Wild and Free: Maine Fights to Restore Wild Atlantic Salmon Runs

The farm-raised fish in the DE Salmon pen near West Quoddy Head in Down East Maine, all 14,000 of them, swim in endless counter-clockwise circles, a headlong rush to nowhere that will only end when they are filleted and shrink-wrapped as a bright pink delicacy for the tables of North America.

Although it’s not generally known, commercial fishing of wild Atlantic salmon has almost ended, and it’s strictly forbidden in the rivers of Maine, rich salmon spawning grounds since time immemorial. The $9.95 salmon special at the local fish house is almost certainly from a farmed fish, the product of a growing and increasingly controversial “aquaculture” industry. The Kennebec, the Penobscot and the other once-untamed rivers of Maine have been tamed, dammed and slowly strangled as salmon habitat. The last commercial salmon fishing on the Penobscot was in 1946. Twenty fish were caught.

PHOTO: Jim Motavalli

Even if there were many fish left, PCB, dioxin and mercury contamination have left them unsafe to eat. According to the Maine Toxics Action Coalition, pregnant women should limit their intake of river-caught cold water fish (including salmon and trout) to one meal a month.

There has been some retrenchment in the Maine aquaculture industry, largely because of cut-price competition from salmon pens in Chile and Scotland. There were 24 operators in 1992, and only 11 today, but the remaining operations tend to be fairly large ones. Of the 15 million pounds of domestic salmon produced annually in Maine, DE Salmon, with three active sites, produces one million pounds.

In Maine’s ailing agricultural economy (dairy farms have been particularly hard-hit), fish farming stands out as a viable and profitable undertaking, one especially well-suited to the Down East bays, whose dramatic 28-foot tides serve to flush out waste and food scraps from the farmers’ pens.

Standing on a barge alongside one of the six sea cages he operates in the bay, DE Salmon’s Jeff Stevens says the salmon, a genetic mix of wild American and domestic European breeds, are born in a hatchery in Bristol, New Hampshire, fed on a protein-rich diet of fish pellets, and grow to 10 pounds in just 18 months before being wholesaled to New England markets.

For Stevens and others, fish farming is a constant struggle against disease, predatory seals, fluctuating salmon prices, foreign competition and uncertain weather, like the 1996 hurricane that flipped a pen over and released its entire contents into the bay.

wild atlantic salmon
Credit: Ilkka Jukarainen, FlickrCC

Incidents like that are what worries David Carle of the Conservation Action Project, the tenacious force behind a so-far unsuccessful attempt to get Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection for the Atlantic salmon. “We don’t want to see any more pressure on the wild fish,” Carle says, “and more can be done to prevent penned fish from escaping.” Carle would like to see all farmed fish tagged at the hatchery, a practice the industry decries as prohibitively expensive. Carle also charges that the aquaculture industry has been “a big obstacle” to ESA listing for salmon, out of concern that federal protection would place strict controls on their farming operations.

“We don’t want to lose our fish any more than David wants to see them in the wild,” counters Joe McGonigle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association. “The issue is keeping them in the pen.” He adds that fish farmers have strengthened their cages, anchored them against 100-mph hurricanes, and even resorted to wind-powered underwater acoustics to scare away determined seals. (A single seal has been known to kill 10,000 fish in a night.)

It’s an open question how much wild salmon behavior remains in the fourth-generation, genetically diluted hatchery fish swimming in circles in DE’s pens. But escaped and sexually mature captive salmon have been found in Maine rivers, a prospect very disturbing to Maine environmentalists, who worry that inter-breeding will be the final blow to already severely threatened wild salmon stocks.

The Pleasant River, 15 miles south of the DE fish pens, saw only one adult salmon return to spawn last year. To help nature along, Project Share runs an Atlantic salmon restoration project on the Pleasant in Columbia Falls. The project raises genetically selected fry for restocking five Down East rivers in a former hydroelectric facility that doubles as a salmon education center for schoolkids. Salmon stocking in Maine’s rivers began in 1871, and 100 million have been released through operations like Project Share’s. It’s a feel-good enterprise, with kids getting to learn about the natural wonder of salmon development, from fry to parr to smolt to adult, and participating in gala release events. But despite all that captive breeding, wild salmon are more threatened than ever.

