May 23, 2018
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Salmon Bureaucracy

The decision by federal regulators to designate Atlantic salmon in the Penobscot, Kennebec and Androscoggin rivers as an endangered species has long been talked about so it is not unexpected. However, it is disappointing that the agencies chose to pursue a heavy-handed regulatory route rather than promote effective cooperative conservation work like the Penobscot Restoration Project.

On Monday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it was expanding a decade-old endangered species listing to include the state’s three largest rivers — the Penobscot, Kennebec and Androscoggin. Adding the larger rivers to the Endangered Species Act listing could require changes for hydroelectricity, municipal wastewater treatment facilities and paper mills.

In 2000, the same agencies declared Atlantic salmon in eight rivers — most of them in Washington County — an endangered species. Since then, millions of dollars have been invested in land conservation, water management and other strategies to improve salmon habitat. After all this work, salmon returns on most of these waterways remain in the single digits.

This raises the question of whether expanding the endangered species listing, which includes restricting development on 12,000 miles of river, stream and estuary frontage and 300 square miles of lake, will make any difference. Or whether the same objectives could be met through a threatened listing. This is especially important because other approaches to improving habitat for salmon and other species are already under way.

The largest is the Penobscot Restoration Project, which will remove two dams and modify five others on the river to reopen 1,000 miles of habitat for salmon and other fish on the river with the largest Atlantic salmon run in the state. In their rationale for the listing decision, federal officials said dams were the biggest threat to Atlantic salmon.

The project has raised the $25 million needed to purchase the dams in Veazie and Old Town that will be removed. BDN publisher Rick Warren is co-chairman of the project’s private capital campaign. A dam in Howland will be decommissioned, but remain in place with a new fish passage system. Fish passage will be improved at the remaining dams, which will increase their power generation to largely make up for the electricity lost from the dams to be idled. Similar cooperative agreements have resulted in dam removals on the Kennebec as well.

The Penobscot project was touted as “perhaps the most significant step to restore the Atlantic salmon in the past century” by former Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton. Yet it took years for the federal government to commit funding to the effort. The $15 million in federal funding for the Penobscot Project is much appreciated, but is a tiny fraction of what is spent on salmon restoration nationally.

The best way to continue and expand such efforts is to fund them and to ensure that important backers, such as dam owners, anglers and industries that rely on the river, are not turned against restoration efforts through unnecessarily stringent regulations.

The endangered listing puts this balance in jeopardy.

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