MITSC Tributaries

Tributaries Episode 8: Interview with Brian Altvater: SKUTIK RIVER ALEWIFE RUN

Listen to this episode on the Tributaries Podcast:

In this episode of Tributaries, Brian Altvater speaks about the forthcoming Alewife Run, a relay from Sipayik to Forest City. Established in 2012 by the Schoodic RiverKeepers and allies on both sides of the river, the run aims to raise awareness about the vital role of the alewife and their traditional migration to spawning grounds.

Brian also shares some of the long history of the Skutik River, native sea run fish, and the Passamaquoddy tribe's relationship with both.

More recent developments, such as dam removal and restoration of fish passage to the Skutik River, have had the positive impact of alewives returning in increasing numbers.

Transcript Below:

Brian Altvater:

I'm Brian Altvater. I'm a tribal member here at the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik or Pleasant Point.

The alewives population has gone down–way down. They think that as many as 80 million fish migrated up the river when they had unfettered access, pre-European contact, and then after they started damming it and polluting it and overfishing it, in 2002 when the fishways were, blocked in the St. Croix River, with the respective dams, they counted only 900 fish. And so they were really in trouble. And Dale Mitchell, eloquently put in our language, the alewives are in trouble now. When we were in trouble, they fed us. So it's our turn to take care of them and allow the river to be open so they could go up to the lakes and other parts of the river, the many lakes in the St. Croix River, and spawn, and then return to the sea. And we decided to do an Alewife Run and to bring awareness, because there was a lot of rumors out there that were talking about the alewives are going to hurt the bass fishing and they're going to, basically, kill the sports fishing for the fresh water, and, that's not true. Any, lake or watershed that has a good, healthy run of alewives, they do much better than some of the places that don't have that. And one thing about an alewife, they don't grab a lure or a hook. They won't do that. There's no thrill to catching them. And they're a bony fish, they're also called River Herring. The River Herring is basically the Blueback Herring and alewife. The Shad is a much larger and bigger cousin of the alewife. But in the St. Croix River, there were 11 species of fish that were impacted when they put the dams in the river. Salmon hasn't been in the river for I couldn't even tell you how long.

And we relate to the alewife as a keystone species, the fish that feeds all, and we figured if we bring back the alewives that would help the ecosystem and all the things that live off the alewife that eat alewife, and one thing about the alewife is they're an oily fish, so another fish, another species of fish, say, the size of an alewife, that isn't oily, you need to eat three times as much to get the same nutrition that you would out of one, one alewife. So it's a high energy food source.

And so what we talked about was, our goal was, let's have an Alewife Run.

Let me back up a little. As, as, early as 2010, I went to Eddie Bassett. I said, you know what? We got to do something about this fish. I says, there were thousands of them at the base of the dam trying to get up river. It was heartbreaking to see that. I said, I think what we need to do is see if we can get the river opened up.

And so that's when, you know, he was talking about doing a video on it, and he spent hundreds of hours on it. And a bunch of us got together. Chief Akagi was one of them; Dale Mitchell, Vera Francis, and a few other people, we got together and we said, we need a strategy. And so doing the film was one way to do that.

Eddie spent hundreds of hours. I used to go with him to a lot of different places, the filming and stuff. And I found out how little I knew about the river–the history of the river and the many lakes that dumped into it. There's the East branch and the West branch of the St. Croix River or the Skutik River.

And so we got together. And then, we said, let's get the tribe on board. So we got the Pleasant Point Chief and Council to pass a resolution demanding that the alewives, that the river be opened up. Then we went to the Joint Tribal Council, which is the supreme governing body of the Passamaquoddies. It's the Indian Township chief and council, six council members, chief, vice chief, the same thing at Pleasant Point, and we got them to pass a resolution.

And then, Paul Bisulca drafted up a state of emergency declaring that the river was in such dire straits that we had to do something immediately. And that was signed by, the, some of the tribes within the state of Maine.

And Madonna Soctomah introduced LD 72, An Act to Open Up the St. Croix River fishways, so they could migrate up the river and spawn. And it happened in 2013. And so we've, I think this will be our fourth or fifth Alewife Run. We make-t shirts, and we want to bring awareness.

I guess the Passamaquoddies feel like this river's in our ancestral homeland, but I don't look at it as our river, I look at it as everybody's river. And that without the help of our neighbors on the other side of the river, St. Stephen, St. Andrews, and other allies, I don't think we would have been successful in opening up the river.

