The 20-year fight over alewives in the St. Croix River returned to the State House today. Same issues. Same players. Very likely the same result. But there’s a hint of something more in the air – with an intriguing suggestion from Governor Paul LePage. More about that in a minute.
Like alewives returning to the St. Croix River, Washington County guides and sporting camp owners returned to the State House today to try to block sea-run alewives from getting into the lakes of the Grand Lake region. This issue has been kicked around at the State House since the mid-1990s and both sides remain passionate about their positions.
Currently the United States and Canada have acted together to open up the St. Croix River and Grand Lakes to alewives, causing the Down East guides to worry that the alewives will ruin their existing fishery, focused primarily on Smallmouth bass and Landlocked salmon, the principle fisheries in those lakes and the drivers of their regional economy.
LD 800, sponsored by Rep. Beth Turner, would block alewives from the upper St. Croix and the lakes beyond. The public filled three hearing rooms at the State House for today’s hearing by the Marine Resources Committee, and fifty people signed up to testify. Yes, it was a long day, even though most speakers were limited to 3 minutes.
Rep. Turner was the first speaker, and right off the bat, a central issue was raised by Rep. Robert Alley of Machias, a member of the Marine Resources Committee. Rep. Alley asked Rep. Turner how she thought her bill would impact lobster fishermen throughout Washington County who depend on alewives for bait. Rep. Turner objected to pitting one group, lobstermen, against another group, freshwater guides. Alley, a particularly thoughtful legislator, emphasized his interest in everyone “getting along.” He noted, “We have 5600 (commercial) fishermen but I don’t think we have 5600 guides” who would be impacted by the bill. That drew some murmurs from the audience.
Rep. Turner, in her testimony, said, “According to the CapLog Report, it estimates economic benefits of reopening the fish ladders on the upper St. Croix River and allowing an alewife run at only $1.8 million. Benefits would be from the direct sale of alewives as bait and cost savings for lobstermen. Compare that to the fishing industry in Washington County bringing in $15 million according to the 2013 tourism study. So I wonder if the evasive introduction of alewives into the upper St. Croix is worth lobster bait?”
And with that the battle began.
Rep. Jeff Pierce raised an interesting issue, noting that smallmouth bass are a nonnative introduced species, while alewives are native to the state. Rep. Turner responded that she didn’t believe alewives had ever been in the upper St. Croix. That’s another central argument in this ongoing dispute.
The committee bounced back and forth between proponents and opponents of the bill, with lots of repetitive testimony, some intriguing research, a bit of controversial commentary, quite a few committee questions, and, at the end of the day – well, it’s hard to say how this will end. Here’s a bit of what we heard at today’s hearing.
Guides and Sporting Camp Owners
First up to the podium to speak in favor of the bill was Lance Wheaton, a member of the Fish and Wildlife Advisory Council and a guide and lodge owner for 50 years. Lance reported that last year was the worst ever for his business, due to the diminished fishery. “Smallmouth bass numbers are low, very low,” he said. That was disappointing to hear, because years ago I fished with Lance on Spednik Lake and caught a lot of bass that day. Lance still tells the story that he was offered a lot of money that day to boat out into the middle of the lake and dump me overboard. I don’t doubt it!
Some very interesting testimony was offered by Steven Whitman, a civil engineer, land surveyor, and Maine guide who owns Long Lake Camps in Princeton. Whitman’s testimony included hydraulic analysis and a review of existing reports and documents on the St. Croix River. He contended that alewives are not native to the upper lakes, among other things.
Another lengthy bit of testimony was presented in writing by Dr. Glenn Millner, a partner and Principle Toxicologist at the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health. In addition to his impressive credentials, Millner, who has owned a camp on Big Lake for more than 50 years, offered 8 pages of testimony disputing the accuracy of studies cited to justify re-introduction of alewives in the St. Croix watershed.
A steady stream of guides and sporting camp owners stepped to the podium as the afternoon wore on, clearly worried about the impact of alewives on their principle fisheries and their livelihoods.
While Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife opposed the bill, some of its retired fisheries biologists spoke in favor of the bill, including Rick Jordan, who focused on the impact of alewives on landlocked salmon. “West Grand is one of Maine’s four original homes of native landlocked salmon,” said Jordan. “Its landlocked salmon have provided eggs for Maine’s hatchery stocking program since around 1868… So this lake has a long-term hatchery program of 146 years, and it is now being threatened if alewives gain access into 14,000-acre West Grand and the additional 14,000 acres of lakes above it.”
“During my 38 year career with fisheries in eastern Maine,” testified Jordan, “working on 25 salmon lakes, our staff noted a long-term, consistent pattern of substandard salmon growth in 5 lakes having runs of sea-run alewives and whose outlets flowed only a short distance before emptying in the ocean… We fear that a similar pattern of poorer growth will occur if alewives get into West Grand yielding problems with egg take operations.”
Marine Resources Commissioner Pat Keliher testified on behalf of the LePage Administration noting that he has spoken at the legislature on this issue since 1995. He did not present written testimony, which seemed really unusual to me on such a contentious and historic issue, and said he lacked written testimony because he and Commissioner Chandler Woodcock of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, “only had a chance to sit down with the governor to discuss this late last week.”
He said, “What you will hear today is a disagreement on science, a continuation of the debate since 1995.” He explained the effort to create an “adaptive plan to introduce alewives in the lower portion of the watershed,” but that plan was rejected by the legislature.
Keliher told committee members, “When you are hearing about negative impacts above East Grand and salmon being racy with a vitamin deficiency, the issue is landlocked alewives, not anadromous sea-run alewives we are discussing today.” There is zero evidence of disease spread by sea-run alewives. But if there is a disease, it would be “devastating” to the state’s landlocked salmon produced in Maine’s hatcheries, conceded Keliher. DMR and DIF&W have worked together on these issues, he reported, including focusing on healthy populations of landlocked salmon in other waters.
DMR restores fish to their historic range, said Keliher. He went into some detail about the herring and alewife reintroduction programs across the state, including Down East. He said DIF&W had shown him no evidence that sea-run alewives have had any negative impacts on game fish, anyplace in Maine.
He said in his talks with the governor, they discussed how to take the discussion out of the legislative venue ‘to assure that all science is on the table, so each side has a better understanding of the issues and concerns. We would like to see – and why we are opposing the bill – a working group organized to address all of this and discover where we have a better understanding and can find a solution. The governor haS pledged – if people feel strongly – he would sign an executive order to create the working group,” said Keliher.
Commissioner Chandler Woodcock stepped up next. He didn’t have written testimony either. “I’ve been involved in this discussion for over a decade,” he noted, “and it’s essentially the same players and arguments. What bothers me the most is that all these people are wonderful people, and the issue pits them against each other. We feel very strongly that somewhere, somehow, there can be recognition of all the hard-working people in the issue. We don’t want to persecute the guides or the lobstermen or anyone else in this issue. We now believe it is time for an independent look at this issue. Together, you can always find a solution. This is very important, because people’s livelihoods are on the line,” concluded Woodcock.
Some opponents noted that 3 million alewives have been restored to the Kennebec River, where smallmouth bass fishing is exceptional. I fish the Kennebec a lot between Waterville and Augusta, and I can report that this is true. But I’m not sure that experience translates well to the Downeast lakes, and it certainly won’t convince the guides there that they have nothing to worry about.
I sat next to former Senator Dennis Damon, who chaired the Marine Resources Committee during his 8 years of legislative service. It was fun to share reactions with Dennis as the day wore on. His testimony against the bill was an interesting look back at the issues and information that’s been shared over time on this issue. He referred to the documentation of the important of alewives to our commercial fisheries, by Ted Ames, who received the MacArthur Genius Award for his discoveries and work. “Ted has proven our near shore Gulf of Maine waters provided spawning grounds for ground-fish, particularly cod, haddock, Pollock and hake,” said Dennis. “These spawning grounds were located at the mouths of all of our major river systems as well as many of our lesser ones.”
