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Fewer Alewives Than Expected Return to St. Croix River
06/28/2013   Reported By: Susan Sharon

Earlier this month, state and federal officials joined environmental groups and members of the Passamaquoddy Tribe to celebrate the expected return of alewives to the St Croix River. A two-decades long political battle, and a series of wooden boards, had prevented the fish from spawning up river. When lawmakers authorized the removal of the barriers this spring, the hope was that the fish would come back in big numbers. But as Susan Sharon reports, it hasn't worked out that way.

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Fewer Alewives Than Expected Return to St. Croix R Listen

Sixteen-thousand-six-hundred-sixty-four: That's how many alewives have been counted at the Milltown fishway research trap for the months of May and June. And with spawning season just about over, the woman in charge of the fish count doesn't expect many more to return.

Biologist Lee Sochasky of the Atlantic Salmon Federation says it's been a disappointment in a year that was supposed to see 60,000 or more fish come back.

"We're at the Milltown Fishway on the St. Croix River," she says. "The Milltown Dam is the lower most dam just above head of tide. The dam was built 130 years ago. We're in the fishway that takes fish up around this and into the St. Croix River."

The fish climb or swim - either verb will do - a daunting series of 30 steps to get around the dam. They eventually enter a metal cage where Sochasky, armed with a large net, scoops them up and counts each one.

"The cage is seven feet by seven feet square and about four feet deep and we can fit about 3,000 alewives in there, but then there's hardly room for the person to count them," she says.

On this day in early June, there is plenty of room to accommodate two people, because fewer than two dozen fish have made the trip up the ladder.

"The average alewife on the St. Croix is about 11-inches long and weighs just under a half pound. So when you're netting up 10 or 15 of these at once, it adds up a bit," she says, as she counts.

To explain the lower-than-expected returns, Sochasky says you need only to look outside. Heavy rains have made the river flow much higher than expected. That makes it difficult for fish to enter fish ladders around several dams on the river. In addition, temperatures have been cooler. And Sochasky says alewives prefer to run on hot, sunny days.

Last year, when the boards blocking fish passage were still in place, more than 36,000 alewives returned. The year before, about 60,000 fish were reported. Both numbers are fractions of the 2.6 million alewives that inhabited the St. Croix before two barriers were erected. It was an action taken on behalf of some fishing guides, who mistakenly believed alewives were competing with a coveted smallmouth bass population.

"It wasn't until 1995 when the state Legislature closed both the Woodland Fishway, nine miles up from salt water, and the Grand Falls fishway, 19 miles from salt water, that numbers started to seriously plummet, as I said, down to just 900 fish," Sochasky says.

Now that the fish ladders are clear of the barriers, alewives can theoretically access more than 90 percent of their spawning habitat. But Sochasky says they will need some help from Mother Nature who appears to be growing more unpredictable as a result of climate change.


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