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Bill to Open St. Croix to Alewives Wins Overwhelming Approval
04/10/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

A diverse coalition of environmental groups, fishermen and Indian tribal leaders are claiming victory today after a bill that would return alewives to the St. Croix watershed won super-majority votes of approval in the Maine House and Senate. Alewives have been blocked from entering the St. Croix since 1995 when fishing guides expressed concerns that the fish would decimate the smallmouth bass population that was being introduced to the watershed. As A.J. Higgins reports, fishery biologists now believe the two species can co-exist.

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Bill to Open St. Croix to Alewives Wins Overwhelmi Listen
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2:46

Alewives

You want find them on a lot of menus, but if you were a lobster looking for a spring snack, you might think the alewife - or river herring - makes a pretty good snack. The silvery fish that averages about a foot long has been barred from the St. Croix River in Washington County since 1995.

But lawmakers in Augusta are determined to bring them back. Rep. Bruce MacDonald, a Boothbay Democrat, says LD 72 will do the trick. "This bill would open up two dams in the St. Croix, increase the alewive run, both to the benefit of the St. Croix River estuary and to the Gulf of Maine," MacDonald said.

The 18-year banishment of the alewives - valued as lobster bait -- got a lot of bad press back in the 90s after sporting groups, anxious to improve the smallmouth bass fishery in the St. Croix watershed became, convinced the alewives would compete and eventually decimate the bass fishery.

As the result of the ensuing blockage of the river fishways, the estimated 2.6 million alewives that once traveled up the St. Croix River every spring to spawn in the upstream lakes in the 1980s plummeted to fewer than 1,000. Rep. Beth Turner, a Burlington Republican, says she's convinced now that the blockage was an unnecessary safeguard.

"After studying the information available on both sides of this issue, I believe that the risks to our present fisheries and the harm that it could do to the local economy does not outweigh any benefits that would result with the establishment of alewives in the upper St. Croix," Turner said.

The House approved the bill 123-24. The bill then moved to the Senate for final enactment, where it was moved by Maine Senate President Justin Alfond.

"The alewives bill did come to the Senate today and it was a unanimous vote, 33-0, in support of changing the public policy here in the state of Maine, and that support was from every senator across the state," Alfond says. "And so it was a great vote and we're excited that that has occurred before the season opens."

Environmentalists have long favored the restoration of alewives to the region. Beth Ahearne is the political director for Maine Conservation Voters.

"It's very significant," she says. As you may know, we were here in 2008 and we did not succeed at that time, and this is aa historic day. Restoring alewives in the St. Croix is a wonderful thing."

The bill is now heading for Gov. Paul LePage's desk for his signature. The governor's staffers said they did not yet know how LePage would react to the bill, although he did support a limited alewive re-entry measure that lost out to LD 72's unrestricted reentry plan earlier in the session.



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