When federal fish and wildlife officials announced last fall they were reconsidering the listing of Penobscot River Atlantic salmon under the Endangered Species Act, many local anglers feared the worst.
Two fall catch-and-release seasons were held on the Penobscot in 2006 and 2007, and a one-month spring season was staged a year ago.
A federal listing of “threatened” or “endangered,” many salmon club members whispered, could end fishing on the Penobscot for the foreseeable future.
It still might.
But not, apparently, this year.
On Tuesday the Bureau of Sea-Run Fisheries & Habitat, a division of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, sent out a press release announcing licenses for this year’s one-month May season were on sale through state license agents and on the Internet.
And Wednesday, Patrick Keliher, the director of the bureau, said he’s taking a business-as-usual approach, as directed by the three-member Maine Atlantic Salmon Commission, which oversees the state’s salmon restoration and conservation efforts.
The commissioners did not have to approve a season this year — the regulation that created last year’s monthlong fishing opportunity called for a season that would recur annually — and it has not yet chosen to halt this year’s salmon season.
“The board has not made a determination that we need to stop the fishery for this year,” Keliher said. “The biology stands, the risk assessment stands. There is no risk to the population based on the regulations as they exist. If we do see a risk, we can close [the season] at a moment’s notice.”
Keliher was referring to the scientific work done by staff biologists before last year’s May season was approved, and said the fact federal agencies were looking into ESA listing didn’t change the base of facts that Maine ASC commissioners had considered.
The season will exist in the form that was adopted a year ago: A one-month (May 1-May 31) catch-and-release fishery. Fishing will be allowed from the site of the old Bangor Dam upriver to a point marked by two stakes 150 feet below the Veazie Dam, and the season will stop as soon as 50 fish are caught. It could also be halted at any point if salmon are determined to be at risk.
Keliher said federal listing — either as endangered or as threatened — would not immediately affect state-approved seasons.
“If they came forward today and said that the fish is listed as either endangered or threatened, it doesn’t change the biology, it just changes the legal playing field that we’re in,” Keliher said. “What will happen is they will release, at some time, in the Federal Register, a notice of the proposed rule, and it takes 30 days to come into effect. From a legal standpoint, we won’t be breaking any ESA laws.”
And Keliher said state officials have no idea how the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service have viewed written comments provided by Maine officials during the proposal’s hearing process, and don’t know under which designation the fish would be listed.
Last fall the federal agencies announced that they were moving forward with a plan to expand protection on Gulf of Maine Atlantic salmon by including fish in the Kennebec, Androscoggin and Penobscot rivers under ESA listing.
The Penobscot is the only Maine river with a viable fishery; more than 2,000 adult salmon returned to the river last year, and the third salmon season in three years was held. The Penobscot was previously closed to salmon fishing from 1999 until 2006.
Keliher said he’s been told the federal agencies will not list their proposed rule until May.
Add in the 30 days it will take for any proposal to become law, and this year’s Maine season would already be over.
Lou Horvath of Holden, the president of the Penobscot Salmon Club, said there was a time, not long ago, that he thought federal agencies were going to shut down this year’s Penobscot season.
“I didn’t think there was going to be a season, frankly,” he said.
Horvath said he began to become encouraged after conversations with a knowledgeable person who said the federal agencies wouldn’t have their the proposal on the Federal Register in time to affect the May season.
“I think they’re going to pull the plug, but it’s going to be for next year,” Horvath said. “If there was a fall season this year instead of a spring season, I don’t think the timing would have been a problem for them.”
And though he expects federal intervention in the future, that doesn’t mean Horvath likes the idea.
“I think it’s stupid to even close it up,” he said. “We don’t have natural fish running in this river and we won’t until we take the dams out.”
Ralph Keef of Hermon, an avid salmon angler and longtime member of local salmon conservation organizations, said as time stretched on without federal agencies announcing their proposal officially, he expected a season to be held.
“We’ve been speculating about it all winter,” Keef said. “[I heard] that the April 1 deadline [to list a proposal in the Federal Register], if the feds hadn’t come up with an announcement to list before that the state would be able to go forward [with a season].”
Keef said he doesn’t think a one-month season in May poses any problems to salmon restoration efforts.
“I’m 100 percent for [the season],” he said. “I think it’d be a mistake if they had closed it to hook-and-release with barbless hooks.”
Keef said he’ll be out on the Penobscot in May, but you won’t find him wading in the river.
“I’ll probably be out there, but like last year, I won’t fish,” said Keef. “I do a lot of fishing on the Miramichi. I’m lucky. I just like to see the local people fishing [on the Penobscot]. I’ll tie on a leader for them or give them a fly.”