Alewives Will Help Smallmouth Bass

Smallmouth bass will get fat on alewives, commissioner says

24 Feb 2013 06:00PM

ST. STEPHEN – Letting alewives up the St. Croix River will not hurt smallmouth bass, says Maine’s Commissioner of Marine Resources Patrick Keliher.

“No, except getting fatter,” he said in a telephone interview Thursday, meaning that the smallmouth bass introduced to the St. Croix in 1877 feed on the native anadromous alewife – also called river herring and gaspereau.

He disagrees with sport fishing guides who blame alewives for a crash in smallmouth bass after NB Power opened a better fishway at the Milltown Dam at St. Stephen/Calais, Maine, in 1981.

Still, he supports a bill before the state legislature to allow more alewives above the Grand Falls Dam using the Adaptive Management Plan proposed by the Canada/United States International Joint Commission in 2010 as a “framework.”

Under “adaptive management,” the state would allow more alewives into the Grand Falls flowage so long as the numbers of smallmouth bass do not drop. The plan would put an absolute cap on the number of alewives, and not allow them beyond the Vanceboro Dam near McAdam on the main branch of the river forming the Maine/New Brunswick border, and the Grand Lake Stream Dam on the west branch in Maine.

The government supports this bill against another sponsored by Rep. Madonna Soctomah to simply open the Grand Falls fishway allowing “the unconstrained passage of river herring.”

An emergency clause would allow it to take effect immediately, before the alewives return in May, if the bill gets two-thirds support. A bill without an emergency clause does not take effect for 90 days after the legislature adjourns. The alewife run ends in early July.

Another bill, not yet on the legislature’s website, would open the Grand Falls fishway to unconstrained passage but does not include an emergency clause.

Acting too late for this year’s alewife run will make little practical difference, Keliher said.

“We’re liable to see 60- to 100,000 fish returning this year,” he said, adding that the river below Grand Falls has plenty of spawning habitat for that many alewives.

Last year the Atlantic Salmon Federation reported 36,216 alewives at the Milltown counting fence.

Keliher expects the St. Croix alewife run to grow to possibly three million under the state’s plan, enough to sustain a commercial fishery on the scale of the one in the Kennebec River, in 10 to 12 years.

“The run will be artificially capped no matter what we do,” Keliher said, due to the limits of the Milltown, Woodland and Grand Falls fishways.

“Our mission is to restore native fish to their native habitat,” but dams have created more habitat for alewives than they once had, the commissioner said. “Historically the amount of habitat was much less.

“Overall, you could have a run of 20 million fish,” he said, with bigger fishways but keeping the dams.

At Milltown, alewives went from 169,620 in 1981 to 2,624,700 in 1987. Maine guides connected this to fewer smallmouth bass.

In 1995, Maine blocked the fishway at the Woodland Dam, above Milltown but below Grand Falls. The count at Milltown dropped to 900 in 2002. Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans began trucking alewives around Woodland. Maine reopened the Woodland fishway in 2008.

The International Joint Commission proposes to let alewives increase to 14.8 per hectare (six per acre) before imposing limits. The state might start from a higher number, Keliher said.

Keliher believes that opening the Vanceboro Dam at critical times, draining spawning beds in shallows close to shore, had more to do with the drop in smallmouth bass in Spednic Lake than did alewives.

“That is correct. They had significant drawdowns at a time that left spawning smallmouth bass in a predicament,” he said.

Environmental groups object to allowing exotic smallmouth bass to determine how many native alewives get up the river.

Keliher does not support bills to simply open the fishways. “Whenever we have had this debate at the legislature, it has gone nowhere,” he said.

“We are listening to them. We have a disagreement with them, so let’s find a way to move forward,” the commissioner said, referring to the sport fishery.