Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

CLF lawsuit to protect alewives in Maine

The St. Croix River (Photo credit: NOAA Photo Library)

Last week, CLF filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in an effort to overturn a Maine law that has prevented the alewife, a key forage fish, from accessing its native habitat in the St. Croix River in Maine. As has been previously discussed on TalkingFish.org, alewives are a crucial part of the marine and freshwater ecosystems, serving as food for many mammals, birds, and other fish. They are also in danger, threatened by overfishing, dam construction, water pollution, and large industrial fishing boats that catch them incidentally while seeking other species. Landings of river herring (which includes blueback herring as well as alewives) have declined dramatically along the Atlantic coast over the past 50 years, dropping from a peak of over 50 million pounds per year from 1950 to 1970 to just over one million pounds over the past decade. The situation is so dire that last summer, the Natural Resources Defense Council filed a petition with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to have river herring listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Like their fellow river herring up and down the Atlantic coast, alewives in Maine saw a population decline over recent decades. On the St. Croix River, which flows through northern Maine and makes up part of the border between the state and its Canadian neighbor New Brunswick, alewives were all but extirpated due to pollution and the damming of the river. (The alewife is an anadromous species, meaning it starts its life in freshwater ponds and lakes, migrates down river to the ocean to spend most of its life, and then returns to its native waters to spawn and die – so passage up the river is essential.) However, in the early 1980s, the population of alewives in the St. Croix River was restored, reaching more than 2.5 million a year due to cleaner water and effective fish passage at the dams on the river. But in 1995, the Maine legislature passed a bill specifically designed to block alewife passage at the Woodland Dam and Grand Falls Dam on the St. Croix River, based on what turned out to be unsubstantiated claims that alewives were causing a decline in the non-native smallmouth bass population in the St. Croix watershed. Those claims were found to be without merit, and in 2008, the Maine legislature amended the law – but to allow alewives passage at Woodland Dam only, and not Grand Falls Dam. This restored only 2% of the natural habitat previously available to alewives – effectively preventing them from accessing 98% of their natural habitat in the St Croix above the Grand Falls Dam. The population of alewives in the St. Croix has remained a fraction of the millions that were there before the Maine Legislature effectively changed the water quality of the river.

River herring advocates use many tactics to protect this small but important fish, including advocating for stronger protections at Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission meetings and at the New England and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council meetings, filing lawsuits, and, as mentioned above, petitioning for protection for river herring under the Endangered Species Act. In the case of the St. Croix alewives, CLF is taking action under the citizen enforcement provisions of the Clean Water Act. As the CLF complaint says, when the Maine legislature amended the law to allow fish passage at Woodland Dam but not Grand Falls Dam, it “intentionally and effectively changed the water quality standards for that section of the St. Croix [from Class A] to Class B.” Under the Clean Water Act, this type of change to an existing water quality standard must be submitted to the EPA for review – and this change to the St. Croix’s standard was not. As a result, Maine was allowed to circumvent its responsibilities, and the EPA failed to fulfill its legal obligations.

CLF feels that the Maine law is fundamentally at odds with the legal requirement that the St. Croix River provide natural habitat unaffected by human activity for alewives, and EPA has a continuing obligation to review and reject this change in that requirement. Efforts to protect river herring along the Atlantic coast are and will be ongoing, but we hope that this action will help protect and restore our local river herring to preserve the integrity of the St. Croix ecosystem.


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