If signed by Gov. Paul LePage, the bill would allow spring runs of alewives through the fishway at the Grand Falls Dam near Princeton in Washington County and through much of the St. Croix watershed. The run of the schooling fish would begin before the end of the month.
If alewives are allowed to run, scientists expect the fish’s populations to increase from tens of thousands to 10 million or more, and predict benefits for the St. Croix and eastern Maine marine ecosystems.
The bill lifts a blockade passed by the Legislature in 1995 amid concerns from fishing guides that the alewives were harming smallmouth bass, which is a non-native fishery in the St. Croix but a source of recreational income for some in the region.
Concerns that restoring the alewives run would harm the smallmouth fishery persisted among lawmakers who opposed the bill. However, proponents said there is little scientific evidence that alewives endanger the smallmouth bass population.
Alewives, also known as river herring, spend most of their lives in the ocean, but swim up freshwater rivers in spring to spawn.
An important source of food for larger fish, the alewife population crashed after dams were built on Maine’s rivers in the 19th century.
After fishways were built and pollution was reduced in the early 1980s, the annual run grew 13-fold, to more than 2.6 million.
The 1995 blockade action by the Legislature reduced the alewives run to just 900 fish in 2002, a decline of 99.7 percent.
The Legislature revisited the issue in 2008, but opened only the Woodland Dam in Baileyville to the fish, thus closing off an estimated 94 percent of the alewife habitat.
L.D. 72, sponsored by Passamaquoddy Rep. Madonna Soctomah, would effectively undo the 1995 and 2008 laws, letting the fish pass through the two dams.
“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 during the floor debate. “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.”
The bill is supported by lobstermen, groundfishing interests, environmental groups, Indian tribes and the U.S. and Canadian governments, which share sovereignty over the watershed straddling the Maine-New Brunswick border.
Canada has made it clear that it intends to let the fish pass through the upstream Vanceboro Dam, which Canada controls. That would give the fish access to the entire eastern branch of the watershed. On the western branch, the alewives would have access as far as West Grand Lake Stream Dam.
House Democratic Leader Jeff McCabe, of Skowhegan, hoped the bipartisan vote would prompt LePage to sign the bill.
A spokeswoman for LePage did not immediately respond to a request for comment.