(UPDATED) With Unanimous Support of Senate, Maine Legislature Passes LD 72 Opening St Croix River to Alewives

Posted on April 13, 2013. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Updating to include a video that Gerald shared over at Dirigo Blue.

    A June 9-10 spiritual run by Passamaquoddy Tribe members and others to recognize the importance of the indigenous sea-run alewife to the St. Croix River watershed. This two-day, 100-mile relay will highlight the Maine Legislature’s 17-year blockage of this fish run and connect with a 4000-year-old tribal fishing site at the top of Spednic Lake. The sacred run is organized by the Schoodic Riverkeepers, a group comprised of Passamaquoddy tribal members focused on restoring their ancestral river, and indigenous populations of fish in the St. Croix River.

alewives riverIn 1995, a great error was made by the 117th Legislature which nearly resulted in elimination of Maine’s alewives, as passage up their native St. Croix River was blocked with strategically places flashboards on the dams’ fishways. Grand Lake Stream area guides claimed that alewives were decimating the small mouth bass fry population they depended on for their 12-week season.

Although efforts were launched in 2001 to repeal the earlier law, blockage was maintained that year with a stronger 2008 lobbying campaign that opened only 1% of spawning St Croix habitat to alewives and blue backed herring.

In 1994, the last year the fish had free passage, 2.6 million alewives ascended the St. Croix waterway, perhaps the most fertile in the state. By the next year, fewer than 1,000 were counted (Source: “Alewives on the St. Croix: a ‘mistake’ fixed”).

fishiesThis year, the 126th Legislature swiftly acted to right what former SAM executive director and veteran writer George Smith labelled “a mistake”. The bill had a contentious hearing on March 25, lasting over three hours, followed by a rapid work session April 1 resulting in the Joint Standing Committee on Marine Resources unanimously approving LD 72, opening two dams on the lower St. Croix. Co-Chair Senator Chris Johnson (D-Lincoln) characterized the work session for the bill thus: “That was the fastest report we’ve dealt with in almost two years.”

As the bill sponsored by freshman Rep. Madonna Soctomah (Passamaquoddy) was an emergency measure, it then required 2/3rds vote in both chambers of the Legislature. It easily passed in the House by a 124-23 margin on Wednesday morning, then flew through the Senate, 33-0, on the same day.

Via Maine House Democrats’ press release:

    soctomah  lincolnThe Maine House gave final approval Wednesday to a historic measure to reopen the St. Croix River to alewives, a species of river herring that is critical to the ecosystem because of its role as a food source for other fish and that is also important as bait for the fishing industry. The proposal would end the state’s 18-year blockade of the sea-run fish at Grand Falls Dam in time for this year’s upriver migration of alewives, allowing them to return to their native spawning habitat. The bill sets a May 1 deadline to open the fishways.

    Passamaquoddy Tribal Rep. Madonna Soctomah, the bill’s sponsor, spoke of the important role alewives play in Maine and how they do not pose a threat to smallmouth bass, as opponents of the measure claim.

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

    The once-abundant alewife population has fallen sharply since the closure of the fish passages in 1995. Alewives, whose numbers are now estimated at less than 1,000, are a key food source for a number of fish species such as bluefish, cod, haddock, salmon, striped bass and tuna. Alewives also have an important role as bait fish.

    “We’re pleased to have reached this bipartisan vote to restore this vital native fishery,”
    said House Majority Leader Seth Berry of Bowdoinham. “Alewives are important to the ecosystem, to the lobster industry and could also benefit the groundfishing industry.”

More via BDN:

Rep. Soctomah testifies before Marine Resources Committee. (photo via WABI-5, Bangor)

Rep. Soctomah testifies before Marine Resources Committee. (photo via WABI-5, Bangor)

    …in 1995 the Maine Legislature voted to close the Woodland and Grand Falls fishways, and the alewife population plunged to 900 fish in 2002, from 2.6 million in 1987. The law was amended in 2008 to open the fishway at Woodland, but alewives still cannot reach 98 percent of their traditional spawning ground.

    Many studies have shown that alewives and bass coexist, and bass even eat alewives. If anything, a 10-year study found, a lake drawdown made the bass’ protective rock habitat disappear and forced the bass to compete for food and habitat with other fish. The Legislature’s vote on Wednesday is a recognition of the science.

    The original closure of the St. Croix was based on “myth and misinformed rhetoric,” John Burrows, director of the New Brunswick Programs for the Atlantic Salmon Federation, told the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee March 25. “The fact that 98 percent of the river has remained closed when there is substantial scientific support for restoring alewives is simply astounding. To our members, this is the greatest ecological injustice to occur in the state of Maine in generations, and there is no reason to keep the river closed.”

Video link of the unanimous passage by all 33 present Senators (Hill and Flood absent). Senator Johnson spoke to his colleagues, urging their full support, just prior to the vote.

    “The restoration of alewives to the St, Croix River will benefit people all over Maine. Alewives are critical to Maine’s environment and fill an important role as baitfish for the lobster industry,” said Senator Chris Johnson (D-Somerville), the Senate Chair of the Marine Resources Committee. “They also serve as critical prey food for our depleted ground fish stocks. Getting this bill passed now means that the benefits can begin with this year’s run, and they will grow over time. The additional alewives will make a real difference to our struggling ground fish and lobster industries.”

Senator Doug Thomas (R- Somerset)  congratulates Rep. Soctomah after the vote in the Senate.

Senator Doug Thomas (R- Somerset) congratulates Rep. Soctomah after the vote in the Senate.

No word yet as to whether Governor LePage will sign the bill, even with its strong bipartisan support, veto it outright or let it pass into law without his signature. His administration supported LD 548, “An Act To Provide for Passage of River Herring on the St. Croix River in Accordance with an Adaptive Management Plan”.

    A competing measure that reflects the Department of Marine Resources’ position, LD 548, sponsored by Rep. Windol Weaver, R-York, would align alewife restoration strategies with an adaptive management plan approved in 2010. That plan aims to address concerns raised by fishing guides about whether the introduction of alewives would decimate the bass population.

That bill was voted ONTP in committee.

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