The Marine Resources Committee and the Maine Legislature should act this session to pass legislation — LD 72, presented by Rep. Madonna Soctomah of the Passamaquoddy Tribe — that would remove the blockage it mandated in 1995 to stop native alewife from returning to the St. Croix River.
Alewives are river herring that need to return from the ocean to their river to spawn. It is part of their natural life cycle. If this cycle is broken, they will die without producing the next generation of alewives. Without a next generation, an entire run of alewives will eventually cease to exist. To me, that’s the classic definition of genocide.
The St. Croix should be the biggest source of alewives in Maine. Alewives, when restored to their native habitat, would ensure a locally available source of bait for our lobster industry, an industry that struggles to manage high fuel, equipment and bait costs. They would provide protection for other fish, such as the Atlantic salmon during their migrations to and from the rivers.
Alewives’ return would also bring back another protein food source for us. If you are of my generation or earlier you will remember eating smoked alewives. Finally, perhaps the greatest long-term benefit of the restoration is the direct and fundamental role they serve as prey food, which is essential to rebuild our devastated ground fisheries.
Promoting sustainable economic development was a central focus of mine when I served in the Maine Legislature. During the four terms I served in the Maine Senate, I sought to challenge my colleagues to work on broad, long-term strategies to bring sustained prosperity to our state.
Some of my efforts produced changes that continue to benefit us today. However, some of my efforts failed. I failed to increase fish stocks. Of the numerous, often complicated and multifaceted economic development plans that were discussed and promoted, I refer to that one as the “one that got away.”
In 2008, seeing a critical need, I introduced a bill to reopen the St. Croix River to alewives. Had it been enacted by the Legislature, my plan would have shown immediate results, and those positive results would continue to grow year after year. The ground fish stocks in the Gulf of Maine would be better positioned to rebound instead of continuing to decline, causing economic hardship to thousands in our state. The thriving lobster fishery would have one of its nagging problems solved. And a riverine and marine ecosystems would be returning to their natural, healthy, sustaining state.
In the case of the alewives and their St. Croix River home, it is not an expensive and complicated matter of removing a dam or hiring biologists to restock the waters. All we need to do is remove the wooden boards we put in the existing fishway at the Grand Falls Dam. Done!
I remember the debates that accompanied my 2008 bill to reopen the St. Croix River. There were many unsubstantiated claims and some outright falsehoods. The alewives were blamed for a temporary dip in the non-native smallmouth bass population. It was also offered as fact that the alewives never before inhabited the St. Croix watershed. Supposedly they could never negotiate the barrier offered by the Grand Falls.
Historical research and several scientific studies have addressed these questions and found that the probable cause of the poor bass recruitment one year was due to a greater than usual water drawdown that exposed the bass beds during the time of their egg laying. In addition, alewife bones have been unearthed 65 miles above head-of-tide. And, before the river was rerouted to accommodate the Grand Falls Dam, the falls were actually 1,500 feet of rapids — hardly impassable.
While the Maine Legislature is designed for discussion, debate and exchange of ideas, sometimes important negotiations occur behind closed doors. I was surprised and disappointed when, in 2008 after many hours of public hearings and discussions, a deal was reached outside of the Marine Resources Committee, indeed outside the legislative process, which resulted in only minimal improvements. In the end only the Woodland Dam was reopened. Most of the watershed (98 percent), the better habitat, remained closed to alewives.
The benefits of reopening this river will have coast-wide significance. The increasingly dire reports regarding the depletion of cod stocks and the Draconian measures being instituted to save them demand that we act now to restore our ground fishery. The lowly alewife, once misunderstood and maligned, is now understood to be a fundamental key to our economic future and ecological health. We must insist the Maine Legislature open the St. Croix River this spring.
Dennis Damon is a former Maine state senator from Hancock County. For eight years he was the Senate chairman of the Joint Standing Committee on Marine Resources and legislative commissioner to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. He currently chairs the board of directors of Penobscot East Resource Center in Stonington.