Milltown dam to be removed, gaspereau double in population

The gaspereau, once having a local population of only 900, is approaching 500,000 individuals
Photo of upper reaches of Skutik (St. Croix) River, at Mud Lake Stream

It’s been a good year for the Skutik (St. Croix) River. 

After the news gaspereau are having a record run, – 480,670 fish, double from last year – NB Power has announced plans to decommission the Milltown Generating Station.

“I became somewhat emotional when I read the press release,” said Matt Abbott, Fundy Baykeeper and our Marine Conservation Director. “Milltown Dam is the first human-made barrier fish face as they swim up the Skutik River. While fish still have to navigate other fishways at other dams, it is significant that they are now slated to have 16 more kilometers of free-flowing river.”

Extension considered

According to the press release, the electrical utility will seek approval to remove the Milltown Generating Station, “which has reached the end of its life.” 

The dam is Canada’s oldest hydroelectric station, built in the 1880s. 

A public meeting will be held on July 11 in St. Stephen outlining the reasons for NB Power’s decision. 

The possibility of extending the Milltown station was apparently considered, but after a thorough engineering and cost evaluation process, “it was determined that extending the life of the generating station was not financially feasible and the Milltown Generating Station should be decommissioned,” the release states.

Abbott also notes that there has been a groundswell of activity, led by the Peskotomuhkati Nation and including many others, to restore the Skutik River. When considering whether to refurbish or decommission Milltown Generating Station, NB Power seems to have taken note.

Complicated past

Abbott said this is more good news for gaspereau, which are seemingly ready to flourish once more. 

In the 1980s, the population was in the range of 2.5 million fish and Abbott believes those numbers can be reached again. In 2002, only 900 fish made the run.

Abbott said history shows when ecosystems are re-opened, former inhabitants fill them.

“We’re heading towards the millions,” he said. “So getting to half a million is significant.”

The gaspereau have a complicated past, essentially being prevented from entering the Skutik from 1825 to 1981 by both dams and pollution. In 1995, Maine passed a law that closed its dams to migrating gaspereau, concerned the native species was hurting the smallmouth bass population. That law was overturned in 2013. 

Peskotomuhkati Nation leads way

Abbott said the Peskotomuhkati Nation leads the work to improve the whole watershed. Many partners are supporting these efforts, and the broad, indigenous-led, collaboration is bearing fruit.

Likewise, Abbott said the fish are a keystone species. Living all along the eastern seaboard, from North Carolina to Newfoundland, Gaspereau are well equipped to withstand changing climates in coastal waters around New Brunswick.

And it’s a popular meal to boot.

“Whales eat them, seabirds eat them, groundfish like pollock and cod eat them, land mammals can eat them, fish in the river can eat them, we can eat them,” Abbott said. “They’re really nice smoked, a bit bony but worth the effort.”

He said gaspereau are critical for the marine and river ecosystems and should help other species adapt to new climate norms.

“This is a significant development and suggests that the restoration of the Skutik River is on track,” Abbott said.

Referencing this year’s strong spawning run, Abbott concluded,  “We were really hopeful to see a jump like this. We hope to see more again next year.”

Recommended links:

Fundy Baykeeper celebrates the restoration of gaspereau to their native spawning grounds in the St. Croix River

Canada is once again a world leader in fisheries management and protection

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