St. Croix Alewives

FAQ

Many of the comments on the plan fault it for protecting an introduced species, the smallmouth bass, at the expense of the indigenous species, the alewife, if the bass do not continue to reproduce well.  Why not just open the river in its entirety and monitor the effects, as many have asked?
  • The plan was an attempt to apply the best available science to build a consensus that would permit a legislative solution to alewife restoration.  One fundamental question is whether one applies adaptive management, or simply reopens the river to the alewife and lets nature take its course; the biologists who drafted the plan agreed a managed approach was preferable.  The public meeting and the written comments received revealed no consensus on that basic point.
Some comments suggest the plan’s adaptive management did not go far enough. Why not lay out medium- to long-term steps that might be taken if the plan succeeds, such as opening parts of the system that would remain closed in the initial phase?
  • The drafters did find the comments helpful that suggested setting out medium- to long-term decision points and decision analysis, if a managed approach is desired.  Other options might be to monitor without actively managing, or devise an alternative management plan.  One question is whether these alternatives would be any more successful in finding more public support.
Isn’t there broad consensus on the science, as indicated by the comments from NOAA, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and many academics?
  • On most points, yes.  There is no doubt among the drafters, who are fisheries experts, and the rest of the scientific community that the alewife is a native species in the St. Croix watershed, or that restoring a native species to a watershed is highly desirable to re-establish crucial environmental and habitat relationships that have been disturbed by human activity.  The questions were, and remain, what is the best way to do this in this particular watershed?  Can it be done in such a way as to take other important interests into account?
Is the question of whether the alewife is a native species settled?  Many comments suggested the need for further study.
  • There is agreement in the scientific community that historical and fossil evidence establishes the alewife as an indigenous species in this watershed.  The Board is happy to share this link to the available documentation, which is referenced in the draft management plan:  http://www.maine.gov/dmr/searunfish/reports/stcroixalewifeflagg07.pdf.
Is there no possibility of reaching consensus on a reopening plan, as the letter from the Governor of Maine suggests?
  • The Governor’s letter stated that attempts to advance the discussion legislatively are unlikely to be any more successful than previous legislative efforts. The Board and the plan drafters made their best efforts to promote a science-based discussion that might allow a legislative resolution to this problem to be proposed.  However, the Governor’s statement that there is no apparent agreement on the best path forward is factual, if we look at the diametrically opposed views revealed at the public meeting and in the comments received, and the almost total lack of comments that attempt to bridge those gaps.
What is the next step?  Will the IJC issue an order to reopen the fishways, as suggested by the Governor of Maine, key Maine legislators, NOAA and many others?
  • The plan drafters have reported to the Board, and the Board has appeared before the IJC to discuss the outcome of the public meeting, which two of the six Commissioners attended along with IJC staff.  The Board reviewed the more than 100 comments the Board received, and apprised Commissioners of the main points.  The Commissioners requested the Board continue discussions with tribal interests, resource agencies, and other interested parties, with a view to informing further Commission consideration of the matter, which may include legal discussions with the U.S. and Canadian Governments.
How could the plan or selected elements of it be implemented, unless some agency or agencies provides the resources?
  • The Board views this as a real concern.  More than one agency commented that it would not be in a position to commit resources to support the plan; it is not clear which agencies would be in a position to provide resources to help draft or implement a modified plan.  By itself, opening the fishways does not require much in the way of human or budgetary resources.  But if desired, the monitoring of the alewife runs, the monitoring of impacts on the bass population, further adaptive planning and other steps cannot be undertaken without committing sufficient resources.
Will the drafting committee issue a modified plan, based on the comments made at the public meeting and received in writing?
  • Having examined the comments, the drafters have decided that any edits to the plan will be more in the nature of clarifications than modification.  Given the apparent lack of agreement to proceed with this kind of adaptive management approach to alewife restoration on the St. Croix, the drafters saw limited utility in making extensive modifications to the draft plan.
What efforts have been made to engage Native American and First Nation tribal representatives about the alewife reopening plan?
  • During the drafting of the plan, the drafting committee provided regular updates to the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission (MITSC) and each of the chiefs of the three bands of the Passamaquoddy.  Prior to the public meeting, the Board Co-Chairs met with MITSC representatives and two of the three Passamaquoddy chiefs, and sought without success to meet with the third Passamaquoddy chief; however, he did attend the public meeting.  Also at the public meeting, the Board’s U.S. Co-Chair emphasized the importance the Board attaches to engaging with the tribes, and extended an invitation to the tribes to hold more in-depth discussions on the plan.  The Board hopes to bring about such a meeting and continues to attach great importance to engagement with the tribes on this issue.