And each year, not every year, but we have an Alewife Run. And then anyone that wants to walk or run, we relay from Split Rock here at Pleasant Point. The first year we went all the way up to Mud Lake Stream, which is on the other side of Forest City. And there's an old pit there where our people used to camp. And there's a 3,000-year-old pit there with bones of four different sea run fish that they used to catch and eat. And the main fish was the alewives. The first year we went there, and last year we went to Forest City, which is just a short ways from Mud Lake Stream. And we're gonna do that again with all our neighbors and friends and allies that support our efforts.

And last year was a really good run. We actually had 18 runners. We had nine men and nine women. This year we're going to try to place a little more of an emphasis on the children. We want some of the youth to participate in the relay.

It's a fun time, but at the same time, it, somebody says the alewives are like the native people, the indigenous people: pushed aside and deemed as a pest and they demonize the alewife too, like the alewives were harming other species of fish, but that's, that couldn't be further from the truth. They've been here for thousands of years. And then an invasive species, such as the smallmouth bass, they protect them more than species that have been here for thousands of years. It's like the native people: push us on reservations and take all their natural resources and exploit them and we're in the way, in the eyes of some people, but, if you really look at it, we've been here the longest, so we know the most about the land and what's best for the environment.

And I went to my spiritual advisor, who's passed on to the spirit world since. But when I went to him, he says, this was back in the 90s, he says, the alewives will be able to run up that river, he said, eventually, he said, but it's on spirit time, not just your time, so you need to be patient. He says, don't give up the fight. And so I haven't.

And, just last year, last fall in 2023, the dam is out at Milltown and that's the first obstacle that the fish going upstream have to encounter. The next obstacle is about 19 miles inland in Woodland or Baileyville where you have the mill there in Woodland and there's a big dam there too, but we're in the process of, some of the, Chief Akagi's group and, the river keepers, Chief is part of the river keepers, have secured some funding. So there's a, there'll be a fish lift installed at the Woodland Dam.

And, I think safely it probably could pass 20 million fish. The fishway that was there, it's outlived its life. It's fallen apart. Ideally what I'd like to see is a natural bypass, a natural fishway, but, that would take years to plan and do. And it'd be quite costly. Rather than let the fishway fall apart, we thought it'd be best to have a fish lift for right now.

And, so last year, I think about 840,000 fish passed up by Milltown in the St. Croix River to go and spawn, which is a pretty good increase from 2002 of only 900 fish.

Rachel Bell:

Can you talk a little bit about the name "Skutik"?

Brian Altvater:

My understanding is, it was called the Passamaquoddy River, way back when, and, the Skutik River, and my understanding is, "Skut" means fire, "Skutik" means "place of many fires." They used to say that there'd be so many fires up around Milltown that the sky would be all orange from the many fires of people cookin’ and smokin’ alewives.

And there was, near where the dam just came out in Milltown, which is right now, actually Calais, there was a place called Salmon Falls. And they blew up that ledge to accommodate the dam. They changed a lot of the river in that regards.

Eventually, they changed it to St. Croix. So that's what they call it now. But we refer to it as Skutik.

Vera Francis has some really good ideas because she says, what do you think of, cause she was on our team early on. She says, what do you think of calling our group the "Schoodic RiverKeepers?" I says, I wasn't thinking in them terms. I was just thinking in getting the river open. I said, sure. And so that's when that started.

And then after we really got established in 2012 and, actually might've been a little earlier than that, probably 2011, but 2012, I went and I asked Paul Bisulca, he, at the time he was, the MITSC chair. And I says, "Hey, Paul, I said, I'd like you to join the RiverKeepers." And I'll have to tell you, that was one of the best moves we ever made, that everything was fast tracked because, where he had that experience working on MITSC, he knew all the people at the Statehouse. He knew all the players, and he knew he had really good strategy and without Paul, we probably would have been several years opening up the river. Yeah. So he was a big help.

