Saving Salmon

Posted Nov. 04, 2008, at 4:40 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 3:27 a.m.

Nearly a decade after listing Atlantic salmon in eight small Maine rivers as an endangered species, the federal government proposes to expand that designation to include the state’s three biggest rivers — the Penobscot, Kennebec and Androscoggin. In the years since the first listing, it has become clear that a cooperative approach to helping the fish is the best approach. A threatened designation, rather than endangered, is likely the best way to continue that approach.

In their proposal, released this summer, to include the large rivers in the endangered species listing, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration identify dams as the largest threat to salmon habitat. This threat is being addressed on the Maine river with the largest salmon population through the Penobscot Restoration Project, which will remove two dams and modify five others on the river to re-open 1,000 miles of habitat for salmon and other fish.

The project recently announced it has raised the $25 million needed to purchase the dams in Veazie and Old Town that will be removed. A dam in Howland will be decommissioned, but remain in place with a new fish passage system. Fish passage will be improved at the remaining dams, which will increase their power generation to largely make up for the electricity lost from the dams to be idled. Similar cooperative agreements have resulted in dam removals on the Kennebec as well.

The Penobscot project was touted as “perhaps the most significant step to restore the Atlantic salmon in the past century” by former Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton in 2004. Yet it took years for the federal government to commit funding to the effort. The $15 million in federal funding for the Penobscot Project is much appreciated, but is a tiny fraction of what is spent on salmon restoration nationally.

The best way to continue and expand such efforts is to fund them and to ensure that important backers, such as dam owners and industries that rely on the river, are not turned against restoration efforts through unnecessarily stringent regulations.

In 1999, when the federal agencies proposed an endangered listing on eight Maine rivers, most of them in Washington County, state officials reacted with “the sky is falling” hysteria. The listing required changes in aquaculture, blueberry growing and forestry, but those industries were not doomed by the listing.

Adding the larger rivers to the Endangered Species Act listing will require changes for hydroelectricity and paper mills. In this realm, the Penobscot project is model for compromise. By removing some dams and building fish passage on others, the work will open hundreds of miles of salmon habitat while continuing to allow hydroelectric generation.

Public hearings on the latest proposal are scheduled for Wednesday at the Augusta Civic Center and Thursday at Jeff’s Catering in Brewer. Both are from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

The Penobscot River, where more than 2,000 salmon returned this summer — dozens of times the number of returning fish in all the other rivers combined — is the centerpiece of salmon restoration in Maine. Building on the flexibility of the Penobscot project is the best way to ensure the survival of the state’s Atlantic salmon population.

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