• Photo: Flickr/Seabamirum

Flowing down from the wooded Appalachian Highlands, the St. Croix River alternates between whitewater rapids and calm stretches on its journey to the sea. Along the way, the river forms 185 kilometres of the New Brunswick–Maine border. While the St. Croix is popular with both Canadians and Americans for canoeing, boating, fishing and other outdoor pursuits, governments on both sides of the border have had a harder time agreeing on what’s best for the river.

In a controversial decision, the Maine government unilaterally approved plans to block a type of herring called alewife from the river by closing fishways built to bypass the dams. The small fish, also known as gaspereau, is a food source for larger species, including the bald eagle and the endangered Atlantic salmon. The move to deny alewives access came at the behest of Maine bass anglers, who claimed that the native alewives were a threat to smallmouth bass — ironically, a species not native to the St. Croix.

In 1995, Maine reduced the alewive’s access to their traditional spawning grounds on the St. Croix by closing several fishways. An array of organizations from Canada, including the New Brunswick-based Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF), opposed Maine’s move, insisting that the fish must be allowed to swim freely in the St. Croix to ensure the health of the whole ecosystem.

The ASF has been joined by a coalition of 50 other groups, including lobster fishermen and the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, in pressuring the International Joint Commission (IJC) — the Canada–U.S. governmental body responsible for the St. Croix — to review the issue. However, last year the IJC’s St. Croix River Watershed Board released its draft alewife-management plan, which, ASF says, “failed to meet the alewives’ needs of access and restoration.”

“Alewives have been held hostage,” says ASF’s Sue Ann Scott, “so that the Maine bass population remains protected.”

For the foreseeable future, alewives will not be able to spawn in the St. Croix in anything close to their historic numbers (estimated at 2.6 million prior to Maine’s closure of fishways). As ASF points out, that’s bad news not only for alewives but also for all the other species that rely on them, including Atlantic salmon. Ultimately, the ecological integrity of the St. Croix will depend on Canada and the United States coming to an agreement on what is best for this shared river.