Penobscot river-watchers may have taken a second glance at the water Thursday, as an odd-looking craft plied the waterway. A long boom jutted out in front of the flat-bottomed boat, and two wader-clad men stood on a makeshift bow platform, long-handled dip nets at the ready.
No need to worry, river-watchers.
You were just watching Brandon Kulik and his crew as they gave the river an in-depth checkup.
“This is a way of generating an ecological report card,” Kulik said Thursday afternoon as he prepared to head out for a few hours of electrofishing.
Kulik is a senior fisheries biologist with Kleinschmidt Associates of Pittsfield, an energy and water resource consulting company.
And Thursday, he and two crewmates (along with a BDN photographer) headed out onto the water in front of the Eddington Salmon Club to complete a piece of what has been a two-year river study.
The Nature Conservancy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have joined forces on the study, which is being undertaken as part of the ongoing Penobscot River Restoration Project.
Well known by now, the Penobscot project calls for the purchase of three hydroelectric dams, the removal of two of them, and the installation of a fish bypass at the third.
But Kulik described the removal of the dams as the means to an end. The real goal — restoration of native fisheries to the river — will likely take place after the dams come out.
The problem: Nobody will know how effective the project has been unless someone actually counts the fish now, before the dams are removed.
Enter Kulik and crew. On Thursday they were sampling fish at an Eddington research site — one of 17 sites that exist from Hampden to above Howland, including eight on tributaries of the Penobscot — by putting an electric charge in the water, temporarily stunning any fish present then netting and documenting their catch.
This is the second year in a two-year effort to get acceptable sampling data, and if scientists agree that the data gathered each spring or summer and fall is sufficient, further testing will be done an unknown period of years — perhaps five, according to Kulik — after the dams are removed.
“What we’re trying to do is create a biological index of what the entire fish community in the river is like from here all the way to Howland, [including] tributaries, before the dams are removed or any of those things change, because what people want to know is, ‘What’s the ecological ripple effect of taking these dams out?’” Kulik said.
“Not only salmon and all the fish people fish for, but from an ecological standpoint, all the other fish in the river they interact with and rely on,” he said. “The ones that are non-game fish like minnows and suckers and fallfish and sunfish and yellow perch and all the other ones that are out there.”
Don’t forget the eels.
Kulik said eels are so plentiful in the Penobscot that his crew rarely tosses them in the live well for weighing and counting. Instead, they count the eels while they’re in the net and put them back into the river.
Kulik swears the reason for that is a simple desire not to fill up the livewell with eels and slow down the process unnecessarily.
It has nothing to do with the fact that most of us think “eel” and get an icky, squirmy feeling all over, Kulik says.
“As biologists, we don’t mind dealing with eels. As a matter of fact, we have some tricks for dealing with eels that make them kind of fun,” he says, grinning.
Eels? Fun? You bet … if you can just get them to quit squirming.
And Kulik can.
“Wool gloves,” he said, sharing a fisheries biologist secret. “Wool gloves, like you get at any garden center. You grab [an eel] with those on, it’s like you’re glued onto them.”
Seriously, the Kleinschmidt work will continue to pay dividends for years, and will provide an essential baseline look at the river as the habitat changes. Each of the 17 sampling sites is about 1,000 meters long and gives biologists a good opportunity to find a variety of river dwellers.
“In a place like this,” Kulik said, gesturing at the water behind him in Eddington, “there’s a little bit of habitat for almost everybody.”
Kate Dempsey, a senior policy advisor for the Nature Conservancy, was on hand to explain how important the work is for her group, and for the Penobscot River Restoration Project as a whole.
Dempsey said when other dams have been removed from Maine rivers — most notably, perhaps, the Edwards Dam in Augusta — no “before” snapshot was taken. This time, on this river, that won’t be a problem.
“One thing we’ve recognized is that we’ve had great progress in the restoration world, especially in the northeast,” Dempsey said. “But what we haven’t done a great job with is getting this baseline data so we can show it’s worth the investment. And to really see what we could do differently in other places and really look at the project in a scientific manner.”
Dempsey said Nature Conservancy staffers attend conferences around the world, and the Penobscot River Restoration Project is a popular topic of conversation.
At a conference she attended in Barcelona, Spain, attendees from Africa and Australia cornered her after her presentation and picked her brain about the specifics of the Penobscot project.
“When you’re talking about projects elsewhere in the world, it’s great to be able to give this example [of the cooperative Penobscot River Restoration Project],” Dempsey said. “People are so inspired, literally throughout the world, by this project. We also want to be able to go back to them, in scientific journals and in conferences and say, ‘This is what we’ve seen, the difference this kind of restoration can make.’”
Kulik on pike: No sign yet
When a guy spends two years netting fish on the Penobscot River, you can bet he’s heard the P-word a few times.
That word, thanks to an illegal stocking in nearby Pushaw Lake, is “pike.”
For the record, Brandon Kulik has seen exactly zero pike in the Penobscot River thus far.
“No, we haven’t [seen any], and that’s something we get asked a lot,” Kulik said. “We have specific locations on the study, like Pushaw Stream as one example, where we actually, specifically, have those stations in as much to look for pike and see if they’re spreading around as [we do for] the overall study purposes.”
Many have feared the pike would venture out of Pushaw Lake, get into Pushaw Stream, and set up housekeeping in the Penobscot River, where they’d become a top-end predator that could wreak havoc on all kinds of other fish species.
Here’s hoping Kulik’s findings reflect the existing situation, and that the pike are perfectly content where they are.
A pipe dream? Perhaps.
But for now, no news is certainly good news.
ASF gets $35 million grant
For years, anglers and conservationists have debated the reasons Atlantic salmon fail to return to their natal rivers to spawn.
Ocean mortality, many point out, is much too high.
Getting a handle on all the factors that may be causing that mortality, however, is more elusive.
Earlier this week I received word from the Atlantic Salmon Federation that the organization will get help in finding more answers to the lingering questions, in the form of a $35 million grant to Dalhousie University’s Ocean Tracking Network.
The grant from the Canada Foundation for Innovation will help Dalhousie’s OTN further understand the mysteries of Atlantic Ocean migration, according to an ASF press release.
Lead ASF researcher Fred Whoriskey said a few possible explanations are temperature change, a lack of forage fish and predation by seals and birds.
According to the release, the ASF and Canadian federal partners have developed a tagging and tracking technology system that allows researchers to follow small salmon for long distances, from their natal rivers into the open ocean.
Dalhousie’s OTN will set up receivers in the Cabot Strait to allow tracking of salmon from the southern exit of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and will track the fish to their feeding grounds in Greenland.
The more the ASF learns about salmon in Canadian waters, the more those lessons can be applied to restoration efforts here in Maine.
Here’s hoping the $35 million is money well-spent, and researchers can finally get more tangible answers to the questions that have plagued restoration efforts for generations.