And, and so we've managed to do a lot of positive things, not just open up–to me it was huge decommissioning the dam in Milltown and having that demolished. But there's been a lot of other big things happening. I know Eddie Bassett has worked with, he was working for the Environmental Health Department here at Pleasant Point. He actually got it so Magurrewock stream, that alewives could go up there. And I think the alewives can go all the way up to Cranberry Pond, in that area, and the flowage there in the Moosehorn, where as before they couldn't. And we've actually trucked alewives to Howard Lake and other lakes, ponds in the area. Yeah, there's been some really good stuff going. And if you told me ten years ago that alewives could get in West Grand by Grand Lake Stream, I'd say it would never happen, but they can get up there. And we're working on the Canadian side, too. So there's been some really good movements going on, and a lot of people look to the RiverKeepers as the expert of the rivers because, there's been a lot of scientific research done and studies and stuff like that and it's continuing now. Yeah, some really good things have happened.

The other thing is, as a result of the things we've done, every spring, the kids at Sipayik Elementary they go up to Pennamaquan Dam, the first dam, and catch alewives and do some testing, scale samples, and stuff like that, measurements, weights, and things like that.

And then they catch a few of them and they fillet them and they take them down to Sipps Bay and cook 'em, so it's getting the kids involved in the school, is something that I really enjoy seeing.

One of the things that we did last year in Pennamaquan, they had these pipes by the fishway, and as the fish swam through those pipes they were being counted. They had a counter there and stuff. So when Eddie Bassett was checking them, a shad was stuck in one of those pipes because it's too big. And I think to have a bypass or a fishway, lifts, whatever, so it can accommodate all species of fish that migrate up the river. The largest species, salmon and shad, and I guess there's striped bass in the area and those larger species of fish that won't be able to get through those small pipes that they have there.

So that was one of the things that we, you know, one of my concerns about the fish lift in Woodland at the mill is to make sure those pipes are big enough so the largest species of fish, should they get through there, it can accommodate them. I don't know if I'll ever be around to see it, but it'd be nice if during our ceremonial weekend we could eat our own salmon out of our own river.

This year it's going to be May 25th. We're meeting at Split Rock here, at Pleasant Point, right by the boat launch or boat landing. And we'll be running to Forest City and we'll probably gather there 5:30 in the morning. And so what we do for the people on the way that are supporting us, they, they don't have to show up here.

We could meet them in, on the way en route, whether they're in Robinson, Calais, or wherever they may be, Woodland, Township, Princeton, and sometimes we have people show up, they'll run a couple legs and they're all done. And, that's fine, but without that, we wouldn't be able to get it done.

And we're having 300 shirts made up. And, we'll be giving them out. And, that also brings awareness, too. They had a young tribal member, a young lady, do the design to the shirts.

And, and then we're going to have quite a few return, runners and walkers from last year, and I, what I failed to mention is, I work for the Wabanaki REACH program. And what REACH wants to do is have a stop midway through the day of the run and give a little history of the river and the significance of the run and maybe have a little something to eat and stuff and just like reminisce about why we're doing all of this in honor of the alewife and our ancestors and then continue on our run. So it should be a good time. It'll be fun. It's fun. That's the other thing is, it's a lot of fun.

And the very first year, Wayne Newell actually, he made a song up called the Alewife Song. And I've been asking people (Wayne's not with us anymore), I said, "Did anybody record that?" And nobody did, so I don't know, because it's this beautiful song. It's a beautiful song. Again, it talked about the alewives going up and not being able to go up and then finally they're able to go up and then return. And I guess for me, I want my now great-grandchildren to realize that we have to take care of the environment. We have to protect things and we have to be proactive and we just can't sit back and let things get destroyed and exploited because time's running out, time's running out. And, somebody asked me the other day if I was going elvering. And I say the same thing. I said, I'm trying to restore the environment and the fish and not exploit them. I realize that people have to fish, that, for income and all that. But, I think when, when the river's healthy enough, we'll look at how much we can take from it safely while it maintains a steady population of fish.

And I think the rule of thumb is if you have 200 alewives per acre in your watershed, you could harvest 165 annually and leave 75 and the next year you'll have that same amount, but I want future generations to say, I'm glad we opened up the river. And I'd like to see the river healthy again, productive, and not have to fight with people to allow the sea-run fish to migrate up there and spawn.

And the same goes for the salt freshwater species that spawn in freshwater. They shouldn't have all these obstacles to encounter. They should be able to do that freely like they've been for thousands of years. That's to me, that's, I'm not doing this for me, I'm doing this for my children, my grandchildren, great grandchildren, and future generations.

That, that's, my selfish reason of doing it.

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