State defends salmon season

Posted April 16, 2009, at 9:10 p.m.

HALLOWELL, Maine — State officials in charge of restoring Atlantic salmon to Maine’s rivers said Thursday they plan to allow angling for the sport fish on the Penobscot this May despite strong objections from federal agencies.

Federal officials are expected to issue a decision as early as the end of this month on whether to list salmon in the Penobscot, Kennebec and Androscoggin rivers as “endangered” species. The designation would likely take effect 30 days after the announcement.

But members of the Maine Atlantic Salmon Commission made clear Thursday that they have no intention of shelving plans for another catch-and-release season for salmon this spring.

So on May 1, a 3-mile stretch of the Penobscot just north of Bangor will be open to spring salmon fishing for only the second time in a decade — that is, unless federal officials decide to play hardball by immediately implementing protections for the fish.

“We just think we need to keep the focus on recovery” of the species, said Mary Colligan of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Commissioners said Thursday that last year’s spring season proved the state could run a closely monitored catch-and-release fishery without harming the salmon population. They describe the spring season as an important tool to keep the public interested in salmon, once the most prized sport fish in Maine rivers.

“I think this puts us in the best spot to move forward, including keeping the support of people in the local community,” said Commissioner George LaPointe, head of the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

LaPointe’s comments came moments after Colligan, who was representing one of the federal agencies involved in the endangered decision, urged the commission to scrap plans for another spring season.

Colligan, with National Marine Fisheries Service’s protected resources division in Massachusetts, said her agency feels even more strongly than last year, when it also opposed a spring fishery, that the state should be focusing all of its efforts on salmon recovery.

While the Penobscot saw more than 2,000 adult salmon return to spawn last year, that is still well below the threshold that biologists believe is needed for a self-sustaining population, Colligan said. More than 90 percent of the fish that typically return to the Penobscot every year can be traced to the Craig Brook and Green Lake federal fish hatcheries.

Colligan also reminded the commission that the Craig Brook hatchery lost hundreds of thousands of eggs from last year’s returning salmon during an unexplained die-off. To hold a fishery at this point, she added, was “not in the interest of the conservation of the species.”

“We believe having a directed fishery this year is not a biologically reasonable thing to do, and we recommend you reconsider,” Colligan said.

But commission Chairman Dick Ruhlin said the decision should be made entirely independent of the listing decision. Ruhlin said the risk assessments performed by DMR staff clearly show that a catch-and-release fishery will not harm the restoration effort.

After receiving no objection from the commission, Patrick Keliher of the Maine Bureau of Sea-Run Fisheries and Habitat said he has directed his staff to continue preparing for the season to kick off on May 1. One potential change, Keliher said, is staff may halt angling after 30 fish have been caught in order to allow the real count to “catch up.” Anglers exceeded the 50-fish limit last season by a few salmon because of delayed reports.

The spotlight on the fishery will likely be even brighter this year given the pending federal decision on whether to list salmon in the three rivers as endangered or threatened.

Salmon populations in eight smaller Maine rivers and streams are already protected under the Endangered Species Act.

According to critics, expanding the listing to the Penobscot, Kennebec and Androscoggin rivers could have significant implications for the numerous dams and heavy industries located in those watersheds.

But supporters counter that it makes no sense to treat the populations differently, especially considering that the Penobscot is home to the only sizeable run of sea-run Atlantic salmon left in the United States.

“Whatever we do, we have to have very, very tight monitoring,” Keliher said. “The anglers police themselves, but last year there were several concerns about anglers hooking fish, playing them but not counting them.”

Regulations also allow DMR to shut down the fishery at any time in order to protect the health of the fish.

The federal agencies are not powerless to stop the spring fishery, however.

Typically, it takes 30 days for decisions announced in the Federal Register to become effective. That would mean the state could still hold all or most of a season if the decision on the protected status of Penobscot salmon is not published until the end of April or early May.

But Colligan said in an interview that the government has the ability to make decisions effective upon publishing. She said the agencies have not decided how to proceed in this case.

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