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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Alewife Survival

Air Date: Week of

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Maine has a lucrative sport-fishing industry that depends largely on non-native bass. But the state says native alewife fish there out-compete the bass. So, it’s authorized blockades that prevent alewives from reaching their spawning grounds. Now the federal governments of both the U.S, and Canada say that move is illegal. Maine Public Radio’s Naomi Schalit reports.


TOOMEY: Sometimes, animals are at the center of human squabbles. That’s the case in Maine where the state legislature, local fishing guides and, not one but, two federal governments are arguing over the fate of a herring.

Alewives are a type of river herring native to Maine. Several years ago, the state legislature there voted to block these fish from their spawning grounds. As a result, alewife numbers plummeted. So, why destroy a native species? Why, to protect a non-native one, of course. Maine Public Radio’s Naomi Schalit explains.


SCHALIT: This is the Pine Tree Store in Grand Lake Stream, a tiny town tucked into the dark green woods of rural eastern Maine.

Every morning during fishing season, the area’s fishing guides show up here to buy flies and insect repellant, and whatever else they need for a day on the water. This is serious fishing country. Anglers from all over the world come to try their luck in the region’s numerous lakes. Dave Irving’s been guiding here since 1971.

IRVING: There’s so much diversity. You can fish lake trout. You can fish brook trout, landlocked salmon. Oh, you can fish at a different lake every day of the month. If you had 30 days to fish, you could go to a different place everyday.

SCHALIT: And in the pecking order held dear by fishermen, there’s one fish that’s revered above all others. It isn’t even native to the local waters, but was introduced to this lake system in the 19th century. And it’s one that this economically depressed county needs. Guide Louie Cataldo.

CATALDO: This whole area depends on the bass. And, we built our businesses around the bass.

SCHALIT: So, anything that threatens those bass is taken very seriously, including a small silvery fish called an alewife. More than 15 years ago, the lucrative bass fishery in a lake further up the watershed crashed, simply disappeared. And local fishing guides there blamed alewives who, they said, either ate the bass or outcompeted them.

And while there’s been scant scientific evidence to support that contention, a rural legend was born. The locals call alewives "piranhas." Guide Bill Gillespie.

GILLESPIE: These fish are veracious eaters. Not only do they eat small fish, but everything in between. They gobble up everything.

SCHALIT: So, a number of years ago, the region’s fishing guides, afraid that alewives would decimate their bass, convinced the Maine legislature to prevent migrating alewives from reaching their upriver spawning grounds by blocking existing fish ladders; this, at a time when the alewives were finally bouncing back from years of pollution and habitat destruction.

Alewife numbers plummeted. The population went from two and a half million fish to a mere 900. And the area’s fishing guides were unapologetic. They had no problem sacrificing a native fish that only provides forage for wildlife. Again, fishing guide Bill Gillespie.

GILLESPIE: The bass is a sport fish where people can make a living fishing for them. Whereas, alewife is, in most part, a junk fish. It’s more of a forage fish that comes up here just to breed and go back to the ocean, and eat everything in between.

SCHALIT: Enter the Canadians. The St. Croix River forms an international boundary between Canada and Maine. And the Canadian government has taken a dim view of Maine’s actions to block the fish they call "gaspereau." Alewife migration was once an extraordinary scene, the river boiling with hundreds of thousands of fish fighting their way upstream.

But since the barriers went up, that kind of spectacle is long gone on the St. Croix. The Canadians say Maine’s unilateral action threatens the St. Croix River system. So, the Canadians have decided to truck the fish upriver.


SCHALIT: For the second year in a row, Canadian officials are capturing what alewives they can at a downriver gathering place for the fish. The fish are moved by net to a water-filled tank on this truck. Then, they’re driven to spawning grounds above on of the blocked fish ladders where they’re emptied out.


SCHALIT: Canadian officials say they hope that this meager attempt will help maintain at least a vestige of the once thriving run. Larry Marshall is with Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

MARSHALL: The fact that we only have a thousand, which is 20% of last year, is very disappointing, and really doesn’t give us very much wiggle room in trying to maintain the population. But certainly, to have any numbers like we had five, six, seven years ago, when we had the area between even Woodland and Grand Falls, supporting something in the neighborhood of maybe 200,000 fish, it will take a while to rebuild that population.

SCHALIT: Fisheries officials on both sides of the border have produced ample evidence that alewife and bass coexist in numerous other lake and river systems. Besides antagonizing the Canadians, Maine has angered Federal officials on this side of the border as well.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provided money to build the fish ladders that are now blocked to alewives. And the agency says they want those alewives to pass up the river. So they’re wielding a big stick. Since the fish ways aren’t being used as planned, the Feds will withhold two and a half million dollars in sport fish restoration money from the state unless legislators vote to remove the barriers by next February.

There’s one other rescue option still possible for the St. Croix alewives. That’s the International Joint Commission, created by the U.S. and Canada to resolve disputes along border waters. But, so far, the Commission has taken a wait-and-see attitude. So for now, the only way the alewives, fish that once crowded the St. Croix River by the millions, will survive is by being loaded into a water-filled tank and trucked around the state of Maine’s barriers. For Living on Earth, I’m Naomi Schalit on the St. Croix River in New Brunswick, Canada.

TOOMEY: You’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.



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