A spiritual run by Passamaquoddy tribal members will mirror the indigenous alewife run up the St. Croix River to recognize the importance of the fish to the river's watershed and to draw attention to 17-year blockage of the fish run by the Maine Legislature. The sacred run will coincide with a rally on the river between Calais and St. Stephen on June 9.
The 100-mile relay will extend from Pleasant Point to Mud Lake Stream, a 4,000-year-old ancestral fishing site for the Passamaquoddy at the head of Spednic Lake. The sacred run is organized by the Schoodic Riverkeepers, a group comprised of Passamaquoddy tribal members focused on restoring their ancestral river and indigenous populations of fish in the St. Croix River. The St. Croix River was formerly known as the Schoodic River or the Passamaquoddy River.
"These fish populations, especially siqonomeqok (alewives), are ecologically important to the Passamaquoddy and essential to the health of our ancestral marine waters," says Vera Francis, a member of the Schoodic Riverkeepers. She says the run aims "to bring attention to the plight of the alewife so we'll pay better attention to the critical role it plays."
Francis notes that the fish has a strong cultural and historical connection to the tribe. "The Schoodic always had alewives in it, and they fed the Passamaquoddy people," she observes. "Whatever happens to the alewife happens to us. We can relate to its struggle. It's about to become extinct in its own territorial waters. As it comes back to its original spawning area it has no other place to go."
Another member of the group, Ed Bassett, also points to the similarities between the struggles of the tribe and the alewife. "They're trying to connect to their homeland. They're trying to survive. It's the same with Native people. They're trying to survive in their homeland."
Bassett adds, "I'm in this work and running in the sacred run to Grand Falls Dam and Mud Lake Stream with a prayer in my heart that the alewives will have free passage to their ancient and traditional spawning territory. I am dedicated to improving the river's health and have confidence that Native and non-Native people will work toward that end."
Runners representing each Wabanaki community will be participating in the St. Croix Alewife Sacred Run, as well as runners from throughout Maine and New Brunswick. Brian Altvater, founding member of the Schoodic Riverkeepers and organizer for the sacred run, says, "This run is guided by the Creator and highlights the special relationship the Passamaquoddy have with their lands and waters. Everyone is welcome to join us."
The importance of restoring the run of alewives is noted by Fundy Baykeeper Matthew Abbott of St. Andrews. "Restoration of alewife to the St. Croix matters for the river, the bay and the Gulf of Maine. Alewives play a critical ecological role, serving as an important source of food for groundfish, marine mammals and a host of birds and terrestrial animals along the rivers where they spawn. Abundant alewife runs can also serve as a source of bait for the lobster fishery."
The first leg of the Alewife Run will begin at the Pleasant Point boat launch at 7 a.m. on Saturday, June 9, and end at the Grand Falls dam fishway on St. Croix River, the site of Maine's current alewife barrier, at approximately 1 p.m. At 2 p.m. (EST), a rally will occur on the water between St. Stephen and Calais, and anyone may participate. Boats will meet off the St. Andrews Biological Station at 12 noon (EST) and are to stay on their respective sides of the border. Those wishing to enter a motorized boat should contact Matthew Abbott at 506‑529‑8838 or <firstname.lastname@example.org>. Kayaks and canoes will enter the water at boat entry points in Calais and St. Stephen.
On Sunday, the second leg of the run will begin at 9 a.m. in Princeton and will end at about 3 p.m. at Forest City, N.B., site of the ancestral fishing site at Mud Lake Stream.
Repeal of state law sought
The Schoodic Riverkeepers group is calling on the Maine Legislature to repeal the law that blocks alewife access to 98% of their historic St. Croix spawning habitat. Not all members of the tribe are in agreement with that position, though. In 2008, then Governor William Nicholas of Indian Township had spoken at a legislative work session in opposition to opening up the Grand Falls Dam. The Schoodic Riverkeepers are hoping that the Passamaquoddy Joint Tribal Council will take the position of supporting the restoration of the alewife run.
In 1995, the Maine Legislature blocked the state's St. Croix fishways to alewife migration, at the request of local smallmouth bass guides who felt that alewife posed a significant threat to their sport fishing industry and livelihoods. The smallmouth bass population had declined in the 1980s in Spednic Lake, and speculation linked the decline to the alewife, lake-level management and fishing, but the cause is undetermined. Recent studies, including one that examined alewives in the St. Croix River for Maine Rivers and the Lake George Study, have shown that smallmouth bass and alewives can co-exist, and the Oromocto River, a large St. John River tributary, has supported both alewives and small-mouth bass successfully.
Since the 1980s the bass population has rebounded in Spednic Lake, but the alewife population in the St. Croix has declined from 2.6 million in 1987 to 900 in 2002. With the reopening of the Woodland Dam for passage of alewives in 2008, the run has recovered to 25,000 fish last year. However, the St. Croix has the reported potential to support a run of 4.5 million alewives, along with an active commercial fishery. The Schoodic Riverkeepers note that Passamaquoddy fishers have an inherent right of access to that fishery on both sides of the watershed. Historically, the St. Croix watershed supported Maine's largest population of alewives, a run that once numbered as high as 20 million.
Other groups also are advocating for the restoration of the run. On May 14, Friends of Merrymeeting Bay, Doug Watts and Kathleen McGee filed notice of their intent to sue the Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Water Act for the agency's complicity in eradicating alewives from the St. Croix. Earlier this year a complaint brought by the same parties directed at the State of Maine was dismissed in U.S. District Court.
A new stock assessment for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has confirmed that alewives along the Atlantic seaboard are depleted, and the National Marine Fisheries Service recently began an evaluation of whether alewives should be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.