Correspondent Murray Carpenter reports on a dispute along the US-Canadian border that’s got fisherman in Maine worried about a tiny herring known as the alewife.
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MARCO WERMAN: The border between Maine and New Brunswick, Canada is normally a very sleepy place, but in recent months a low intensity war of words has broken out in the region. As Murray Carpenter reports, the International Dispute Center is on a small and once-plentiful fish.
MURRAY CARPENTER: All looks well on the shore of Passamaquoddy Bay near St. Andrew’s, New Brunswick. Gulls chatter, seals dive and lobster boats bob. But at the office of the Atlantic Salmon Federation, biologist Fred Whoriskey says looks are deceiving. He says the bay’s ecological balance is of whack, due to a dearth of alewives, half-pound herring that are born in the river above the bay.
FRED WHORISKEY: Neat little fish, these river herring. They’re extremely productive. They come down to the ocean as small fish. As they’re heading on their way out they are feeding all sorts of larger fish that are present in the river system.
CARPENTER: The annual alewife migration used to provide food for hordes of other local species, including gulls, eagles, osprey, otters, cod, salmon, and lobster. And Whoriskey says in this region, alewives and the ecosystem they support are a shared resource.
WHORISKEY: The St. Croix River is the border between Canada and the USA. So we have an active stake in this one, and Passamaquoddy Bay that comes down here, to a large extent the fisheries there depended on what would comes down out of the St. Croix. And when you eliminate that, you are having an impact on Canadian fisheries.
CARPENTER: Alewives have been in mysterious decline in their range along the Atlantic coast farther south. But the decline here is no mystery. Maine has locked the fish out of the St. Croix River on purpose. A little more than twenty years ago, two million alewives a year navigated fish ways like this one in Milltown, New Brunswick. Improvements to the fish ways in the early 1980s had allowed alewives better passage around paper mill dams on the St. Croix, and by 1987 the river’s alewife runs were by far the largest in the region. But the return of the alewives didn’t sit well with Maine fishing guides who work miles upstream, in a chain of border lakes.
LANCE WHEATON: My name is Lance Wheaton, I’m a sporting camp owner and a guide at East Grand Lake, Spednik Lake, St. Croix River Chain.
CARPENTER: The St. Croix lakes were long ago stocked with prized small mouth bass. Right around the time the alewives returned in the 1980s, the bass population crashed. The guides blamed the alewives, and they convinced Maine lawmakers to close the St. Croix fish ways. As a result, the runs currently average only 7,000 fish. Conservationists argue that the native alewives weren’t responsible for the decline of the non-native bass. The Maine Department of Marine Resources agreed, based on several studies. But Wheaton doesn’t trust the science.
WHEATON: So a problem that took 20 years to create, and that biologist knew all the answers in a couple of months? Kiss me again. You know, kiss me again.
CARPENTER: Last spring, the Atlantic Salmon Federation and 50 other organizations from both sides of the border appealed on behalf of the alewife to the International Joint Commission, a bi-national agency charged with resolving water disputes on the US-Canada border. In July, the IJC responded by urging Maine’s governor to reopen the river. Lance Wheaton wants none of it.
WHEATON: If the IJC makes this commitment to open the river, will the IJC be responsible for what happens? The minute the guide can’t work and the sporting camp can’t keep full, and the little store can’t make a profit anymore, are they going to pay the little store? Are they going to pay the guide? Are they going to pay the sporting camp?
CARPENTER: Wheaton believes that restoring the alewife run would destroy the inland bass fishing economy. But the alewives support an economy as well, downstream in the marine environment that Maine and New Brunswick share. And Maine governor John Baldacci has asked the IJC to call a meeting of all stakeholders to forge a compromise that would bring the fish back to at least some parts of the border river. Baldacci says that with the IJC now involved, it’s clear that inaction is no longer an option.
JOHN BALDACCI: Our hope is that the IJC convenes the meeting, we all participate, we come out with a consensus. I think the underlying sense is that if we’re not able to do that, then I think the IJC will then go ahead and move on its own.
CARPENTER: That would mean issuing a ruling that would be binding on both sides under the 100 year-old US-Canada Boundary Waters Treaty. Back at the Atlantic Salmon Federation in New Brunswick, Fred Whoriskey says if it comes to that, it’s clear how the commission should rule.
WHORISKEY: You have an international accord between Canada and the United States. We have an International Joint Commission that is supposedly managing that through a consensus between Canada and the USA, and this decision on the part of Maine has violated that agreement.
CARPENTER: Whoriskey says he hopes that one way or another, the issue is resolved by May. That’s when the few remaining St. Croix River alewives will return and try once more to swim upstream along the US-Canada border. For the World, I’m Murray Carpenter, Chamcook, New Brunswick.
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