October 22, 2009 | Incorporating the Inter-Island News
Posted: July 22nd, 2009 | ENVIRONMENT, MARINE

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Commission urges Maine to open St. Croix River to sea-run alewife

by Craig Idlebrook

After more than 14 years of contentious debate, momentum is building to allow the sea-run alewife back into Maine's St. Croix River. On July 10, an international commission with jurisdiction over shared U.S. and Canadian waterways wrote Gov. John Baldacci to urge the removal of structures on dams that block alewives from the river.

Canadian wildlife officials long have argued that the dams were put there illegally and without any scientific basis. And a coalition of 51 American and Canadian fishing and environmental organizations recently banded together to lobby for action to restore the alewife in the St. Croix. The open letter by the International Joint Commission (IJC) leaves the Maine government and a small group of Downeast guides increasingly isolated in their opposition to sea-run alewife reintroduction in the St. Croix watershed.

The letter followed a direct appeal by the 51-group coalition to the IJC to intervene in the alewife issue. The coalition argued in a letter and in a packed June public meeting that Maine is violating international agreements and ignoring science by keeping the fish out.

The coalition argues that alewives are an important part of the St. Croix watershed and Maine's fishing industry, providing valuable nutrients and predatory cover to river fish and depleted sea groundfish and serving as lobster bait at a time when bait prices are soaring.

"Destroying a valuable public resource used by fishermen on both sides of the border and needed as prey by many species is unacceptable," said Ted Ames, hatchery director of the Penobscot East Resource Center, in a written statement.

But St. Croix area guides long have argued the sea-run alewife is a recent intruder that will wipe out important game fish by predation, disease and increased food competition.

"What's trying to be done by the Natural Resources Council of Maine and others is to establish a non-native species," argued Dave Tobey, a past-president of the Grand Lake Stream Guides Association.

The IJC letter is the next chapter in a decades-long struggle over the St. Croix sea-run alewife. In 1981, restored fish passages in Milltown, Maine helped alewives enter parts of the St. Croix that were unreachable to the fish in recent history, including Spednic Lake. The alewife population, decimated by pollution and lack of spawning ground access, rebounded and soared to over 2.6 million.

At the same time, local guides began to notice a drop-off in juvenile smallmouth bass, a popular introduced game fish, in Spednic Lake. The guides believed the alewives were the cause for the crash in bass and other local fish and asked Maine biologists to intervene. To add confusion to the issue, many people don't understand the difference between sea-run alewives, which are historically part of the St. Croix watershed, and introduced landlocked alewives, which infest not only Maine waterways, but are a nuisance in the Great Lakes.

Rick Jordan, a regional fisheries biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, was one of the biologists who came to Spednic Lake during the crash. Jordan remembers diving in Spednic Lake one June and seeing thick schools of young smallmouth bass. Four weeks later, Jordon found a mystery.

"I could count on one hand how many young-of-the-year bass I saw in two days of diving," said Jordan. "I had never seen such a marked change."

The guides believed the alewives were eating juvenile fish, but Jordan and other biologists found little evidence of that when they examined alewife stomachs. Maine state wildlife officials generally believed the bass were disappearing because of other environmental factors, but the guides were not convinced.

Arguing that alewives threatened the ecosystem, guides appealed to the Maine State Legislature to bar the fish from the river. Ignoring a U.S.-Canada agreement to manage the river jointly, the Maine legislature passed a law in 1995 ordering alterations to dams to block alewives on the St. Croix.

The alewife population quickly plummeted. Federal wildlife officials fumed and Canadian wildlife officials were shocked by the state's unilateral action.

"Canada, and ourselves as well, was horrified," said Dr. Fred Whorisky of the Atlantic Salmon Federation.

The guides lobbied successfully against a bill to repeal the law in 2001. Another repeal bill didn't come before the legislature again until 2008.

In the interim, scientists undertook several studies to flesh out knowledge of the alewife's role in Maine waterways. The studies not only found historical evidence that alewives were native to the St. Croix, but that the presence of alewives had no effect or improved the health of smallmouth bass and other fish in other Maine waterways.

A 2008 bill that would have opened the St. Croix seemed poised for passage until the guides staged a lobbying effort, including a personal appeal by Indian Point Passamaquoddy Governor William Nicholas to Maine Governor John Baldacci. The Maine governor intervened and helped create a compromise bill that would open a fraction of the St. Croix that was already being circumvented by Canadian wildlife officials. Maine legislators quickly accepted the compromise.

While some published reports of the dispute say Governor Nicholas of the Indian Point Passamaquoddy tribe spoke for the entire Passamaquoddy nation, he doesn't have the support of the Pleasant Point tribe, said Ed Bassett, Pleasant Point environmental technician and tribal council member. The Pleasant Point tribal council voted this year to support opening the St. Croix River completely to alewives after looking at the available science, he said. "We're removing the life of our river, which is not in keeping with our native values," said Bassett.

David Farmer, a Baldacci administration spokesman, defended the compromise in an interview, saying opening up the St. Croix should be done incrementally to avoid real or psychological shocks. Farmer said Maine was not compelled to pass the legislation because of the U.S.-Canada St. Croix agreement. "An international agreement is not a suicide pact," said Farmer.

Pat Keliher, director of sea-run fisheries for the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said he would back an incremental proposal that would open up the river to four to six fish per acre, although he knows the science supports complete restoration. "Fisheries management is not just about the science," Keliher said. "It's a sad statement to make."

But both environmentalists and guides saw little chance to find common ground. That's partly why they chose to appeal to the IJC instead of lobbying for legislation, believing the political will to move ahead on this issue was lacking in Maine. Coalition members say the guides are not listening to the scientific evidence, and continue to ask for longer and more costly tests to prove what already has been proven.

"It's hard to wake somebody who's pretending to be asleep," said Whorisky, quoting an African proverb.

Ever since Canada and the United States signed the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, the IJC has final jurisdiction over shared waterway disputes. But the direct letter to Governor Baldacci represents a new chapter in the commission, said Frank Bevacqua, the commission's spokesman.

"The IJC hasn't weighed in with an action like this before," said Bevacqua.

In the past, the IJC was limited to monitoring black and white issues like water levels, said Bevacqua. But in recent years, the two nations have encouraged it to weigh in on matters that affect ecosystems as a whole. In the case of the sea-run alewife, Bevacqua said, there is a clear cause for intervention because of Maine's unilateral action on the St. Croix.

"It is an international river, so if you have actions in one country that are in cross-purposes with action in another country, that doesn't really fly," he said.

Despite being vastly outnumbered in the most recent public meeting, local guides remain steadfast in their opposition to the sea-run alewife. The guides say their profession is one of the only sources of jobs in their part of Washington County, and they don't want to jeopardize it for what they feel is a hunch at best, and a conspiracy at worst. Lance Wheaton, a Forest City guide, said it took 25 years for Spednic Lake to recover and the region can ill-afford another environmental disaster. Wheaton said guides have watched ocean groundfish populations plummet while being managed, and they don't want the same thing to happen to the St. Croix.

"They've lied, cheated and stolen from us before and we don't believe a damn thing they tell us," Wheaton said.


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