BAILEYVILLE, Maine — For nearly 20 years, conservationists and, at times, state natural resource agencies, have sought to open the St. Croix River watershed to alewives. Those river herring had their passage at dam fishways officially blocked in 1995 due to concerns that their presence had led to a collapse of the smallmouth bass fishery in nearby Spednic Lake.

On Wednesday, about 100 Native Americans welcomed state, federal and Canadian officials, along with Canadian First Nation members, to one of the most contentious sites — Grand Falls Dam — to celebrate a victory that was long in the making.

“The alewives will now be left alone so that they can go where they want to,” said Clayton Cleaves, tribal chief of the Passamaquoddy at Pleasant Point. “The alewives are not able to represent themselves. They need you and I. Today, tomorrow and into the future.”

The tribal role in the reversal of years of policy debate was a key component in the passage of LD 72, a bill that mandated the opening of fishways on the St. Croix to alewives.

On Wednesday, the festivities — billed as “Coming Home (Siqonomeq), Alewives Return [to] Grand Falls Flowage” — celebrated the Native American culture with songs and a circle dance that included nearly everyone in attendance.

In addition, Wabanaki tribal leaders joined representatives of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service in signing a statement of cooperation.

Alewives return — or try to return — to freshwater to spawn. The presence of dams which blocked passage has severely limited the alewife population in the St. Croix.

Alewives are sometimes harvested and used for lobster bait, but are also a valuable forage fish that larger species feed on.

“This is where we make fish, but fish make us,” said John Bullard, regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries. “When the fish disappear, we disperse … when the fish come back to gather, we come together. That is the legacy of today.”

Passamaquoddy Tribal Rep. Madonna Soctomah sponsored LD 72 and hailed the new law as a victory for fish and humans alike.

“[Opening Grand Falls Dam] is important not only for tribal people, Passamaquoddy people, but for the race of people as a whole, looking at the food source worldwide,” Soctomah said. “The issue is culturally related. That’s the reason why [Passamaquodddy people and other tribes got involved in helping pass LD 72].”

Soctomah said she thinks the combined effort of tribal and nontribal members to allow fish passage on the St. Croix was a wonderful display of cooperation on an important project. She said recognizing the value of alewives needn’t be a tribal issue.

“I think people as a whole are beginning to realize who nourishes us, and how we get nourished, and how we connect with each other, as human beings,” Soctomah said. “And [recognizing] those basic needs that we all need to enhance and protect for the survival of human beings.”

Lisa Pohlmann, executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said her organization has been battling for free alewife passage for years.

“We’ve spent the years ever since [fish passage was closed] trying to go back to the Legislature, trying to provide the science that showed that alewives were not hurting the smallmouth bass population,” Pohlmann said.

That long battle wasn’t without frustration, she said.

“You have to remain level-headed and show the truth of the matter and hope that you bring enough other people along that you eventually get some movement,” Pohlmann said. “And I think one of the biggest factors in finally getting over this hump is the full involvement of the tribes.”

The day’s celebration wasn’t without its light moments, thanks in large part to Wayne Newell, who said he had been drafted as the master of ceremonies at the last moment. Newell ad-libbed much of his material and frequently left attendees laughing.

“Alewives don’t eat doughnuts, but I hope you will,” Newell said at one point, gesturing to a table loaded with pastries and coffee. “I don’t want to have to take ‘em home.”

The presence of alewives in the St. Croix River drainage has been a contentious issue for more than 20 years.

Some highlights of the dispute, according to archive BDN reports:

1995: After years of complaints from fishing guides in the Grand Lake Stream area, the Maine Legislature ordered dams on the St. Croix closed to alewife passage. The prevailing belief among the guides is that the presence of the sea-run alewives had decimated the lucrative smallmouth bass fishery in Spednic Lake, a part of the St. Croix drainage. The run of 2.6 million alewives is snuffed out.

2000: Members of the St. Croix Fisheries Steering Committee, made up of federal representatives from the U.S. and Canada, calls for opening Woodland Dam to allow for full fish passage and allowing four alewives per habitat acre to pass above the Grand Falls Dam.

2001: Some legislators try to reopen the dams, but guides and others again rally and successfully defeat the bill.

2001: Frustrated by Maine’s inaction, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans begins trucking thousands of alewives above the Woodland Dam.

2008: The Maine Legislature passes into law a bill that sought to open Woodland Dam and allow passage by sea-run fish, including alewives.

2010: It is reported that Maine Gov. John Baldacci has cautioned fishing guides to seek an alewife compromise before the International Joint Commission exercises its authority and imposes a decision without guide input.

April 2013: The Maine House votes 123-24 in favor of LD 72, which mandates that the fishways on the Woodland Dam and the Grand Falls Dam allow unconstrained passage of river herring. The Senate approves the measure 33-0. The bill passes into law without Gov. Paul LePage’s signature.

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John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. He spent 28 years working for the BDN, including 19 years as the paper's outdoors columnist or outdoors editor. While...