What is the purpose of this plan?
  • The plan’s purpose is to restore the sea-run (anadromous) alewife, a native fish species, to the St. Croix River basin, while maintaining the basin’s smallmouth bass fishery at current or higher levels. Because the alewife must swim upstream to spawn, they are vital to the food webs and nutrient cycles of marine, freshwater and land habitats in the basin. As bait, they help support coastal fisheries and lobstering. Fossil evidence shows alewife were present in the basin from prehistoric times.
If the alewife is so important, why not simply reopen all the fishways on dams to allow free passage?
  • This plan recognizes the importance of the smallmouth bass sport fishery, which has become an economically important industry in the basin in the last century. The plan therefore takes a precautionary approach to alewife restoration, making sure that it proceeds in harmony with preserving a healthy bass fishery.
Why is a plan required to bring back the alewife?
  • Most of the alewife’s upstream spawning habitat has been closed to them since 1987, when alewife were believed to have caused a rapid decline in the smallmouth bass population. Maine State law closed passage at all but the most downstream dam (Milltown) in 1995. That law was amended in 2008 to reopen the next dam upstream (Woodland), but alewife can still only access 2% of their native habitat in the basin.
How does this plan protect the smallmouth bass fishery?
  • The plan protects the bass in a number of ways. First, not all the basin is reopened to alewife. Only one-third of the alewife’s estimated natural spawning habitat would be reopened. West Grand Lake, Spednic Lake, and all points upstream of them, will remain closed to alewife. Second, the pace of the alewife’s re-entry to the basin will be determined by the bass’s continued success in reproducing.   
What makes this an "adaptive" management plan?
  • The"adaptive" aspect implies the precautionary approach. Results, including smallmouth bass reproductive success, will be monitored year by year, and the rate of alewife passage "escapement") through the fishways will be adjusted accordingly. The rate of alewife escapement will grow only if there is evidence that the bass are continuing to reproduce successfully.
Why was bass reproductive success chosen as a criterion?
  • The St. Croix River was blocked to the alewife due to concerns that increasing numbers of alewife in the early-mid 1980s played a role in the rapid decline in young-of-year (YOY) bass – those one year old or less -- in Spednic Lake around the same time. Although the evidence of the alleged past interference is inconclusive, a precautionary approach to alewife restoration would guard against the possibility of negative impact on the bass.
What is the evidence? Didn’t the number of young bass in Spednic Lake decline in the 1980’s?
  • There was a statistically significant decline in the bass young under one year old (YOY bass) in Spednic Lake at the same time as alewife numbers in the river increased. However, this was not the case in other Eastern Maine lakes. Factors other than alewife – variations in lake level, low spawning season temperatures – likely played a role in the Spednic Lake YOY bass decline.
Didn’t the number of young bass in Spednic Lake rebound after alewife passage was blocked?
  • At the same time alewife passage was blocked, smallmouth bass were trucked in to stock the lake, anglers were not allowed to keep caught bass, and the dam operator left more water in the lake during spawning season than before. Because several remedial actions were undertaken simultaneously, it is not possible to sort out the relative weight of each potential factor in the decline of young bass under one year old in Spednic Lake in the 1980’s, or to determine which factor was key to the subsequent rebound in bass reproductive success.
Your plan talks about large numbers of alewife – 4.45 million, even 23 million. Are these targets?
  • No. The fisheries biologists who drafted this plan had to have a starting point for any scientific analysis of alewife restoration. The 23 million figure is in no way a target, even long-term. It is a reference point only, an estimate of how many alewife the portion of the basin considered in the plan could support under natural conditions – no human intervention, hence no dams, no fishing and no introduced species – which have not existed for centuries. Just as no one is proposing to remove all the dams or the humans from the basin, no one is proposing 23 million alewife as any kind of target.
  • Fisheries biologists use the natural"carrying capacity" of a basin, as described above, to estimate the number of spawning fish needed to reach a stable population. The biologists estimated a minimum spawning alewife passage or "escapement" of 4.45 million fish. This 4.45 million figure might be seen as a very long-term recovery goal, but the important thing to note is that this figure does not determine the initial escapement target of six alewife per care (14.8/Ha) - or 146,316 alewife in the accessible part of the basin - nor the rate of increase in escapement.
What will happen if 4.45 million alewife are eventually allowed into the basin under this plan?
  • The simple answer is that, long before the alewife population reached that figure, it would be known that they were not a negative factor for the smallmouth bass population. Under the plan, for that alewife passage figure to be reached, the bass would have to be successfully reproducing the entire time. The most important thing to note about the plan is: the yearly target for alewife passage past the dams does not increase unless there is evidence of continued bass reproductive success.
