BREWER, Maine — Sportsmen, conservationists and members of the business community offered disparate views Thursday on whether a federal proposal to strengthen protections for Atlantic salmon in Maine’s largest rivers would help or harm the beloved fish species.
Sixty to 70 people attended a public hearing with federal regulators on a proposal to add the Penobscot, Kennebec and Androscoggin rivers to the list of eight Maine waterways with populations of endangered Atlantic salmon.
Supporters argued that expanding the list of protected Gulf of Maine salmon would help focus federal money and public attention on the restoration effort without harming the fishermen and industries that use the rivers.
“I would like to have my kids fish these rivers that I love with large numbers of fish, not just the trickles of fish coming in now,” said Darrin Kelly, a registered guide who operates an ecotourism business in Gouldsboro.
But critics warned that an endangered designation on three of Maine’s most economically important rivers could undercut recent successes.
“I believe that a regulatory approach is going to bring to an end the cooperation that exists between Atlantic salmon fishermen, the environmental people and the industries that operate along the river,” said Dick Stone, a Dedham resident and longtime fisherman.
The National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated salmon in eight Down East or central Maine rivers as endangered in 2000. But federal authorities delayed a decision on the Penobscot, Kennebec and Androscoggin rivers.
In 2000, state officials turned to the courts to attempt to block the listing on the eight smaller waterways, arguing the action was scientifically unjustified and would harm Maine’s forest products, aquaculture and blueberry industries.
Both sides now acknowledge that little of those dire predictions materialized. But the number of salmon returning to the eight rivers to spawn remains minuscule. More than 2,000 salmon returned to spawn on the Penobscot this year. But that number is still a fraction of what would be needed for a viable, self-sustaining population, and the vast majority can be traced to two federal salmon hatcheries, according to biologists.
This year, Maine officials are taking a more diplomatic approach by suggesting the salmon be listed as “threatened” instead of “endangered.” Federal agencies could get similar levels of protection but more cooperation from private landowners and industry by designating salmon in the three rivers as “threatened,” state officials said.
Patrick Keliher, executive director of the Maine Bureau of SeaRun Fisheries and Habitat, said cooperative projects such as the one to remove two dams and bypass a third on the Penobscot River are key to saving salmon.
“It is not going to be the Endangered Species Act that is going to recover this species,” Keliher said.
Federal biologists sought to assure sportsmen that an “endangered” designation should not affect recreational fishermen on the three rivers. The federal agencies would work with the state to craft “incidental take” agreements that would protect fishermen who accidentally catch a salmon.
James Cote, a representative for the Maine Forest Products Council, warned that the additional regulations that would come with an endangered designation could seriously harm industries that depend on hydropower. Dams would be subject to additional regulatory scrutiny under the proposal.
“The cost to restore, remove or adapt hydropower dams above what has already been required will not only burden but, in many cases, has the potential to shut down many manufacturing facilities along the river who depend on self-generated power,” Cote said.
But Jeff Reardon with Trout Unlimited disagreed with suggestions that the additional protections would necessarily harm the spirit of cooperation that led to the Penobscot agreement and other successes.
“The reason we should list the salmon [as endangered] is, by the standards of the Endangered Species Act, they deserve to be listed,” Reardon said. “And then we should all go back to the cooperative conservation we have been doing for a long time.”