A new law that takes effect today will remove a blockade across a U.S.-Canadian border river erected nearly two decades ago that prevented alewives (river herring) from returning to their historic spawning habitat. The impediment (now understood as an ecological mistake) was established in 1995 at the request of sport fishing guides, who accused river herring of competing with them for smallmouth bass.
In July 2012, in response to a lawsuit brought by Earthjustice, the EPA issued a finding that no “…sound scientific rationale for excluding indigenous river herring (or other migratory species) from the St. Croix River … To address EPA’s disapproval and protect designated and existing uses, Maine should take appropriate action to authorize passage of river herring to the portions of the St. Croix River above the Grand Falls Dam.”
To address EPA’s finding the Maine legislature passed a law (L.D. 72) to remove the blockades. By not vetoing the bills, Governor Paul LePage let the bills become law last week.
“Maine’s fishing and tourism industries depend on a bountiful alewive population,” said Earthjustice attorney Roger Fleming who represented a coalition of family fishing and conservation organizations in the restoration fight. “This episode proves that we can sometimes repair the ecological mistakes humans have made by simply getting out of nature’s way.”
For years, Earthjustice represented Friends of Merrymeeting Bay, wildlife photographer Doug Watts, and conservationist Kathleen McGee in legal efforts to help restore alewife habitat.
River herring (alewives) spend most of their lives out at sea, but as anadromous fish, they must swim upstream to spawn in spring. With access to their historic habitat restored, scientists predict the river herring population will increase from tens of thousands to 10 million or more in time.
Alewives are ecologically, economically, historically, and culturally important to the St. Croix River basin and the entire Gulf of Maine ecosystem. The St. Croix River once produced the largest population of alewives on the East Coast. Today, however, only a small fraction of that former population is found in a short section of the St. Croix River. Alewives are considered a keystone species in the river and coastal ocean ecosystem, serving as food for many other species of fish, marine mammals, and birds. They are fished by both commercial and recreational fishermen, and are valuable to coastal economies. Alewives are also used as bait for lobster and recreational fishermen, and as forage for commercially valuable species like cod, halibut, and tuna.