Where did the six alewife per acre (14.8 per hectare) figure come from? What does it mean?
  • This figure represents the stocking (adult transfer) density used in Maine to restore a population into historic spawning habitat. The plan allows unchecked alewife population growth from its 2009 level of 10,450 to reach 146,316 in the part of the watershed under consideration, or 6 per acre/14.8 per hectare. After the alewife population reaches that initial threshold, its further increase is conditioned on bass reproductive success.
Will there be opportunities to discuss and comment on this plan before it becomes final?
  • Yes. The International St. Croix River Watershed Board will consult with stakeholders in the basin on the draft plan, including posting it for comment 50 days before the Board’s annual public meeting in early August. There will be an opportunity for the public to discuss the plan with the board at this meeting, and the comment period will remain open for a further ten days following the public meeting.
Will the discussion include further explanation of how the plan will work?
  • Most of the draft is devoted to a detailed but admittedly somewhat technical explanation of how the decision criteria were established and how the decision process would be applied to allow for rebuilding of the alewife population while ensuring that any negative effects on the smallmouth bass fishery are detected and can be acted upon rapidly. The “How the Plan Works” section of the executive summary highlights key points. Questions on how the plan works are welcome as part of the public comment period, and at the Board’s annual public meeting in early August (see IJC website for details).
How did the IJC become involved in this issue?
  • Under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, the IJC plays the role of authorizing uses of lake and river systems along the border, while protecting competing interests in accordance with rules set out by the two governments in the Treaty. For example, the Commission has issued orders of approval for dams or canals in the St. Croix, an international waterway. The IJC has been involved in fish passage issues on the St. Croix since the 1920s.
  • In 1955, the two national governments asked the IJC to recommend actions to improve the use, conservation and regulation of the St. Croix River basin’s waters. The IJC’s report included recommendations for improving water quality to a level that would permit restoration of runs of anadromous fish, which migrate from salt water to spawn in fresh water. In 1961, the governments formally adopted the water quality objectives recommended by the IJC and agreed that pollution abatement measures would be undertaken to meet these objectives. The governments also asked that the IJC maintain continuing surveillance over boundary waters pollution through an advisory board.
  • The Commission and its International St. Croix River Watershed Board have expressed concerns about restrictions on alewife passage over a number of years. After the public expressed similar concerns at the Board’s public meeting in 2009, the Board, on behalf of the IJC, asked expert members of the binational, interagency St. Croix Fisheries Steering Committee to draft this adaptive plan for alewife restoration.
Why doesn’t the IJC simply order the fishways on the dams reopened to the alewife?
  • The mission of the IJC is to prevent and resolve disputes over the use of waters shared by Canada and the United States. To fulfill its mission, the IJC takes a collaborative approach and works to build consensus on solutions that are in the best interests of the watershed. The IJC works very closely with the International St. Croix River Watershed Board, which reports to the IJC, on all issues in the basin including this one. The Board was the first watershed board created in 2000 under the International Watershed Initiative (IWI). IWI is the IJC’s 21st century approach to resolving water use conflicts along the international border. IWI emphasizes local participation and a holistic watershed-based perspective that addresses water quantity and water quality issues together.
  • The IJC and the Board recognized the strong ecological case for restoring the alewife in the basin, and made it a priority. In the spirit of IWI, the IJC asked the Board to develop a plan to reopen the basin to alewife while taking local stakeholder interests and inputs into account. The Board turned to the locally-based experts of the St. Croix Fisheries Steering Committee to draft a balanced plan based on sound science. This plan is the result.
  • Before considering other possible courses of action, the IJC wants to give the consultative, local participatory process embodied in the plan a chance to work. The philosophy of IWI is that the local stakeholders who are closest to a water use issue should be among those most knowledgeable about it and may be able to come up with the most equitable solution to it. The IJC remains hopeful that the plan will find broad acceptance, given that it satisfies the ecological need to return the alewife to the basin, while providing maximum protection for the sport fishery.
What further steps are needed to implement this plan?
  • There will need to be consultation with participating Federal, State, and provincial agencies, stakeholder groups including tribal interests on both sides of the border, and the public. The current bar on alewife access at Grand Falls Dam under Maine State law would also need to be lifted before the plan could take effect.
Will the number of alewife increase more slowly under the plan than if the alewife was reintroduced without monitoring?
  • Yes, that is correct. The plan drafters ran computer simulations projecting 1,000 different possible combinations of alewife population growth and bass reproductive success over a 50-year period. Based on those outcomes, it would take 10 to 30 years longer because of the plan to reach the point where 4.45 million fish were passing the dams, versus no constraint on alewife population growth.