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Outdoors

List spawns plenty of questions, few answers

Posted June 15, 2009, at 11:36 p.m.

You heard the rumblings. You knew it was coming. And still, the news that the Atlantic salmon of the Penobscot River are now officially on their way to being listed as “endangered” comes as a bit of a shock.

Doesn’t it?

It should.

A year ago last month, we were catching Atlantic salmon during a one-month season. We were releasing them. We were having a ball. People flocked to the river to watch, or fish or chat.

And on Monday, officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told us what we’d been expecting for months.

The salmon of the Penobscot, Kennebec and Androscoggin Rivers (and their tributaries) will be listed as “endangered,” and get more protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Eight smaller coastal Maine rivers and a portion of the Penobscot were previously targeted in a 2000 listing.

The salmon runs on the Androscoggin and Kennebec are miniscule. In Maine, nowadays, when you talk about Atlantic salmon, you’re talking about the Penobscot.

A year ago, more than 2,000 fish returned to the Penobscot. The rest of Maine’s “salmon rivers” had cumulative returns of a couple hundred.

It’s important to note that many biologists and anglers have long surmised that the returns on the Penobscot would dry up save for the presence of a pair of federal facilities that produce the thousands of salmon that are stocked each year.

Many veteran anglers look at the Penobscot as a put-and-take fishery, without the “take” component. Fish are grown in hatcheries. They’re put in the river. Then, after a couple of years away at sea, they return and are taken … or, more accurately, caught and released (if that’s allowed).

According to Ed Baum’s book, “Maine Atlantic Salmon, A National Treasure,” over a 125-year span from 1871 until 1995, more than 71 million Atlantic salmon in various stages of development were stocked in the Penobscot.

And still, here we are, sitting on the banks of that river, celebrating when annual returns top 2,000 fish.

We’re not fishing … and likely won’t for years to come.

We don’t have answers, though we know that removing dams and making spawning habitat more accessible and reducing commercial fishing for salmon should help.

This morning, all we’ve really got is a pile of questions.

What does this listing mean to us, as anglers and conservationists and business-owners? How much progress has to be made before the ESA listing is lifted?

And, perhaps most importantly, what can we do to help?

That’s where I’m asking you for help.

Drop me a line. Tell me what you think. Answer those questions … or answer questions you think are important.

Include your full name and phone number.

And in a future column, I’ll share the replies of readers, as we try to make the most out of an unfortunate situation.

Trap count rising

While the news from federal agencies wasn’t encouraging, reports from the Penobscot River itself continue to be upbeat.

Oliver Cox, a biologist for the Department of Marine Resources’ Bureau of Sea-Run Fisheries and Habitat, has been sending weekly updates on the status of the Atlantic salmon run, and thus far, there’s grounds for celebration.

Cox’s most recent report, which accounted for all adult salmon caught in the fish trap at Veazie Dam through Saturday, showed a grand total of 742 returning fish thus far.

That’s just one fish shy of the total on the same day a year ago.

Cox’s previous report was filed on June 7. That means that over the ensuing days, 264 salmon passed through the trap — an average of 44 per day.

That 742-fish run already surpasses the end-of-season total from 2000 (534 salmon) and is pushing the seasonal totals from 2001 (786) and 2002 (784).

In other encouraging news, the cool, wet weather of last week helped keep the Penobscot from running a fever that could have adversely impacted the run.

The temperature of the river rose to 66.7 degrees at one point, but as of Saturday Cox reported it had fallen to a more agreeable (for salmon) 63.3 degrees. And all of that happened in advance of Sunday’s steady rainfall, which likely served to make the river even cooler.

Cox reported that the water level had also increased, and that the Penobscot was running at about 1,000 cubic feet per second above long-term median flow.

Coming up …

On Thursday I’ll be joining several hundred enthusiastic folks at one of Maine’s more unique excuses for a get-together.

It’s moose-permit lottery time, and state legislators and Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife officials will take their traveling road show to the University of Maine at Fort Kent.

Then we’ll all gather in the athletics center, pull up our chairs, and wait for our names to be called … or not.

Actually, the evening will be a lot more fun than it sounds at first blush. A wide variety of vendors and outdoor organizations will set up their booths and assure us of that.

The festivities begin at 6 p.m.

And as always, you can wake up early on Friday morning and peruse these pages to find out if you’ll be moose-hunting this year. We’ll print the names of all 3,015 lucky moose-hunters.

I’m also sure I’ll find a few stories to pass along during the coming days.

So cross your fingers … hope for the best … and stay tuned.

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