|Native alewives coming home to the Kennebec River, Waterville, Maine.|
Underwater photo by Tim Watts at Ticonic Falls, June 2003.
Native alewives are like bluebirds, robins, cardinals, chickadees and brook trout. They are the warp in the woof of life in coastal New England. They are the bright, shiny hopeful harbingers of spring. To young children, the story of their migration is as fascinating as the sheer fun of scooping them up with tiny, water-chilled hands as new leaves unfold in April. Alewives are wild local nature in the flesh, the creators of childhood memories which once impressed cannot be worn away by time.
Like all of Maine's large rivers, the St. Croix River lost its enormous runs of alewife, salmon and shad due to the building of dams without fishways in the early 1800s -- even though the laws at the time required them.
In the 1960s, the St. Croix started to get its native fish back when the U.S. and Canadian governments paid for new fishways at the river's major dams. By the late 1980s the native alewife run on the St. Croix had grown to 3 million strong -- the largest alewife run in North America -- stunning proof of how cleaning up water pollution and making dams passable to native fish can quickly restore ecosystems once given up as gone.
But in the late 1980s a small group of fishermen on Spednic Lake on the St. Croix decided a recent downturn in smallmouth bass fishing was wholly caused by native alewives. Although they had no evidence, except the obvious fact that there were native alewives in the lake, these anglers pressed their case to their local legislators. In 1995 these legislators pushed through a state law requiring native alewives not be allowed to use the federally funded fishways built on the St. Croix specifically for them. By 2002 the river's alewife run had fallen from 3 million fish to only 800.
In 2001 the Maine Legislature debated but refused to remove the state's 'alewife ban' on the St. Croix. In desperation, the Canadian government began trucking the river's few remaining alewives over the Woodland dam, whose blocked fishway is on the U.S. side of the river. This Canadian action saved the St. Croix's alewife run from total extinction. In 2008 the Maine Legislature allowed alewife passage at the Woodland dam, but this feeble measure has left 98 percent of the fishes' habitat inaccessible and kept the population stuck at a meager 20,000.
Native alewives have been extinct from Spednic Lake for more than 20 years and the smallmouth bass fishing at Spednic Lake today is no better or worse than it was when the whole hubbub started. This is object proof that native alewives had nothing to do with the quality of smallmouth bass fishing at Spednic in the first place.
Since the late 1980s a mountain of scientific studies have been conducted on the St. Croix and elsewhere in Maine which conclusively show native alewives have no ill effect on smallmouth bass or any other fish. But the 1995 law which started it all is still on the books and is still being enforced each spring by Maine's fisheries commissioners. In 2013, alewives still cannot reach 98 percent of their native habitat in the St. Croix. This spring, like every spring since 1995, the St. Croix's native alewives will return from the Atlantic Ocean to the Grand Falls Dam and find a locked and bolted door between themselves and the natural lakes where they have spawned since the last Ice Age.
State Rep. and Passamaquoddy Tribal Representative Madonna Soctomah and other concerned legislators have sponsored an emergency bill to finally repeal the 1995 alewife ban law on the St. Croix and bring these native fish back to their rightful place in Maine's fourth largest river system. While the past cannot be unwritten, the future has yet to be drafted. Let's hope LD 72 is enacted and becomes the first of many new and hopeful chapters for the St. Croix and its native fish.
The bill's public hearing will be held on Monday, March 25th at 9 a.m. in Room 206 of the Cross Building at the State House Complex in Augusta. While the past cannot be unwritten, the future has yet to be drafted. Let LD 72 be the first of a new and hopeful chapter on the St. Croix. The full text of the bill is below:
LD 72 -- 126th Maine Legislature
An Act To Open the St. Croix River to River Herring
Emergency preamble. Whereas, acts and resolves of the Legislature do not become effective until 90 days after adjournment unless enacted as emergencies; and
Whereas, river herring were once abundant in the St. Croix watershed and play a vital ecological role in that watershed and the near-shore marine ecosystem; and
Whereas, the decline in the river herring population in the St. Croix watershed affects the ecological and economic health of that watershed and the near-shore marine ecosystem; and
Whereas, the prohibition on allowing river herring to pass upstream from the Grand Falls Dam on the St. Croix River is a significant impediment to the restoration of river herring to historic levels in the St. Croix watershed; and
Whereas, legislation allowing unimpeded passage of river herring upstream from the Grand Falls Dam on the St. Croix River needs to take effect prior to the river herring's spring spawning run; and
Whereas, in the judgment of the Legislature, these facts create an emergency within the meaning of the Constitution of Maine and require the following legislation as immediately necessary for the preservation of the public peace, health and safety; now, therefore,
Be it enacted by the People of the State of Maine as follows:
Sec. 1. 12 MRSA §6134, as amended by PL 2011, c. 598, §12, is repealed and the following enacted in its place:
§ 6134. River herring passage; fishways on the St. Croix River
By May 1, 2013, the commissioner and the Commissioner of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife shall ensure that 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.
Emergency clause. In view of the emergency cited in the preamble, this legislation takes effect when approved.
This bill provides that, by May 1, 2013, the Commissioner of Marine Resources and the Commissioner of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife must 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.
Sponsored By: Representative SOCTOMAH of the Passamaquoddy Tribe; Cosponsored By: Representative AYOTTE of Caswell, Representative BEAR of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, Representative BEAUDOIN of Biddeford, Representative BERRY of Bowdoinham, Representative DOAK of Columbia Falls, Senator DUTREMBLE of York, Senator JACKSON of Aroostook, Representative MITCHELL of the Penobscot Nation, Representative PARRY of Arundel.