DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — The state’s $24 million operational plan to restore diadromous fish — those that migrate between fresh and salt waters — to the Penobscot River and guide their management received mixed reviews at a public hearing Thursday.
Area residents who spoke said they were opposed to the plan, which they fear will allow free range of invasive species such a pike. Since pike have been confirmed in an outlet stream at Pushaw Pond and the plan calls for a bypass in Howland, the residents said they fear pike will enter the Piscataquis watershed and disturb the region’s delicate cold-water fisheries.
Ray Campbell Jr. of Millinocket, president of the Fin and Feather Club of Maine, asked how the state and federal governments could ignore an executive order signed by former President Clinton that makes it illegal to stock or allow the passage of invasive species such as pike.
“There’s also a state law against it, yet here we see our state and bureaucrats bypassing the law — same thing with the feds, bypassing law — that’s wrong,” Campbell said at the hearing, which was held by the Maine Department of Marine Resources.
Greenville resident Eric Ward said the region could not afford to lose any more resources. “We’re the last bastion for brook trout in the East Coast and every year we lose more and more water, and just the slight chance of any pike getting into this area is a bad deal,” he said.
Other speakers, who came from as far away as Norridgewock and Eddington, praised the plan because it would provide better fishing and economic opportunities. Some spoke of the benefits they’d seen from a similar restoration project in the Kennebec River.
“One reason that I am excited about the prospect of setting some things right with the Penobscot River is because I’ve seen such amazing promise as the Kennebec River restoration progresses,” Kathy Scott of Mercer said. While she was concerned about the presence of invasive species, Scott said she believed those concerns were being addressed through the plan.
The approximately 50 people who attended the hearing were told that the “objective-driven plan,” drafted by the Departments of Marine Resources and Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, involves the restoration of alewives, the American eel, American shad, sea lamprey and blueback herring, among other fish, into the Penobscot River.
The state plan is a companion to the Penobscot River Restoration Trust project, which wants to restore 11 species of sea-run fish to the Penobscot River, according to Patrick Keliher of the DMR. That effort is a collaboration among a hydropower company, the Penobscot Indian Nation, conservation groups and state and federal agencies.
Keliher said if the state plan is approved by the Atlantic Salmon Commission in June, it will be implemented with or without the trust’s project. There are fishways in place within the system now to allow the state to gain access, he said.
Keliher said the blockage at Enfield Dam to deal with pike would remain in place until the risk management on that watershed has been completed. Stocking in ponds in that area would wait until that has been addressed, he said.
As for Cedar, East Branch and Endless Lakes, which flow into the Piscataquis above the Howland dam, Keliher said if the risk assessment is adopted, a bypass would be installed around the Howland dam when funding becomes available and after discussions are held with stakeholders.
That, said Paul Johnson, a retired Moosehead Lake fisheries biologist, would allow fish passage for all species at Howland.
Keliher said that before the state stocks alewives into the plan’s identified waters, additional meetings with stakeholders will be held. That would include fishermen, camp owners and others interested in the project.
“There is a process that we’re going to go through,” Keliher said. “I don’t want anybody here to think we’re just going to show up one afternoon with a truck and start stocking alewives. That’s not how we do it.”
Laura Rose Day, executive director of the Penobscot River Restoration Trust, reminded the audience that the state’s commitment to restore sea-run fisheries has been in place for decades. Many people have told the trust that its plans to remove dams and be involved in the sea-run fisheries don’t go far enough, she said. Day urged the state to make its next round of decisions based on information rather than worst-case scenarios.
Johnson, who said the risk assessment and the state plan — minus the pike provisions — were good, strongly suggested that the Howland barrier be maintained for at least 10 years and that the effort to remove pike from Pushaw Pond and the Penobscot River continue.
“There have been a number of foibles as a result of the best science available at the time,” Johnson said. For example, he cited the introduction of mysis shrimp in Moosehead Lake. It was state-of-the-art in 1975, but the department was sharply criticized for it in 1990. “Any mistake that’s made now is forever,” he said.