In the days before the scheduled opening day of this year’s monthlong catch-and-release salmon season on the Penobscot River, Douglas “Cap” Introne and his 14-year-old son, Christopher, made plans to spend as much time as possible on the river.
Then everything changed.
The Maine Atlantic Salmon Commission changed tack in response to a meeting between federal officials and Gov. John Baldacci.
The season was scuttled. There would be no fishing.
“When [Christopher] learned that he couldn’t go fishing this year, he started to cry,” Cap Introne said. “He was so looking forward to this after fishing last year.”
On Monday, the Intrones and other salmon anglers absorbed another blow, as officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the Atlantic salmon in three Maine rivers — the Penobscot, Kennebec and Androscoggin — would be listed as “endangered” and given increased protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Cap Introne, a member of the Eddington and Veazie salmon clubs who serves on the board of directors of the Veazie club, said he wasn’t surprised at the news.
Like other anglers, he was, however, upset.
“It’s not like I didn’t know this was coming,” the 55-year-old Introne said. “I talked to plenty of fisheries biologists in NOAA and on campus [at the University of Maine]. And just about all of them have said for months now, they’re going to be listed as endangered.
“But I still feel like I’ve been kicked in the teeth, because I’ve been involved with Atlantic salmon clubs and conservation for like 20 years,” he said.
Introne is taking a hard line toward the announcement of the new ESA status and said that after putting in countless hours over the past 20 years, he has finally had enough.
“I sit at the [booths at the Eastern Maine] Sportsman’s Show for the last 10 years, when we can’t even go fishing,” Introne said. “I’ve donated time. I’ve got nothing left, is the way I feel. You feds know what you’re doing? Go for it. I’m out of it. I’ve retired from salmon conservation.”
Some anglers and conservation officials were hoping that federal officials would opt for a less constrictive “threatened” designation, which would have allowed for the possibility of future catch-and-release fishing seasons for salmon.
Tom Hennessey, a longtime Bangor Daily News outdoors columnist and member of the Penobscot, Veazie and Eddington salmon clubs, said he has been expecting an ESA listing for years. He also says it is unnecessary.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous,” Hennessey said Tuesday. “The salmon run on this river’s been hatchery-dependent since the early 1900s. It’s hatchery-dependent now and it will be from here forward. And it won’t make any difference whatsoever if they take all the dams from here to Grand Lake Matagamon.”
Hennessey and Introne each said the decision ignores the impact area anglers have had on Atlantic salmon in past years through their conservation efforts.
“It’s a shame, because the only people who ever supported that salmon run, the restoration program, were the fishermen,” said Hennessey, who listed a number of hydroelectric projects that anglers fought in order to avoid detrimental effects to salmon habitat. “And through all that, whenever biologists wanted to go to Russia or Scotland and Norway on business, clubs coughed up the money and sent them. And this is what they get for it.”
Cap Introne said he spoke with veteran salmon anglers Tuesday morning who felt similarly frustrated and betrayed after the decision was announced.
“I talked to a couple of guys even this morning at coffee, and I feel this way: I’m no longer a stakeholder in this. It’s not my fight anymore,” Introne said. “[But] every single thing that’s happened to these fish on this river — the political momentum and all the money — has been generated by Atlantic salmon fishermen. And now what do we get? We get a big kick in the teeth.”
Hennessey said he won’t be surprised if no fishing for salmon on the Penobscot is allowed for the next 20 years. And after witnessing what happened when fish weren’t returning to the river for a 20-year span in the 1950s and ’60s, he worries about the status of the existing clubs.
During that time period, older anglers died, new ones weren’t learning the ropes, and interest in Atlantic salmon dwindled to a trickle. The only existing club fell into ruin and had to be restored when the fish returned in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“Eddington and Veazie [salmon clubs] didn’t exist then, but the old Penobscot Salmon Club, the only thing in that was rats and bats,” Hennessey said.
Introne was more direct in his assessment of the future.
“The way I look at it, the clubs are dead,” Introne said. “The old guys ain’t gonna go fishing. The kids ain’t gonna go fishing.”
At least one veteran angler disagrees, however.
Charlie Colburn of Bangor has been a member of the Penobscot Salmon Club for more than 50 years. At 86, he’s still hoping for the best and is willing to deal with what he hopes is a short-term listing.
“To be truthful — I’m probably the only one to tell you this — I go along with that ‘endangered’ [listing],” Colburn said Tuesday while sitting on a bench at the Penobscot Salmon Club.
“I’ve enjoyed fishing for these fish just as much as anyone has. But the fish is for everybody to enjoy. I believe to put it on the endangered list, I’m not quite sure, but I believe [it will] give that fish a little bit more of a chance.”
Ralph Keef, a salmon angler from Hermon whose business card reads simply, “Supports Salmon,” counts himself among those who had hoped for a different outcome.
“I feel it’s not going to be beneficial for the Atlantic salmon run in the Penobscot River to have the river status included in the ‘endangered’ category,” Keef said by e-mail. “Another status such as ‘threatened’ would have made eminent good sense at this time.”