Passamaquoddy Nation Seeks to Free Alewives on St. Croix River

While the $62 million Penobscot River Restoration project is well on its way to restoring Atlantic salmon to the Penobscot River and its watershed, the Passamaquoddy Tribe and a group of tribal members called the Schoodic Riverkeepers are working to restore alewives and other indigenous fish to their home waters in the Schoodic River, known today as the St. Croix River.

Editor's note: As we were about to post this story news came that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) supports the restoration of alewives to the St. Croix River. A story about the EPA's decision will follow.

When the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy nations settled their land claims in 1980, the state guaranteed that the tribes would maintain their sustenance fishing rights on their territories regardless of “any rule or regulation promulgated by the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission or any other law of the State.” What the agreement failed to guarantee was that state wouldn’t put up barriers preventing the sea-run fish from reaching the tribes’ lands.

While the $62 million Penobscot River Restoration project is well on its way to restoring Atlantic salmon to the Penobscot River and its watershed, the Passamaquoddy Tribe and a group of tribal members called the Schoodic Riverkeepers are working to restore alewives and other indigenous fish to their home waters in the Schoodic River, known today as the St. Croix River.

For the past 17 years, the annual migration of the once millions of saltwater alewives back to St. Croix River’s 1,600-square-mile watershed has been blocked by a barrier at the Grand Falls Dam that keeps the fish from reaching their spawning grounds upstream. In 1995 the Maine legislature passed a law blocking the state's St. Croix fish ways to alewife migration at the request of local smallmouth bass guides who felt that the 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 that decline to the alewife. But recent studies by Maine’s own Department of Environmental Protection, including one that examined alewives in the St. Croix River, have shown that smallmouth bass and alewives can co-exist.

The Passamaquoddy want the barrier at Grand Falls Dam removed. And it wouldn’t cost a penny.

“It’s a two-foot long piece of wood,” Ed Bassett, a member of the Schoodic Riverkeepers and the Passamaquoddy Tribal Council at Sipayik (Pleasant Point, Maine), told Indian Country Today Media Network in a conference call in June.

On June 14, leaders of the three Passamaquoddy communities—Chief Clayton Cleaves of Sipayik (Pleasant Point, Maine), Chief Joseph Socobasin of Motahkomikuk (Indian Township, Maine), and Chief Hugh Akagi of Qonasqamkuk (St. Andrews, New Brunswick)—issued a Passamaquoddy Tribal Sovereign Declaration on the State of Emergency in the St. Croix River, which amounts to a kind of Universal Declaration on the Rights of Rivers.

“We have come to learn that our ancient Life-Giver, the Schoodic River (now known as the St. Croix River) is in a state of serious distress, and immediate action must be taken to remedy this distress,” the chiefs declared. “We have a sacred relationship with the River and life contained within the River. We recognize that the St. Croix River Ecosystem and related Natural Communities have an inalienable and fundamental right to exist, flourish and evolve. We also recognize that the River has a right to be clean and flow unobstructed and that the fish have a right to spawn and to live out their natural history and life cycles.”

The chiefs went on to say that the Creator has blessed the Passamaquoddy people with an abundance food fish that has sustained their health and spirit and defined their culture but that the State of Maine has harmed the people by blocking the anadromous fish from their natural life cycle. The chiefs insist that the state remove the barrier at Grand Falls, or failing state action, they urge the International Joint Commission, the body established to oversee the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty between the U.S. and Canada, “to exercise its authority and open this blockage.” Cleaves had asked the Commission in a May 24 letter to remove all barriers along the St. Croix watershed and into Maine’s northern lakes to “give alewives the freedom to breed at proportions bestowed by the Great Spirit.”

The Passamaquoddy chiefs from Sipayik and Motahkomikuk, along with Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis, Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians Chief Brenda Commander, and Aroostoock Band of Micmacs Chief Richard Getchell, also wrote to Maine Gov. Paul LePage on June 21, seeking his support for a legislative fix to open the fish way.

“This fish way was ordered closed by Maine law in 1995, and its closure has increasingly diminished the availability of a cultural food source for the Passamaquoddy people and the activities around which our culture and economy are built,” they wrote. They notified LaPage that they will direct Madonah Soctomah and Wayne Mitchell, the legislative representatives of the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot nations, respectively, to submit a bill to remove the barrier during the next legislative session.

The Schoodic Riverkeepers advanced the Passamaquoddy river restoration effort in early June with a 100-mile sacred run up the St. Croix River that mirrored the annual run of the indigenous alewives. The route extended from Pleasant Point, which is near Eastport, the easternmost city in the U.S., to Mud Lake Stream, a 4,000-year-old ancestral fishing site for the Passamaquoddy at the head of Spednic Lake.

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, the group said in a media statement. With the reopening in 2008 of the Woodland Dam downstream from the Grand Falls dam, the alewives run recovered to 25,000 fish in 2011.

“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,” the statement said.

But the alewife population has been so decimated that last November the Northeast Regional Office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration determined there is enough scientific information to conduct a review to consider listing the alewife and blueback herring as endangered species.

In the conference call with Indian Country Today Media Network, tribal leaders as well as members of the Schoodic Riverkeepers said they would like to see the entire St. Croix River restored.

“The Schoodic Riverkeepers has a bigger purpose and that is river restoration and that would normally mean dam removal, but our purpose right now is to restore the alewife to its natural and historic grounds,” said Vera Francis, one of the organizers of the run.

But it’s more than just the alewives, said Brian Altvater, a founding member of the Schoodic Riverkeepers and organizer for the sacred run.

“We’re talking about blue back herring, shad, Atlantic salmon, American eel—any fish that goes between the fresh and salt water,” he said, explaining that the alewives are central to the entire ecology of the environment. “Everything co-exists with the alewives—the birds, the eagle, the osprey, the whale, the porpoise. We bring the alewives home to feed our community members and its part of our tradition for centuries. The man-made blockades ought to be removed.”

“We do have a sustenance right to our traditional food. We’re not a stakeholder—we’re not anglers, not guides. We’re indigenous, just like the fish we’re talking about,” Francis said.

“What we do to the alewives, we do to the tribe, we do to ourselves,” Altvater said.

“No option should be off the table, including going to the dam and physically removing the barrier in defiance of the state,” Bassett said. “I think that’s a bold statement but I think that action is an option. It’s a two-foot-long piece of wood.”

There should be no difficulty in convincing legislators to remove the Grand Falls Dam barrier that prevents the alewives and other sea run fish from returning to their home waters since the State of Maine itself extols the many virtues of alewives on a web page called All About Maine Alewives. The web page was created by the state’s Department of Marine Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Maine Rivers, a nonprofit environmental organization.

Ironically, the website relates the outrage of a settler village that was deprived of alewives by a dam downstream.

“When one river town built a dam and blocked the fish from their spawning habitat, one early chronicler wrote that the inhabitants of the next town were outraged. ‘It was difficult to persuade the aggrieved people to forbear using violence to open a passage for ye fish … the cry of the poor every year for want of the fish … is enough to move the bowels of compassion in any man that hath not an heart of stone,’ ” the state’s web page says.

The solution? In 1809, the selectmen in Benton ordered a mill dam to be torn down because it blocked huge runs of alewives and shad on the Sebasticook River.