Alewives were welcomed home to the St. Croix River watershed, after a 19-year absence from 98% of their historic spawning grounds, during a ceremony at the Grand Falls dam on June 5. The St. Croix River Herring Homecoming was hosted by the Passamaquoddy Tribe to mark the return of alewives and to honor the tribes, federal agencies and non‑governmental organizations that participated in the effort to restore the run.
While numerous government officials and organizations appeared to be taking some credit for the return of the alewife, the efforts by members of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, including the producing of a video by the Schoodic Riverkeepers, seem to have been the turning point in an ongoing effort to bring the fish back. Last June, the alewives' plight had been highlighted by a 100-mile sacred run held by the riverkeepers, and the opening of the fishway at the dam was made possible by the enactment in April of legislation sponsored by Passamaquoddy Rep. Madonna Soctomah.
At the beginning of the ceremony, tribal member Wayne Newell sang the "Alewife Song," in which he composed new words to a traditional Passamaquoddy song that relate about the creator's intent for alewives to be able to swim up and down the river freely, then about the time of blockage on the river so they couldn't fulfill their life cycle, and finally about the celebration of the return of free passage.
After thanking the Schoodic Riverkeepers, state, federal and tribal officials, Passamaquoddy Chief Clayton Cleaves stated, "We need to become heroes" by being advocates for the fish that cannot be advocates themselves. "It is with great joy that I stand in a place where my people and I belong and welcome the return of siqonomeq and her family to the place where they, where we all belong," he stated in prepared remarks.
Reestablishing a healthy alewife run in the St. Croix watershed will benefit both freshwater and marine ecosystems and other species that depend on them for food, including groundfish, Atlantic salmon, cod, ospreys and eagles. John Bullard, the northeast regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), pointed out the relationship between fish in the rivers and in the ocean and said the Schoodic Riverkeepers deserve a great deal of credit for reopening the fishway to alewives. "This is where we make fish, but fish make us," he stated, noting, "When fish disperse, we disperse. With the elimination of seven boards, the fish have come back together. And when the fish come back together, we come back together. When that happens, great things happen that are worth more than dollars and material things."
Aaron Annable of the Canadian Consulate in Boston noted that Canada has long maintained that alewives should be allowed to have free passage up the St. Croix and that the fish "is a really important part of the ecosystem."
Meredith Mendelson of the Maine Department of Marine Resources noted that people were celebrating the return of the keystone species that is critical as forage for other species, which helps support coastal and inland fisheries. Alewives also are a local source of bait that will help offset the limited bait supply for the state's lobster industry. A conservative estimate of the economic benefits of reopening the fish ladders on the St. Croix River and rebuilding its alewife run are between $3.1 to $5.9 million. This would be derived from just the reestablishment of a herring bait fishery alone. Lobstermen would have a lower cost and potentially more ecologically friendly bait source because the bait would be local, reducing the risk of introducing parasites or pathogens from imported fish.
Mendelson said that Governor LePage is supportive of the alewives' passage beyond the Grand Falls dam and expressed his thanks to Rep. Madonna Soctomah of the Passamaquoddy Tribe for all of her work on the issue.
Wendi Weber, northeast regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), said the alewives' return "will be appreciated and remembered for generations to come." She noted that the St. Croix watershed has the potential for the highest alewife production in Maine.
Two words whose importance was highlighted by the opening of the fishway -- persistence and sustenance -- were pointed to by H. Curtis Spalding, regional administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Addressing the Passamaquoddys present, he said, "It's a sign that our people are learning from your people. We're learning about sustenance and sustainability." He said he would "bring back this story" to other EPA officials.
Hugh Akagi, chief of the St. Croix Schoodic Band of Passamaquoddy, said it took "a lot of people who wouldn't accept" the 1995 legislation that had blocked the alewives' passage. Stating that the Wabanaki people are connected with their environment, he said those at the ceremony "have arrived and are now connected."
After access to the Woodland and Grand Falls fish ladders in Maine was closed by the 1995 legislation, alewife populations plummeted -- from 2.6 million in 1987 to 900 in 2002. The fish ladders had been closed because inland sportfishing guides feared the alewives would harm the smallmouth bass populations in the region's lakes and ponds. The reopening of the fish ladders gained broad support after research demonstrated that smallmouth bass and alewives can coexist in lakes and waterways throughout Maine and the east coast of North America.