MACHIAS, Maine — The lower reaches of the Machias River watershed already are accessible to sea-run fish species, but thanks to $1.7 million in federal stimulus funding, conservation officials hope to improve natural water flow and fish accessibility in the upper remote portions of the watershed.
The project, which will result in better culverts being installed in the remote, back-country road system that serves the upper watershed area, is one of two habitat restoration projects in Maine that are receiving federal stimulus funds. The other project, to remove the Great Works Dam from the Penobscot River in Old Town, is getting $6.1 million in federal funds from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Seth Koenig is executive director of Project SHARE, which will administer the funds and oversee the Machias River watershed project. Koenig said Thursday that the $1.7 million in NOAA funding will cover the cost of replacing culverts at dozens of sites in the upper watershed area.
“Basically, the problem is undersized round culverts,” Koening said. “In total, there will be about 70 sites affected.”
The old culverts, because they are small and cover up natural streambeds, inhibit fish passage and the natural flow of cold water and nutrients, Koenig said. The culverts will be replaced with larger, three-sided culverts that are open to natural streambeds on the bottom.
Koenig said the natural movement of fish, water and nutrients in these cold-water streams, which he said is largely different habitat from the lower and larger branches of the river, is key to protecting the long-term health of the watershed and salmon and brook trout populations. Bass and pickerel, non-native species that feed on brook trout and salmon fry, prefer the warmer temperatures in the watershed’s lower reaches, he said.
“It’s what we call watershed restoration, not just fish passage [restoration],” Koenig said.
Project SHARE already has started on some of the advance work on the project, according to Koening, and expects to start replacing culverts in mid-July. Funding for the project will be supplemented by an additional $600,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and $150,000 from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, he said.
Some other habitat restoration projects proposed by the Maine Department of Marine Resources for the scallop and lobster fisheries did not get federal funding.
Officials with DMR and the State Planning Office had proposed to use $2.3 million in stimulus funds to recover an estimated 80,000 lost lobster traps from the coastal sea floor. Lost traps, which often are referred to as “ghost gear,” continue to catch lobsters and likely other species, officials have said.
How many derelict traps litter the bottom is unknown, but according to DMR estimates there likely were 160,000 traps that somehow became separated from their marker buoys in 2007 alone. Besides the economic impact of lost gear, that many derelict traps could affect the resource by catching and killing as many as 50,000 pounds of lobster each year, the department estimated.
DMR also requested $4.4 million to put toward scallop stock restoration efforts. The scallop fishing season has been reduced in recent years, and last year certain areas along the coast were closed to scallop harvesting, because of steep declines in Maine’s scallop stocks.
Linda Mercer, head of DMR’s Bureau of Resource Management, said Thursday that she did not know specifically why the lobster gear and scallop proposals were not funded.
“My assumption was that there was not enough money to go around,” Mercer said. “It’s always tough. There is a lot of competition.”
She said DMR still is hoping to get funding from NOAA to find and remove lost lobster traps from the coastal sea bottom, though at a smaller scale than the $2.3 million would have allowed. She said there are no immediate plans to reapply for money to restore scallop beds, but that the department still hopes to find a way to fund that project, too.
“We’ll be keeping our eye out for additional sources of funding,” Mercer said.
Perry Gayaldo, deputy director of NOAA’s Restoration Center, said Thursday that NOAA received applications for more than $3 billion in funding for more than 800 project proposals. The federal agency had only $167 million in federal stimulus funding to disburse, he said, and so put all applications through an “intensive and rigorous” review process.
NOAA regulators weighed the shovel-readiness and the prospects of job creation for each proposal, according to Gayaldo. He said the amount of habitat restoration work being done throughout the country is at an all-time high.
“We left a lot of good projects on the table,” Gayaldo said. “It was not easy.”
Gayaldo said that, on average, each state received 5 percent of the total funding amounts they had requested from NOAA. The amount of NOAA stimulus money going to Maine, he said, is 20 percent of what had been requested.
“Maine was the winningest state,” he said.