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Canadians Oppose Closure of St. Croix River Basin to Alewives

Geoffrey Gilmour-Taylor
Flickr/Creative Commons
A school of alewives.

The Canadian government has joined the fray over a controversial proposal to prevent the passage of alewives into the St. Croix River near the international border.

Ottawa wants unrestricted alewife passage, something which conservationists support, but which the recreational fishing lobby says could have devastating effects on the local economy.

In a recent letter to Gov. Paul LePage, Canadian Fisheries Minister Gail Shea expressed concern over LD 800, a bill that would prevent the passage of alewives through the Grand Falls Dam.

She points out that the proposal would essentially undo the provisions of a law passed two years ago by the Maine Legislature that opened up the St. Croix River basin to alewives, also known as river herring.

Shea was not available for comment, but in her letter, she says Canada wants to work with all concerned parties to "find a mutually agreeable solution to enable full re-introduction of alewives into the St. Croix River basin."

That's not something GOP State Rep. Beth Turner of Burlington wants to see happen.

"I put LD 800 in for the Guides Association of Grand Lake Stream," she says.

Grand Lake Stream is home to several sporting camps and lodges near the upper St. Croix watershed, and a favorite destination for recreational fishermen looking to catch smallmouth bass. According to the local chamber of commerce, it's an area that is home to the heaviest concentration of guides in the state.

Turner says she's worried about the effect that continued free passage of river herring could have on their livelihoods.

"This could devastate their part of Washignton County," she says. "Up in that area they are heavily dependent on the sport and guiding industry.

"The alewives compete with the young of the year bass for food," says Louis Cataldo, a registered guide and a first selectman in Grand Lake Stream.

Since the watershed opened two years ago, Cataldo says there has not been a dramatic increase in alewives. About 27,000 of the fish were counted last year, a fraction of the 2 million plus that used to make it into the watershed before state government intervened.

Cataldo attributes the small returns to increased runoff in recent years. But he fears that if the fishways aren't closed off again, the smallmouth bass population, and by extension the economic health of the region, could be jeopardized.

"We spend 6 months of the year fishing these waters, you know, smallmouth bass, landlocked salmon, and if we don't have fish, these people that we have coming here are going to go somewhere, and if they go somewhere else, we don't have a job," he says.

Cataldo cites a 2013 study by state officials indicating that nearly $15 million was pumped into the regional economy by recreational fishing.

"We gotta look after what we have here, and what we have here is very special. Our fisheries are all we got for an economy," he says.

"I can totally appreciate why people might be concerned about it, particularly if there continues to be information that is floated out there that is misleading, or knowingly incorrect," says Sean Mahoney with the Conservation Law Foundation, which opposes LD 800 and welcomes the involvement of the Canadian government on the issue.

Despite anecdotal stories suggesting otherwise, Mahoney says there is irrefutable evidence out there that alewives and smallmouth bass can co-exist. And then there's the fact that alewives, not smallmouth bass, are native to the St. Croix watershed.

"And the lack of fish passage kept them from accessing their native habitat, which is both a violation of the Clean Water Act and is not good for the general ecosystem of the river," he says.

Both Mahoney and Cataldo are among those scheduled to testify before the Marine Resources Committee at a public hearing on LD 800 on Monday, April 27. A representatives from the Canadian government is also expected to be in attendance.