A proposal released in June to restore alewife habitat slowly in the St. Croix River has drawn criticism from all sides.

Under the plan put forth by the St. Croix board of the International Joint Commission, alewife blockades would be removed at two new locations along the river, specifically chosen to avoid impacting West Grand Lake and Spednic Lake, prime fishing ground for smallmouth bass. The plan would allow alewife numbers to grow in stages, but their growth would be tied to a “stoplight system” with the smallmouth bass population. If smallmouth bass numbers dip, then alewife numbers would be held in check or decreased.  

Advocates for alewife restoration argue the fish is important both to stabilize the bait market for lobsterman and to provide forage for groundfish in the Gulf of Maine. Alewives once numbered in the millions in the St. Croix, and have dipped in recent years to as low as several thousand. Restoration advocates, including conservationists, biologists and oceanic fishermen, believe the plan moves too slowly to restore alewife to the river.

But a group of Washington County guides fears increased alewives in the river will harm smallmouth bass, an introduced fish that the guides have come to depend upon for a sport fishing industry. These guides believe increased alewife passage was responsible for a huge dip in bass in Spednic Lake in the early nineties.

The plan is another attempt to create middle ground in a contentious debate that has raged over the last two decades. People on both sides of the boarder were surprised when the Maine legislature voted to block alewife access to 98 percent of its ancestral habitat in the St. Croix in 1995. Canada and the United States manage the St. Croix jointly, and many feel the U.S. acted illegally by closing portions of the river to alewives unilaterally. The move was sparked by concern among Washington County guides that the alewives were gobbling up young smallmouth bass.

In 2008, the Maine legislature was on course to restore access, only to have the process discouraged by Governor John Baldacci. Baldacci turned against the proposal after a personal lobbying effort by Indian Point Passamaquoddy Tribal Governor William Nicholas against the plan.

That same year, a coalition of 50 American and Canadian fishing and environmental organizations sent a letter to the International Joint Commission asking it to intervene and restore the alewife habitat. The commission’s new proposal comes out of that lobbying effort.

The proposal’s authors write that the new plan is an attempt to advance alewife restoration while helping to address the concerns of the guides who depend on smallmouth bass.

“Hopefully, stakeholders will see this is a balanced plan,” said Robert Reynolds, a senior advisor to the joint commission.

But those who favor alewife restoration say the plan is too deferential to the bass population. Conservationists and scientists long have contended that there is no scientific proof that the dip in bass numbers was a result of alewife reintroduction. Instead, they argue, the likely culprit was a drawdown of Spednic Lake by a local hydroelectric company.

It’s a dangerous precedent to tie a restoration effort of a native species to the health of an introduced one, said Landis Hudson, executive director of Maine Rivers.

“This management plan seems to go out of its way to make the alewife population held hostage to the bass population,” Hudson said.

Alewife harvesters also publically have come out in opposition to the plan. Science indicates that the St. Croix can hold some 22 million alewives, said Jeffrey Pierce, executive director of Alewife Harvesters of Maine. Pierce argues that restoration would create dozens of jobs and thousands of dollars up and down the St. Croix. It also could ease the price crunch lobstermen are facing for bait, he said. He’s mystified that several dozen guides can have more political clout than biologists, conservationists and lobstermen put together.

In addition, alewife harvesters have concerns about the plan’s compliance with the Clean Air Act and are asking the EPA to do a review of the plan.

“It doesn’t smell right,” Pierce said. “This whole thing is political, political, political.”

Dr. Fred Whorisky, a scientist with the Canadian branch of the Atlantic Salmon Federation, believes the joint commission’s quest for common ground in the issue is admirable. However, the proposal’s deferential treatment of smallmouth bass may make it unworkable under Canadian fishing laws that bar the Canadian government from taking action that could harm a native species..

“I think it’s going to provoke an interesting legal challenge” if implemented, Whorisky said.

St. Croix River guides also appear to be frustrated by the plan. Although the plan excludes alewives from important bass fishing grounds, guides don’t want to take any chances. David Tobey, a former president of the Grand Lake Stream Guides Association and current director of the Downeast Lakes Land Trust, said scientists are reporting the smallmouth bass population is already in trouble this year. Meanwhile, reports show a small rebound of alewives, from 10,000 in 2009 to 50,000 in 2010. Tobey doesn’t want to risk this year’s population of bass on increased alewife access. It could provoke an economic disaster.  

“This is the poorest year they ever had on Big Lake,” Tobey said. “It’s already a management problem.”

And guides opposing the proposal believe that it is unclear if alewives even are native to their section of the St. Croix. They think the archeological evidence isn’t enough to prove historical alewife habitat.

“Some of the older guides, they didn’t know what an alewife was,” when the subject first came up in the eighties, said J.R. Maybee, who has fished in Spednic Lake since he was a child.

The joint commission will take comments on the plan until August 16. It is also planning to hold what will surely be a contentious public meeting on August 4 at the Princeton Elementary School.

Frank Bevacqua, a spokesman for the joint commission, said the commission hopes to achieve consensus, but can move forward without it.

When told of opposition to the plan on both sides of the issue, Bevacqua quietly laughed. “We may succeed in generating a consensus,” he said.

Coverage of Washington County is made possible by a grant from the Eaton Foundation.

Craig Idlebrook is a freelance writer based in Ellsworth.