DMR Receives Funds to Improve Sea-Run Fish Passage and Economic Opportunity in Downeast Maine

Augusta - The Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) has received $5 million in funds to improve the population of sea-run fish on the St. Croix River, which will enhance freshwater and marine ecosystems and job opportunities.

The funds, from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation – America the Beautiful Challenge 2022, will be used to restore access for six species of native fish to over 600 miles of historic habitat. Work will begin in 2023 to remove the Milltown dam in Calais and in 2024 to construct a state-of-the-art fish lift at the Woodland dam in Baileyville and will conclude in 2026.

Both sites are located on the mainstem of the St. Croix River which forms part of the border between the US and Canada and discharges into Passamaquoddy Bay.

“By increasing access to historic habitat, this project has the potential to produce the most significant river herring population in the United States - with tens of millions returning annually to the river,” said Maine DMR Searun Fisheries and Habitat Bureau Director Sean Ledwin.

“It will restore watershed health, increase nearshore productivity of commercially important fish species, and help re-establish the cultural link between the Passamaquoddy people and the St. Croix River,” said Ledwin.

The St. Croix River above the Milltown dam historically had large runs of sea-run fish including alewife and blueback herring (river herring), Atlantic salmon, American shad, American eel, and sea lamprey. However, mainstem dams, with degraded fish passage facilities, continue to limit their populations to only a fraction of their potential, according to Maine DMR research.

Maine DMR will partner with the Passamaquoddy Tribe, Woodland Pulp, New Brunswick Power, The Nature Conservancy and various other conservation groups on the project. “The tremendous sense of hope of what a restored river could be has spurred partnerships across tribal, state, federal, NGO groups, private companies, and the public to work towards restoration in the St. Croix watershed,” said Ledwin.

The project could result in river herring runs that exceed 20 million annually, which would double the number of river herring returns to the entire State of Maine. “There are hundreds of thousands of river herring adults migrating up the St. Croix River each year to spawn. With increases in passage efficiency, we can ensure that more of those fish make it to their spawning habitats. Within a few years of the fishway improvements, that number could grow exponentially, possibly reaching multiple millions of fish within four years and continuing to expand thereafter,” said Ledwin.

The rebound of sea-run fish resources will contribute to the important nearshore ocean fisheries and a coastal economy that is highly dependent on fishing. Industries that stand to benefit include the Maine lobster fishery, the elver fishery, and the river herring fishery.

The $5M investment will likely support many new jobs during the installation of the fish passage. “The project will emphasize hiring local people when possible, so it is possible that a good percentage of the jobs created will be held by people in the Passamaquoddy Tribes or people living in disadvantaged communities in Washington County, Maine,” said Ledwin.

The project will also help to sustain jobs in the area. The construction of a fish lift at the Woodland Dam will help Woodland Pulp and its 310 employees maintain stable employment by protecting hydro power generation the mill needs while enhancing the mill’s ongoing commitment to environmental stewardship.

“While sea-run fish populations in the St. Croix have dwindled, there is tremendous opportunity, and these funds will allow us to work collaboratively on a project that will yield wide-ranging ecological, social, and economic benefits,” said Ledwin.