Time at Last to Do the Right Thing on the St. Croix River

Sean Mahoney | @SeanCLF

In the late 1980’s, more than 2.6 million alewives were counted at the head of tide on the St. Croix River.  That was, and remains, the largest run of this critical species in Maine and New England.  But politics and willful ignorance of the facts led to enactment of a law that closed off access to the upper St. Croix and reduced the numbers of alewives from 2.6 million to 900 by 2002.  It’s well past time to right this wrong, repeal the shortsighted and politically expedient law and restore alewives to the St. Croix.

The law at issue requires the owner of the Grand Falls Dam to keep the fishway at the structure – which works perfectly well – closed during the Spring return of alewives to their native waters. The law was passed in 1995 at the behest of a small but vocal minority of guides who claimed that the resurgence of alewives in the St. Croix River watershed was the root cause for a decline in the number of smallmouth bass in Spednic Lake.  A law requiring the owner of the Woodland Dam and the Grand Falls Dam to keep the fish passage closed was enacted as emergency legislation.  So instead of returning to the St. Croix and spawning in the millions, alewives literally ran into a concrete wall and their numbers dwindled from the millions to the hundreds.

13 years later, armed with two well researched and extensively reviewed scientific studies, one conducted by the Maine Department of Marine Resources and a study supported by Maine IF&W and DMR,  that proved conclusively that alewives not only had coexisted successfully for years with smallmouth bass in numerous lakes but also improved the water quality for those non-native fish, fisherman and other outdoor enthusiasts moved to repeal the law and once again allow alewives access to probably the most productive alewife habitat on the entire East Coast.  But the Legislature failed to right its wrong and allowed fish passage at only the Woodland Dam, meaning that alewives remain blocked from accessing 98% of their native habitat in the St. Croix River watershed.

The number of fish now counted in the River is in the thousands. The tragedy of the St. Croix is not just that the current law flies in the face of science and good wildlife management but also flies in the face of the good work that Maine has done with respect to alewife restoration on so many other rivers – the Presumpscot, the Kennebec, and the Penobscot to name three – and the importance that alewives play as a critical bait and forage fish for both our recreational and commercial species such as striped bass, Atlantic cod and lobsters.

Many of Maine’s rivers have healthy runs of alewives that have actually increased in numbers over the last decade, unlike other States on the Atlantic seaboard where the populations of alewives (and their cousins, blueback herring) have declined so steeply that there is a very good chance that they may be listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act later this year.

And just last week, hundreds of groundfishermen in Maine were given the sobering news that the number of Atlantic cod has also declined sharply, so much so that fishermen in Maine and New England have had the allowable number that they can catch reduced by almost 80%.   So it is beyond comprehension that Maine continues to enforce a law that prevents alewives from accessing the most productive habitat in the State, the St. Croix River.

Certainly that is the opinion of my organization, the Conservation Law Foundation, which last year took the EPA to Court to establish that the Maine law is not consistent with the Clean Water Act and this year is bringing the State to Court to establish that the Maine law runs afoul of the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause.

But the time and expense of this litigation could be avoided if the Legislature does the right thing this year.  A bill introduced this session, L.D. 72, would repeal the current law and require the Commissioners of IF&W and DMR to ensure that the fishways at the Woodland and Grand Falls Dams allow unconstrained passage of alewives.  With Democrats and Republican legislators co-sponsoring the bill presented by Representative Soctomah of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, now is the time for the Legislature to fix this travesty and allow alewives to flourish once again in the St. Croix River.

This article was originally published in the March 2013 issue of the Maine Sportman. 

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