AUGUSTA, Maine — Emergency legislation to open the St. Croix River watershed to sea-run alewives easily won passage Wednesday in the Maine Senate and House. The bill, LD 72, now goes to Gov. Paul LePage, who has 10 days to sign, veto or let the bill become law.

The House voted 123-24 and the Senate voted 33-0 to pass the bill, which would require state officials to remove barriers in fishways at Grand Falls Dam by May 1, in time to allow sea-run alewives to migrate upriver. It would be the first time since 1995 that the fish would have full access to 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 for years to find a solution to an alewife controversy that has pitted sporting camp owners and fishing camp owners against environmentalists since the 1980s. During a marathon hearing last month before the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee, tribal representatives, lobstermen and an advocate for Maine’s groundfishing industry sided with environmentalists in urging removal of the fishway barriers.

On April 1, the committee unanimously endorsed the bill.

Following controversy that erupted in the 1980s over whether the presence of alewives in the watershed negatively affected sport fishing, particularly the smallmouth bass fishery in Spednic Lake, state government enacted legislation that blocked fishways at Grand Falls and Woodland dams. In 2008, the barrier at Woodland Dam was removed.

“The restoration of the abundant alewife runs in the St. Croix River watershed should remain a high priority for the people of the state of Maine,” Passamaquoddy Tribal Rep. Madonna Soctomah said during House discussion of her bill Wednesday. “The alewives are a native and indigenous species, with their migration history dating back 400 years. The smallmouth bass lives harmoniously with alewives in hundreds of lakes and rivers in Maine.”

Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, reiterated one of the chief arguments for LD 72, which is the fact that many scientific studies show that sea-run alewives do not pose a threat to sport fish.

“We’ve seen study after study showing that the alewives don’t pose a threat to smallmouth bass,” MacDonald said.

According to previous BDN stories, the number of returning alewives dropped from millions in 1995 to just 900 fish by 2002. Advocates for LD 72 argue that reopening full access to alewife spawning grounds in the St. Croix watershed will increase those numbers markedly, providing bait for lobstermen and ecological benefits for the Gulf of Maine groundfish population.