DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — A retired and well-respected Moosehead Lake region fishery biologist warned Tuesday the Penobscot River Restoration Trust’s proposal to install a bypass channel around the Howland Dam could have some unintended and “very undesirable” consequences.
Paul Johnson, who is retired from the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, told the Piscataquis County commissioners that the proposal could allow northern pike — an invasive, non-native species that preys on soft-grade fish such as salmon, trout and suckers — to invade about 40 percent of the Piscataquis River drainage. Where pike have been introduced, they have decimated cold-water fishing, he said.
“I feel as a biologist there are significant problems” with this proposal, Johnson said Tuesday. “The threat is real. My concern is this threat has not been widely publicized.” He said there is a public process under way and the public should be aware there is a threat associated with the benefits of the project.
The bypass channel is part of a series of changes planned over time by the Penobscot River Restoration Trust to restore anadromous species to the Penobscot River without sacrificing energy production, according to Johnson. The membership of the trust, a nonprofit organization, includes the Penobscot Indian Nation and several conservation groups, including Maine Audubon and Trout Unlimited. The trust is working in collaboration with state and federal agencies and hydropower company Pennsylvania Power and Light Corp.
Other elements of the trust’s plan to restore Atlantic salmon, river herring and sturgeon, among other sea species, to the Penobscot watershed include removal of the Veazie Dam and the Great Works Dam — the first two dams on the Penobscot River — and improvement of the fish passage at the Milford Dam in Old Town, ac-cording to Johnson.
Johnson said he is troubled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, whose duty it is to stop the spread of invasive species, is a signatory of the trust and as such is promoting the opportunity for pike to enter the Piscataquis River.
“The unintended consequences of allowing northern pike to increase their distribution in Maine in the Piscataquis drainage, sanctioned by the state and federal government, and private nongovernmental organizations, is ecologically irresponsible, contrary to public policies and, most importantly, unacceptable,” Johnson said.
Officials of the Penobscot River Restoration Trust declined Tuesday to rebut Johnson’s arguments.
But in an OpEd column in the Bangor Daily News last week, Ray B. Owen Jr. of Orono, a former commissioner of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said that “one of the best ways to reduce any negative impacts of these invasive fish is to restore the abundance of native fish in the river through the full implementation of the Penobscot project.”
He said he does not believe that the project “should be jeopardized by the threat of invasive species. Where appropriate, safeguards can be put in place as the risk is further assessed.”
Johnson isn’t the only person raising concerns about the bypass proposal. The towns of Millinocket and East Millinocket recently passed resolutions opposed to the project.
The Piscataquis County commissioners also have their concerns. “It would be great to restore the salmon, but we don’t want to ruin what we’ve already got in the process — people come here to catch trout,” Commissioner Eric Ward said Tuesday.
When the 2004 agreement by the trust was made to do the restoration work, Johnson said it was a great idea and the goals were admirable. Since then, illegally introduced pike have been discovered in Pushaw Pond. Being in the Pushaw Stream drainage, the fish have the opportunity to swim to the Penobscot River and up to the Enfield Dam and the present Howland Dam, Johnson said. Both dams were modified in 2006 to have a jump in the fishway to preclude movement of pike upstream, the biologist said.
Johnson said the trust did consider alternatives at the Howland Dam but has remained with the fishery bypass.
“There is an alternative. I just think the alternative needs to be heard,” Johnson said. He said he hopes the trust will reassess the project and replace the bypass with a fish lift. The bypass is estimated to cost $5 million compared with $3.5 million for a fish lift.
“You build a dam, you can take it down; you build a fishway, and something changes in the future, you have an alternative course. But if you allow pike into the Piscataquis and they get here, it’s forever,” Johnson said.