Atlantic salmon listing an opportunity, not liability

Posted Aug. 17, 2009, at 7:52 p.m.

Now that Atlantic salmon in the Penobscot, Kennebec and Androscoggin rivers are protected as an endangered species, it is time to move forward and actually protect them. Here are some things to ponder as we do so:

1. The U.S. Endangered Species Act forbids us from giving up. The ESA can be boiled down to the advice we give our kids: “No excuses allowed.” As early as the 1830s, influential officials in Bangor and Augusta declared that the “time for salmon” was past and that efforts to restoring salmon to Maine’s rivers was a futile, hopeless gesture. The same sentiments are echoed today. The Endangered Species Act does not afford us the luxury of making a half-hearted gesture. As Yoda said, “Do or do not. There is no try.”

2. The basic needs of Maine Atlantic salmon are simple to provide.

In the Penobscot River, Atlantic salmon need to be able to swim up from Penobscot Bay to Wassataquoik Stream in Baxter State Park, mate, spawn and swim back down to the sea. That is all they need.

But the Penobscot, Kennebec and Androscoggin rivers have been blocked by dams since the 1820s. Many of these dams have been grandfathered from compliance with modern conservation laws, like an apartment built without fire escapes.

But unlike an apartment building, in our dammed-up salmon rivers there is a fire every spring. Every spring, salmon cannot move past these dams. And every fall, those few salmon that do move past the dams are cut into pieces by their metal-bladed turbines as they try to migrate to the ocean.

The technology to allow salmon to move past dams and divert them from turbine blades is well-known and used at dams all across the globe. All that needs to be done in Maine is for this technology to be installed at all of the dams on Maine’s salmon rivers. This technology is not difficult or costly to install. It is as well-understood as the technology that keeps human waste out of our rivers.

For the same reason that we protect bald eagle nests from disturbance, the migration routes of Atlantic salmon in our rivers must be protected from disturbance. As we have seen with the bald eagle, when we do this, the eagles return. If we leave the salmon unmolested to swim up our rivers and give birth, they will return.

3. The Endangered Species Act provides Maine with vital funding.

Few people know that nearly all of the funding to restore Atlantic salmon in Maine since the 1870s has come from the federal government, not the state of Maine.

This is the same as the federal Clean Water Act, written by Maine’s own Sen. Edmund Muskie. Federal dollars paid for the wastewater treatment plants that now make Maine’s rivers clean enough to swim and fish in. Without this federal money, Maine towns and cities would have been hard-pressed to front the initial capital to build modern wastewater facilities.

The U.S. Endangered Species Act provides exactly the same funding opportunity as the U.S. Clean Water Act. The ESA is not an unfunded mandate — it is the opposite. Most of the river restoration activities the ESA will fund on the Penobscot, Androscoggin and Kennebec rivers have long been on the wish list of Maine fisheries agencies, but have never been done for lack of money. These river improvements will benefit Maine people, Maine wildlife and all of Maine’s native fish, not just salmon.

4. Protecting Maine’s endangered species works.

Ask the bald eagle. Nearly extinct in Maine and the U.S. in the 1960s, bald eagles are a frequent sight in Maine and have now been removed from the U.S. and Maine endangered species lists.

Ask the wild turkey. Extinct from Maine for nearly a century, wild turkeys are increasing by leaps and bounds.

Ask the moose. Reduced to a few hundred animals in Maine by 1900, moose are now common.

Ask the osprey, great blue heron, bluebird, wood duck and white-tailed deer. All of these animals, once rare in Maine, quickly recovered once we gave them a fighting chance to come back.

The Endangered Species Act gives us the funding and collective spine to get done what needs to get done for those who will inherit this state and its rivers from us. It is an opportunity, not a liability.

Or to put it another way, I would rather explain to a child why a salmon leaps, than explain why there are no salmon leaping. For our children and their salmon, there can be no middle course in the matter. It is time to move forward.

Douglas Watts of Augusta is the founder of Friends of the Kennebec Salmon and a former officer of the Maine Council of the Atlantic Salmon Federation.

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