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Passamaquoddy Tribe Teams Up to Document Alewives' Return in St. Croix River

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The Passamaquoddy Tribe is teaming up with agencies in Canada and the U.S. to monitor alewife spawning behavior in the St. Croix River.

It’s phase one of a new international restoration project whose goal is to document the first return of the sea-run alewife and its close relative the blueback herring to the upper St. Croix watershed in the wake of the 2013 removal of the Grand Falls barrier, according to the Atlantic Salmon Federation, which is overseeing the tracking study. The State of Maine had erected the barrier in 1995.

Besides the Passamaquoddy, the effort involves the Maine Department of Marine Resources, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), International Joint Commission and Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Under the study, 30 fish were captured, tagged and will be monitored over three months as they swim up the watershed to spawn and then return to the sea. The St. Croix River runs along the Maine–New Brunswick border.

In all, 27,312 alewives and blueback herring returned to the St. Croix in 2014. In their heyday they numbered in the millions, but dams and pollution reduced their numbers drastically, the Atlantic Salmon Federation said. Given the toll that predators and obstacles can take, the researchers are hoping for the best.

“We hope the study will give early information on how alewives may be returning to their historic spawning grounds, but tracking just 30 fish in a watershed of this size, with its many predators and obstacles, leaves a lot to chance,” said Jonathan Carr, the Salmon Federation’s executive director of research and environment, in a statement.

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The Passamaquoddy have been at odds with the State of Maine for some time over the fate of alewives.

RELATED: Passamaquoddy Nation Seeks to Free Alewives on St. Croix River

In 2012 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agreed, directing the state government to restore the passage of alewives to their natural habitat on the St. Croix River by ruling that a 17-year-old state law banning the sea run fish was in violation of the federal Clean Water Act.

RELATED: EPA Supports Alewives Restoration in St. Croix River

The organization’s researchers are hoping to learn what parts of the St. Croix watershed the alewives are using now so as to target future research. The Salmon Federation takes this a step further, extolling both the capability of the river to support an alewife population, and the essential role they play in the ecosystem.

“Earlier scientific studies suggested that the St. Croix might be capable of producing 31 million of these fish annually, with significant benefits to many freshwater and marine food chains and a commercial fishery,” the Atlantic Salmon Federation’s statement said. “Alewives act as a buffer to predation of smolt moving out to sea. While current population estimates are lower; the widespread benefits of alewife restoration have now been well documented.”