Credit: George Danby | BDN

On April 26, Woodland Pulp LLC in Baileyville received an order from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). As licensee of the West Grand Dam in Grand Lake Stream, Washington County, Woodland Pulp was ordered to remove the hydraulic jump, or “scissor gate” from the dam’s fish ladder 45 days from the issuance of the order, or June 10. The removal is intended to allow passage of sea run alewives as well as other “native migratory fish” into West Grand Lake and adjoining lakes in the upper West Branch of the St. Croix River watershed.

In the modern history of this storied waterway, no single action approaches the scope of the one to be implemented on June 10. In an ominously sweeping move, the watershed that is responsible for over three quarters of the salmon stocked in Maine will suddenly be exposed to a host of what are even now termed invasive species in the current Maine law book.

The 22-page FERC ruling summarizes input from various agencies and groups that have long opposed the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s (DIFW) management of the West Grand fishery which, they say, has been unfairly weighted in favor of landlocked salmon and smallmouth bass. These include U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the National Marine Fisheries Service, The Alewife Harvesters, the Schoodic River Keepers, and the Passamaquoddy Tribe.

The consensus among these groups concludes that opening the West Branch as spawning habitat could produce up to 20 million alewives annually, making it the largest alewife population in the state. It would also return to the tribe its historic sustenance fish, provide a bountiful commercial bait fishery to the lobster industry, and help restore groundfish populations in Passamaquoddy Bay and beyond.

For its part, DIFW cites the importance of Maine’s $371 million annual freshwater fishing revenue, which is bolstered by a healthy salmon stocking program at Grand Lake Stream and a robust smallmouth bass sport fishery. It also cites concerns over diseases borne by some of the invasive species to be let in with the gate removal.

As licensee, Woodland Pulp is caught in the crossfire of the controversy. “We are not in favor of any move that would bring harm to either West Grand Lake or East Grand Lake,” Scott Beal, Environmental Manager at Woodland Pulp, said in an interview. “And our history shows that.”

Woodland Pulp inherited the hydropower license for the West Grand Dam and other dams from previous mill owners. “The hydropower yielded to us from these dams is no longer viable or worth the cost of its production,” said Beal.

According to Beal, Woodland Pulp has previously offered the license to both the tribe and the state, but neither wanted to become the licensee of the dam.

In a telephone interview, Joseph Enrico, head of FERC hydropower compliance for the Northeast said that if Woodland Pulp relinquished its license, “The dam would either be taken out, or cease to be operated as a dam so that the waterway would be essentially free-flowing.” By holding on to the license, Woodland Pulp has therefore become the only bulwark against water levels on West Grand Lake returning to those of the early 19th century, rendering the famous fishery unrecognizable.

Recognizing an impasse, FERC, the order states, was placed in the position of deciding which fish would be permitted entry and which would not.

Ultimately, the ruling excludes no species from entering the West Grand system. As justification, FERC cites “unconvincing” DIFW arguments that alewives and other invasive species could threaten to out-compete native fish for forage, or that diseases brought in from the sea would imperil landlocked salmon.

With so many non-local groups having decided on West Grand Lake as the solution to so many of their problems, FERC’s decision doesn’t so much settle an impasse, as grant the majority opinion its wish. In so doing, the commission’s ruling would seem to have a net-zero impact on energy, and a wide-ranging and significant impact on the environment.

If DIFW’s concerns are borne out, June 10 may be remembered by sportsmen and stakeholders as the day a hard-won, fragile balance in a famed fishery was deliberately disrupted.

Randy Spencer is an author and guide working in Grand Lake Stream.