Lou Horvath sat through two lengthy PowerPoint presentations and a number of questions Wednesday night before finally turning to the man seated behind him and asking a simple question.
“Who are you?” Horvath asked gruffly, though he had been told before the meeting who the man was.
Many of the others who attended the monthly meeting of the Veazie Salmon Club also knew the man’s identity.
And though moderator Ray “Bucky” Owen quickly ended Horvath’s terse interaction with the visitor, the brief exchange seemed inevitable, considering the makeup of the audience and the presence of a man many in that crowd had read about.
The man was Paul Johnson, a retired state fisheries biologist whose recent stance and frequent public statements have drawn the ire of many conservationists who have enthusiastically supported the Penobscot River Restoration Project.
And in an audience made up of many who fall into that category, Johnson was far from anonymous, even though he hadn’t attended the meeting to make a formal presentation.
On Internet bulletin boards and in newspaper op-ed columns and letters, Johnson’s views have been attacked by those who think his reluctance to add a fish bypass channel at the Howland Dam is causing undue negative publicity about the Penobscot project.
The four-letter word at the root of Johnson’s reluctance, and the impetus for presentations that were made on Thursday: Pike.
Northern pike were illegally introduced into Pushaw Lake and documented in 2003.
The bad news, according to Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife biologist Richard Dill, is that “there’s no way to keep pike from leaving Pushaw Lake.”
That means they have access to the Penobscot River … and as dams are removed or altered, according to the established plan of the ambitious Penobscot River Restoration Project, those toothy carnivores may end up in many more places where everyone would rather they didn’t exist.
That worries Johnson, who worked as a DIF&W biologist for more than 30 years before retiring. Johnson has made the speaking rounds this winter and has found kindred spirits in Millinocket and East Millinocket and in Piscataquis County.
His plea: Don’t let the pike get above the Howland dam.
“In the case of the Penobscot Restoration Project’s proposal to bypass the channel that will allow pike access into the Piscataquis River, despite all of the research that has been done I believe that the risks associated with pike in that drainage are being underestimated,” Johnson said Friday in a follow-up e-mail after a Thursday night interview. “More research is warranted on what pike have done where they have been introduced, especially in Maine.”
Putting in a sorting facility at the dam, whereby fish would be inspected and those which weren’t pike would be allowed to pass beyond the dam, would be best, Johnson said.
On Thursday, Johnson told the Veazie Salmon Club crowd that arguments that pike would likely be illegally introduced above Howland anyway — pike in Maine have made inroads through that kind of “bucket biology” — is faulty logic. Johnson did praise some parts of the Penobscot River Restoration Project, including the plan to remove the two lower dams. But he’s adamant about stopping pike at Howland.
“My concern is there will always be pike there [in Pushaw] and as long as they’re there, there will always be the possibility that they will drop down, swim 25 miles upstream and have access to the Piscataquis River,” Johnson said.
“Whenever you have an opportunity to stop an introduction of fish, you should capitalize on that. And you can’t use [the threat] of illegal introductions as an excuse: ‘Well, they’re going to get there anyway, so we might just as well let them go through.’ I don’t buy it. I really don’t.”
Providing a counterpoint to Johnson’s position Thursday night were Andy Goode, the vice president of U.S. programs for the Atlantic Salmon Federation, and Dill.
Also present and offering his perspective was Jeff Reardon, New England conservation director for Trout Unlimited.
Although they view the situation differently than Johnson, it should be noted that Goode and Reardon, especially, are cold-water conservationists with no affinity for pike.
“We’re a cold-water fisheries group. My group’s an angling group. The last thing we want is pike, but in the worst-case scenario, we think some of these other predators are worse than pike and that we can restore Atlantic salmon in this river despite the presence of pike, but let’s do everything we can in terms of managing these risks,” Goode said.
Goode and Reardon viewed the pike threat differently than Johnson and are working within the Penobscot Project framework to deal with the threat.
The groups they represent are among the many signatories of the project, which calls for the removal of dams at Veazie and Great Works and the building of a fish passage bypass at another — Howland.
“As far as I’m concerned, this project is a real opportunity to start making some progress in restoring Atlantic salmon in the state of Maine,” Goode said, pointing out that removal of fish barriers was a key to that restoration and would benefit other sea-run fish as well. He added that in many Canadian waters, pike coexist in the same systems with trout and other fish.
“Some people say we just have to build a better fish lift or a fish way, but there’s nowhere in North America where you’ll find Atlantic salmon above three dams. It just doesn’t happen,” he said. “If we want to get salmon fishing back on a sustainable basis in the state of Maine, then we’ve got to implement this project and this really is best thing that has come along in 200 years, as far as I’m concerned, for salmon fishermen and trying to get a future of salmon fishing in the state of Maine.”
Dill, Reardon and DIF&W biologist Tim Obrey, who was also present Thursday, are all serving on a committee that is assessing the threat of northern pike in the Penobscot watershed.
The deadline for the committee’s draft report was Friday, and Dill said a final report may be available by June.
A pike suppression effort in Pushaw Lake is under way, while Dill admitted that eliminating the fish from the system is virtually impossible, but said that no pike had been confirmed in the main stem of the Penobscot yet.
Dill’s initial research indicates that because of vertical jumps that pike aren’t able to make, and which exist in many places in the Penobscot watershed, pike migration will be naturally limited in many areas.
How many areas, and to what extent, is the question. That’s what he and others are trying to figure out.
“The Howland bypass, in our mind, is a done deal. It’s been signed off on. We’ve been tasked to evaluate the risk upstream of Howland, and this is what we’re looking at,” Dill said. “This pike risk assessment is trying to look at the benefits of free swim for all species vs. the risk of pike to sensitive, resident, native fish populations such as brook trout, landlocked salmon, lake trout, stocked cold-water fish sport species and other sensitive species of concern.”
Reardon said Penobscot River Restoration Project participants have thoroughly studied options at the Howland facility and determined the cost of building a sorting facility, then staffing it, would be prohibitive.
“We can raise the money to build something. Raising the money to run it forever is a different matter,” Reardon said. “That’s really what it comes down to.”