Three chiefs representing the Passamaquoddy tribe in Maine and New Brunswick have declared a state of emergency in the St. Croix River as a part of an escalation of an ongoing fish dispute.

Tribal governors at Indian Township and Pleasant Point, Me., joined with Chief Hugh Akagi of New Brunswick say gaspereau "are threatened with extinction" in the river.

"For the past 17 years Maine has harmed the Passamaquoddy People by blocking anadromous fish from accessing its ancient and traditional spawning grounds in the upper St. Croix River," the three chiefs said in a letter.

"This action severely diminished a traditional food source and disturbed our cultural practices. We insist the State of Maine immediately remove this blockage and allow these fish to pass."

Maine has been blocking the St. Croix River to prevent gaspereau from migrating to their spawning grounds since 1995.

State legislators are trying to keep native gaspereau out, claiming they are protecting the smallmouth bass, an introduced fish favoured by anglers.

When Maine blocked the river to gaspereau in 1995, there were more than two million of the small fish in the river. The fish population has dropped significantly since the state's actions.

Vera Francis, an environmentalist and tribe member at Pleasant Point, said there are precedents for the leaders to issue a state of emergency.

One was issued, for instance, during the ice storm in the late 1990s.

"It's a powerful statement and it's a powerful directive and it's a notice to all," Francis said.

Other complaints over river

The chiefs are not the only ones to raise concerns in the fish dispute.

The Conservation Law Foundation and Friends of Merrymeeting Bay launched a lawsuit in the fish fight, alleging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has failed to enforce federal laws designed to protect the river.

The International Joint Commission, a panel comprised of appointees from the United States and Canada that resolves water disputes on waterways shared by the two countries, has been holding meetings on the fish dispute.

The three tribal governors said in their letter that if the state is not going to open up the river then they want the joint commission to "exercise its authority and open this blockage."

In a brief statement on Tuesday, a spokesperson for the organization said the show of consensus by the tribes was an important and welcome development.

Fundy Baykeeper Mathew Abbott said he is pleased with a declaration issued by Passamaquoddy tribal leaders in recent days.

Abbott said the leaders have been working toward a consensus on the issue.

"The Passamaquoddy community does want to see their river opened to this native fish. So I think it's very significant. I was very happy to see it occur," Abbott said.