine’s groundfishing industry sided with environmentalists in urging the removal of the fishway barriers. They argued that alewives migrated through the watershed for centuries and cited scientific data that shows alewives do not threaten sport fish such as smallmouth bass. Fishing guides and sporting camp owners chiefly cited personal experience and observations in arguing that alewives threaten smallmouth bass and other sport fisheries upon which they their businesses depend.

The LePage administration had supported a competing measure, which would have relied on a fisheries management plan to monitor the impact of alewives on other species of fish within the St. Croix watershed. During a lengthy public hearing on the bill, supporters of LD 72 argued that the alternating proposal would cost more and unnecessarily delay reintroduction of sea-run alewives to their traditional upriver spawning grounds.

The committee unanimously endorsed the bill, which went on to votes of 123-24 in the House and 33-0 in the Senate in favor of passage.

Paul Bisulca, a former legislative representative for the Penobscot Nation and member of a group called Schoodic River Keepers, was one of the major drivers behind Soctomah’s bill. He said the bill breezed through the Legislature because its benefits were well researched and circulated. In fact, he said the barrier at Grand Falls Dam was never installed this year in anticipation of the passage of Soctomah’s bill.

“We’ve gotten out of balance and we’re trying to restore our rivers more toward their natural state,” said Bisulca. “What made this bill so easy was that the potential benefits are just so huge. We don’t expect any downside.”

Bisulca said he’s organizing an event at Grand Falls Dam on June 5 to celebrate the passage of the bill and by extension, the alewives.

Since LD 72 was filed as an emergency measure, it becomes law immediately. Soctomah said she’s thrilled about enactment of the bill.

“It makes all the negative things that go on in daily life seem obscure,” she said. “It’s just a very proud and historic moment that I’m proud to enjoy. It was the right thing to do for Maine.”

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.