Maine lawmakers reject bill to bar alewives from upper St. Croix River
AUGUSTA –– A legislative committee voted unanimously Wednesday to reject a bill that would have once again blocked alewives from reaching the upper sections of the St. Croix River.
It took lawmakers on the Marine Resources Committee less than 10 minutes to dispatch L.D. 800, which had been the subject of an hours-long public hearing two days earlier. Lawmakers voted in 2013 to reopen the upper St. Croix to alewives after years of heated debate.
“I didn’t really hear anything new on Monday,” said Rep. Walter Kumiega, D-Deer Isle, the committee’s co-chair. “It was a unanimous vote two years ago.”
The bill’s supporters, led by registered guides and sporting camp owners in the Grand Lake Stream region, contend that alewives were never historically present in the upper river because several waterfalls or natural formations blocked their upstream passage. They also blame alewives for the collapse of smallmouth bass populations in Spednik Lake and other lakes, when barriers at several dams were removed to allow upstream migration during the 1980s.
The alewives’ defenders point to scientific studies saying that the fish, also known as river herring, were historically found well above the Grand Falls Dam while smallmouth bass are an introduced, invasive species in Maine. Leaders of the Passamaquoddy tribal communities in Washington County and across the St. Croix River in Canada have said alewives are an important part of their culture and history.
Alewives live in salt water but spawn in rivers, lakes and ponds. They occupy an important ecological niche in the Gulf of Maine as prey for many other species – including cod and Atlantic salmon – and are used as bait by Maine lobstermen.
Slightly more than 27,000 alewives passed above the St. Croix’s Milltown Dam below Grand Falls last year. Nearly 2.4 million were counted at the Sebasticook River’s Benton Falls fish trap last year, 187,429 were counted at the Penobscot River at Milford and 59,960 at the Androscoggin River dam in Brunswick.
On Monday, the commissioners of the Department of Marine Resources and the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife offered to form a working group to review the scientific data on alewives in the St. Croix. Those findings would then be reviewed by an independent third party before recommendations are made.
The sponsor of L.D. 800, Republican Rep. Beth Turner of Burlington, said she was disappointed with the prompt vote to reject her bill but was encouraged by the proposed working group to review the contradictory data and evidence cited by both sides.
“Without a time machine, no one can definitively tell you whether alewives were in the Upper St. Croix” before the river was dammed in the 1800s, Turner said.