AUGUSTA, Maine — Emergency legislation calling for removal of barriers that block sea-run alewives from full access to the St. Croix River watershed won unanimous endorsement Monday from the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee.

The committee’s recommendation that LD 72, sponsored by Passamaquoddy Tribal Rep. Madonna Soctomah, pass came quickly and with little debate during a work session Monday morning. That contrasts with more than six hours of testimony the committee heard March 25 during public hearings on LD 72 and two competing measures related to alewife restoration in the St. Croix watershed.

The committee also voted unanimously Monday to recommend against the two other proposals, including LD 584, which reflected the Maine Department of Marine Resource’s position that proposed following a fisheries management plan that opponents criticized as inadequate and too slow-moving to allow full alewife restoration to the St. Croix.

Soctomah’s bill now goes to the full Legislature. If it passes both the House and the Senate and is signed by Gov. Paul LePage, LD 72 would take effect in time to remove the barrier that blocks fishways at Grand Falls Dam in time for this year’s upriver migration of sea-run alewives. The bill sets a May 1 deadline to open the fishways.

The Down East alewife controversy surfaced in the late 1980s, when sporting camp owners and fishing guides began to suspect that the presence of the fish had contributed to the collapse of the smallmouth bass fishery in Spednic Lake, which is part of the St. Croix watershed.

The St. Croix is a border water, separating Canada from the United States in places, and a joint international council has been trying to find a solution to the alewife conflict for years.

Although studies of other river systems have shown that alewives and bass can coexist with no adverse effects to either species, fishing guides and others in the Grand Lake Stream area continue to assert that alewives were to blame for the bass collapse, and have expressed doubts that alewives were ever able to swim freely into areas of the upper St. Croix. They reiterated those concerns to the committee on March 25.

Representatives of Maine’s tribes, environmentalists, lobstermen and other proponents of LD 72 countered with scientific studies that contrasted with opponents’ testimony, which largely relied on personal experiences and the guides’ observations that alewives negatively affected smallmouth bass fishing in the St. Croix watershed. Supporters of LD 72 also argued that alewives blamed for damaging sport fishing in the Great Lakes and other inland waterways are different from sea-run alewives, which tribal representatives and biologists say had been present in the St. Croix for generations before fishways at the Woodland and Great Falls dams were blocked as a result of a law passed in 1995.

In 2001, environmental groups sought legislation to reopen the fishways, but Down East guides and others fought back and kept the river largely closed. According to previous BDN stories, the number of returning alewives dropped from millions in 1995 to just 900 fish by 2002.

The conflict resurfaced in 2008, and restrictions on alewife passage were reduced, allowing the fish to move up the river through Woodland Dam.

The movement to remove the fishway barriers has gained momentum in the past five years. Reversing their stance from 2008, Passamaquoddy chiefs and tribal members joined environmentalists and fishing industry advocates to support passage of LD 72. Some sportsmen who urged blocking alewife passage to protect the bass fishery in 1995, including George Smith, former executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, also reversed their positions since then.

“I think it’s time to let the alewives swim freely in the St. Croix watershed,” Smith testified March 25. “I respectfully and regretfully have concluded that we were wrong in 1995. I think full restoration as soon as possible is the right way to go.”

Supporters also argued that restoring the sea-run alewife population in the St. Croix watershed would yield economic benefits for those who fish for alewives, as well as lobstermen who use them for bait and for the sagging groundfish stock in the Gulf of Maine.

In other action Monday, after lengthy deliberations, the committee delayed action on LD 486, which aims to improve the marketing and promotion of Maine lobster, and two bills related to elver harvesting.

BDN Outdoors Editor John Holyoke contributed to this report.