$14.8 Million National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Grant Bolsters Fish Passage Work on St. Croix River

The Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) has a received $14.8 million grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to support work that will enhance passage for sea-run fish on the St. Croix River.

“I appreciate NOAA’s recognition of Maine’s work to restore critical fisheries through this funding,” said Governor Janet Mills.  “This award will allow the Department of Marine Resources to work collaboratively with local partners in our joint effort to restore sea-run fish to the St. Croix watershed, reduce flooding, improve water quality, and strengthen the resilience of our communities in the face of climate change.”

Additional matching support for the project comes from the removal of the Milltown dam by owner New Brunswick Power. 

The work will not only include removal of the Milltown dam in Calais, but also the design and construction of a new state-of-the-art fishway at the Woodland dam in Baileyville.

The funds, made available through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, will augment an additional $5 million DMR received from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation – America the Beautiful Challenge 2022 for the effort. 

“Combined, the grant funds total nearly $20 million dollars and will allow DMR to work collaboratively with dam owners and other stakeholders to restore long-restricted habitat to six sea-run species including over 60,000 acres of habitat for alewives,” said Pat Keliher, Commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

Removal of the Milltown dam, which will begin in 2023, will restore 10 miles of the St. Croix River to sea-run fish. Since the Milltown dam site is approximately a half mile upstream of the head of tide, fish that need significant freshwater and non-tidal areas to spawn such as shad and blueback herring have been severely limited.

“The outdated fishway at Milltown has slowed meaningful restoration of these species,” said Sean Ledwin, Director of DMR’s Bureau of Sea Run Fisheries and Habitat. “Removal of this dam will allow for the reestablishment of these species in productive habitats and will lead to the rebuilding of their populations.”  The removal will also enhance American eel populations, an important fishery in the State and the lower St. Croix River. 

Design of a fish lift at the Woodland dam, which is owned by Woodland Pulp, will be finalized in 2023. “The existing 1960’s era fishway at this site is at imminent risk of failure, is undersized, and poorly designed, limiting fish runs and possibly precluding them if it fails,” said Keliher. “The partnership and commitment by Woodland Pulp is key to this project’s success and a testament to their dedication to environmental stewardship.”

In 2024, construction of the Woodland dam fish lift will begin, removal of the U.S. side of the Milltown Dam will be completed, and fish population monitoring will occur. In 2025, any remaining construction at Woodland will be completed along with monitoring and evaluation of fish populations.

The project also stands to re-establish an important cultural connection to the river for the Passamaquoddy Tribe. “The St. Croix watershed lies at the heart of the homelands of the Passamaquoddy people,” said Keliher. “For thousands of years, its waters and plentiful fish provided them with physical and spiritual sustenance, and this project seeks to restore that.”

Partners on the project include New Brunswick Power which will lead the removal of the Milltown dam, the Passamaquoddy/Peskotomuhkati Tribes, which will assist in the operation of the facility at Woodland and monitoring the change in fish populations over time. Woodland Pulp, the owner of the dam at Woodland, will help facilitate access to the project site and operate and maintain the fish lift. Alden Research Labs will function as the engineering lead for Woodland fish lift. The Nature Conservancy will provide technical support, project coordination, monitoring, and additional support for this project.  

“Partnerships and collaborations on projects like this, which restore not only fish but also economic opportunity and community resiliency, are vital to their success,” said Ledwin”

Large-scale watershed restoration actions that combine dam removal and improved fishways have been demonstrated in Maine and nationally as a successful model for restoring migratory fish. “I would like to thank NOAA for their commitment to sea-run fisheries restoration in Maine,” said Keliher.  “NOAA’s investment in the St. Croix River continues their legacy of substantial support for the health of Maine’s major river systems, such as the Penobscot and Kennebec. While there is still work to be done on these great Maine rivers, these types of projects are critical for river and marine ecosystems and the people they support.”