Catch-and-release fishermen, working 14 state rivers, hauled in only 220 Atlantic salmon through July of this year, and only 1,256 were caught in weirs at Maine river dams.

According to Ed Baum of the Atlantic Salmon Authority, the commercial catch has declined 85 percent in recent years, and there have been “drastic changes in habitat survival,” including a much greater mortality in the years that the fish are in the ocean.

Fluctuations in water temperature, whether through El Nino or global warming, have hurt salmon survival and environmentalists point out that herbicides and pesticides from Maine’s wild blueberry crop run off into the rivers, which are also being drained for irrigation.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) acceded to Governor Angus King and a strong industry lobbying effort in denying Carle’s 1993 listing petition. In its ruling, the feds said the petition was invalid because Maine, in effect, has no native run of salmon—the few fish showing up in the weirs were born in hatcheries. The USFWS has a point. Only the Penobscot River has anything approaching a healthy salmon run, with 1,000 fish returning from the Atlantic each year.

In lieu of listing, the state of Maine developed its own Atlantic Salmon Conservation Plan, which David Carle calls hopelessly inadequate. “There’s no enforcement; it’s all voluntary,” he says. “It’s also a very confusing plan, with three separate agencies having fish management responsibilities. The result is that there are more wolves in Minnesota than there are salmon in New England. And there are five dams for every fish.”

With the active assistance of Defenders of Wildlife (the hands-on Washington-based group behind the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction), the Conservation Action Project is filing a federal lawsuit challenging the effectiveness of the state plan. “This is a crisis situation,” Carle says.

The Kennebec River, which runs 60 miles from Moosehead Lake in central Maine to the fashionable L.L. Bean country of Bath and Portland in the south, is a place of superlatives. According to John Cole, a popular Maine author and founder of The Maine Times, “There were more wooden ships, more harvested ice and more logs floated down it than any other river in the United States.” For hydroelectric power, saw and grist mills, the river was also extensively dammed. Pulp and paper mills lined its banks, and log runs deposited sediment. No one built homes on the river’s banks because white paint turned brown in six months, and the river stank.

By the early 1970s, the commercially exploited Kennebec was, as The Washington Post put it, “a multi-purpose toilet.” Things have looked up since then. Most of the most egregious pollution was halted, sewage treatment plants built and log transport banned. Sport fishing returned, but the dams remained.

Salmon are just one of the nine species of migratory fish that are stopped by the Edwards Dam, a 161-year-old, 900-foot obstruction of the river at Augusta, Maine’s capital. The hydroelectric dam, run by a small company that employs just four people, is finally coming down, the result of a long battle by the Kennebec Coalition, an umbrella group that includes The Natural Resources Council of Maine, American Rivers and the Atlantic Salmon Federation. “It’s taken an enormous mind change to get where we are today,” says Steve Brooke, executive director of the coalition. “When we first proposed this we were met by rage in the hydroelectric community.”

In a dramatic first, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) ordered the dam’s removal in 1997, mainly to restore it as habitat for sea-run fish. Two years later, the dam is still standing, though it’s slated to finally come down in the summer of 1999. Removing the dam will restore 17 miles of prime habitat for such species as the critically endangered short nose and Atlantic sturgeon, striped bass, shad and alewife. It’s uncertain whether Atlantic salmon spawning grounds up river from the dam will ever be restored, however, because the Edwards has been in place as a barrier for so long.

The FERC decision is undoubtedly historic, and could be the first in a flood of dam removals across the country. Dozens of other anachronistic dams are under active consideration for dismantling, including the Great Works Dam on the Penobscot and the Browerville Dam on the Pleasant. “It shouldn’t be taken as a given that dams will be relicensed,” says Gordon Russell, a USFWS biologist. “The option of restoring the ecosystem is there.”

It may all be too little, too late for the wild Atlantic salmon which, like its Coho relative in the west, remains under near-irreversible pressure from pollution, overfishing, aquaculture and other forces. But the salmon, known for its tenacity in surmounting obstacles to reach its upriver spawning grounds, still has a fighting chance, and a lot of friends in Maine.