Alewife battle brews again in Augusta

It’s all my fault. In the early 1990s, in my first years as executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, I supported Representative Harry Bailey’s successful legislation to put a board in the fishway at the Grand Falls Dam to prevent alewives from accessing that watershed. And the fight was on.

The fight continues in what I hope is the last round at 9 am on Monday when the Marine Resources Committee hears three bills to restore alewives to some or all of that watershed. While all three bills allow some restoration to occur, supporters of restoration are divided between the three bills, and fishing guides from that region are opposed to any restoration and all the bills. It’s going to be a long day at the State House, I’m afraid.

Research and various studies will be tossed about as Gospel, and the debate is certain to be full of angst and anger. I sympathize with the Downeast guides who are asked to accept all the risk. They fervently believe alewives will diminish their principle fishery – smallmouth bass – and harm their businesses. They contend that the number of bass will be reduced and in the peak of their 12-week fishing season, the presence of millions of alewives will make it impossible for their clients to catch bass.

My Washington County heritage may be clouding my own judgment here. My grandmother packed sardines in Lubec while my grandfather inspected fish. There were a lot of sardines Nana Searles to pack and a lot of fish for my grandfather to inspect. They are all gone now.

When the good residents of Washington County hear from the state Capitol, they know we want to do something to them, not for them.

I have fished Spednec Lake for smallmouth bass with one of Downeast Maine’s finest and most entertaining guides, Lance Wheaton. I have stayed at the historic and storied Weatherby’s sporting camps and Wheaton’s sporting camps. I’ve stood in the stream in the village of Grand Lake Stream and caught landlocked salmon, one after another. I know these people and I respect and admire them.

We should not be casting our friends Downeast as the villains here, nor castigating them for being unwilling to bet their businesses on this decision.

On the other hand, are they right to be concerned? My personal experience says no. I fish the Kennebec River a lot between Waterville and Augusta. Alewives have not damaged the small mouth bass fishery, in my experience. And since we lost Striped bass in the river, smallmouths provide almost all of our fishing opportunity. I think the smallies in that section of the Kennebec are getting bigger, on average, and I am certainly able to catch them even when the river is full of alewives.

In the early years of this fight, I took my lead from Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. DIF&W, and especially its Downeast fisheries staff, strongly opposed the reintroduction of alewives in the St. Croix. I stood with them. Today, the agency and its professional staff have submitted a bill, in partnership with the Marine Resources Department, for the LePage Administration to allow alewives to move into the watershed on a limited basis.

The easy decision for legislators is to support the LePage Administration’s bill, a middle ground that our state agencies and fisheries managers assure us will do no damage and may be very beneficial.

But the decision is not all that easy, because we can’t even agree if alewives were actually ever in the watershed. Yes, we’re fighting about that too.

Having studied this issue for more than 20 years, listened to hours and days of passionate testimony, fished in rivers full of alewives, and seen the benefits of all of our work to restore Maine’s natural resources, I think it’s time to let the alewives swim freely in the St. Croix watershed.

As for that board in the Grand Falls Dam that blocks passage -  I’d like to get my name off of it. I’m pretty sure it was a bad decision.

PS: For more on alewives, watch our Wildfire TV show episode, accessed on the Maine Audubon website.

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. George also hosts, with Harry Vanderweide, a TV talk show called Wildfire, now in its 13th year and focused on hunting, fishing, environmental, and conservation issues. The show is owned and produced by Maine Audubon and seen on its website as well as on the Time Warner cable TV station throughout the state.