Dennis also noted, in response to claims that alewives were never found in the upper St. Croix watershed, that, “Archeologists who have done extensive excavations of Indian mittens well above the Grand Falls have found irrefutable proof that alewives did indeed range as far as 60 miles above the falls.”
Taking us back to the beginning of this lengthy debate, Dennis noted that, “As you know, in 1995 when our Legislature passed a law blocking the alewives in the St. Croix, we almost succeeded in causing their complete demise.”
Dr. Ted Willis, an adjunct research scientist at the University of Southern Maine, and an Environmental Planner with the Passamaquoddy-Pleasant Point, sat in front of me and turned around to tell me his testimony was created partly in response to my column last week that presented the arguments of the Down East guides on this issue.
Dr. Willis wrote the document, St. Croix River Alewife – Smallmouth Bass Interaction Study. He presented evidence as far back as 1792 showing that alewives could access the St. Croix watershed. He was one of several speakers who emphasized that alewives are “quite literally part of the Passamaquoddy belief system. Imagine if someone told you that parts of your belief system were illegal and would be allowed to disappear.”
Dr. Willis actually gave me the original copy of his testimony, on which he had written additional comments in reaction to some of the previous testimony. This one jumped out at me: “This is not about lobster bait. Alewives are not invasive. This should not be between business and extinction of a native species, the alewife.” Powerful words, for sure.
He added, “This is about ecosystems and the right to know your cultural beliefs are respected and icons protected for Passamaquoddies.” Something to think about.
And then there was this: “Landlocked salmon, alewives, and Rainbow smelts evolved together. Over 10,000 years these species adapted together as predator and prey. It’s disturbing and a throwback to 1950s fishery biology methods to think that we humans know more than a 10,000 year natural process. Stocking shifts that balance.” More to think about.
The Feds and Canadians
John Bullard, Regional Administrator of the United States Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, presented written testimony against the bill. “Alewife, along with other native sea-run fish, are an important prey species for many species of commercially valuable fish in the Gulf of Maine. Given the current status of those fisheries, diversifying the prey base of the Gulf of Maine is a priority goal for our agency. Fully restoring alewife runs throughout the St. Croix watershed, which has the potential to be the largest such run in the Gulf of Maine, would be a substantial step toward that goal.”
A spokesman for Canada also testified in opposition to the bill. Canada has been insistent over the years that alewives be given full access to the entire St. Croix watershed, and has, on occasion, acted unilaterally on the issue. The river is a boundary water, with the U.S. on one side and Canada on the other. I’ve canoed and fished the river, and was impressed that we were able to get out of our canoes and have lunch on the Canadian side. That was a long time ago, and I doubt it is still allowed, given the tighter restrictions along our country’s boundary. In my experience, it’s relatively easy to get into Canada, but a lot tougher to get back into our own country! Apparently it’s the same for alewives.
The suggestion by Commissioners Keliher and Woodcock that the Marine Resources Committee kill LD 800 and let the Governor create a working group to find out if common ground can be found on this issue, may be an easy choice for committee members to take. But a similar attempt to create an “adaptive plan” two years ago was killed by the legislature.
I’m not sure if there is any common ground to be found on this issue, although some at the hearing were talking about a compromise that allows alewives into the watershed but keeps them out of West Grand and Spednik Lakes. I haven’t written anything in today’s column about the federal government’s role in this issue, but it is a major factor that makes any compromise very difficult.
Assessing the situation, on one side, we have Down East guides and sporting camps, supported by the Maine Sporting Camp Association and Maine Professional Guides Association, and on the other side we have the United States government, Canadian government, Maine’s Departments of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and Marine Resources, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot Tribes, Maine environmental groups, and the Marine Resources Committee, where committee members share a primary interest in the state’s commercial fisheries.
Seems like a tough situation for the guides, to me. The Marine Resources Committee has scheduled a work session on this bill next week, so we’ll see what happens. Stay tuned!
For more information about the position of Down East guides on this issue, read my outdoor news blog column posted on April 20.