'Get your hockey sticks': Maine Indigenous leader calls for Canada to be tougher in fish passage fight

An Indigenous leader in the state of Maine says Canada needs to take a tougher stance in the fight to open more of the St. Croix River to migrating fish like gaspereau.

Paul Bisulca says Canada should use its authority to insist on better fishways for St. Croix gaspereau

The St. Croix River marks the boundary between New Brunswick and the state of Maine. (CBC)

An Indigenous leader in the state of Maine says Canada needs to take a tougher stance in the fight to open more of the St. Croix River to migrating fish like gaspereau.

The St. Croix is an international river marking the boundary between New Brunswick and Maine.

But Paul Bisulca, who works with the Passamaquoddy group, Schoodic Riverkeepers, says two of the fishways on the river's four major dams are in poor shape and need to be replaced.

The stair-like series of small, stepped, man-made pools are designed to let gaspereau and other fish climb over the dams as they migrate upstream to spawn.

Bisulca said they were built in the mid-1960s and long ago passed their anticipated life span.

Time for replacements

Each dam is located partly in both countries but the three above St. Stephen are owned by Woodland Pulp LLC, a Princeton, Maine based pulp and paper company.

Bisulca said Canada has a big stake in the recovery of the gaspereau and should be using its authority to push the company to replace the fish ladders.

"It's time for you guys to go get your hockey sticks and get in there and start doing some checking," said Bisulca.

Paul Bisulca is an advisor to Schoodic Riverkeepers, a Passamaquoddy organization devoted to restoration of the St. Croix River. (Penobscotculture.com)

"It requires simply Canada being more aggressive, saying, 'look, there has to be effective fish passage, these are falling apart, you need to show us … the effectiveness of this fish passage right now, or we're going to require you to build a fishway over on the Canadian side.'"

Numbers increasing

Bisulca says Canada needs to step in because the two dams in question predate the U.S. Federal Power Act of 1920 meaning the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has no authority over Woodland Pulp's fishways there.

There are clear signs gaspereau numbers are recovering in the St. Croix River.

During the May to July annual migration this year, 270,000 were counted at a fish ladder at St. Stephen.

That's a sharp increase over last year's 157,000 and a stunning change from 2002, when just 900 gaspereau were counted.

Jay Beaudoin, Woodland Pulp's superintendent-environmental and hydro, said the fish ladders at all three dams are working well.

Fish elevators next?

It is believed the St Croix River system once supported 20 to 30 million gaspereau. (Sean Landsmen)

But Beaudoin cautions when gaspereau numbers increase beyond five million, new facilities — likely fish elevators — will have to be installed.

"The plan for the St. Croix river is to have a run of 30 to 40 million [gaspereau]," Beaudoin said. "They just won't pass that number of fish. So you're going to have to do some kind of improvement."

Beaudoin said an elevator is simply a large tank that carries fish up to the level of river water above the dam.

He expects it would cost $8 million to $10 million each to install them at the two dams.

A fish elevator at Holyoke Dam in Massachusetts. (Youtube)

He says the U.S. federal government is in talks with Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans about approvals to build such facilities on the international river.

He expects the costs can be picked up by philanthropists and donors rather than by the two governments or by the company.

A spokesperson for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans could not confirm talks on the issue with the U.S. government.

In 2013, the state of Maine lifted an 18-year-old law that kept the fish ladder at Princeton, Maine, closed during the annual gaspereau migration.

The state was attempting to eradicate gaspereau from the international river in the belief they were hurting the small mouth bass sport fishery.

About the Author

Connell Smith

Reporter

Connell Smith is a reporter with CBC in Saint John. He can be reached at 632-7726 Connell.smith@cbc.ca