ELLSWORTH, Maine — In the ambitious effort to revive Maine’s Atlantic salmon runs, the $50 million campaign to remove or bypass three major dams on the Penobscot River has received the lion’s share of attention. And perhaps rightfully so, given the scope of the project.
But salmon and other sea-run fish face another 700 dams that block or impede their access to rivers, streams and tributaries throughout the three watersheds in Maine where the federally protected fish are found.
On Wednesday, staff from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will hold the first of three public meetings designed to reach out to landowners who have these other dams on their properties.
The purpose of the meetings — scheduled for Aug. 10 in Brewer, Aug. 15 in Augusta and Aug. 18 in Machias — is to seek the public’s input on a new federal process intended to make it easier for owners of nonfederally licensed dams to remove, bypass or take other measures to comply with the Endangered Species Act.
David Bean, a fisheries biologist with the NOAA field office in Orono, said most of the estimated 700 dams in the Penobscot, Merrymeeting and Downeast watersheds are smaller, older structures in the upper tributaries of the major rivers.
They range from simple earthen berms to wooden crib-type structures or concrete dams. Some were built to help power a local mill or create impoundments. Many likely date back generations or longer.
“Some of them are still serving those purposes and some of them are not,” Bean said recently. “But there might be an opportunity for some of these dam owners to come forward and have them removed. That is the hope.”
Once abundant throughout Maine, Atlantic salmon are now listed as an endangered species throughout the watersheds of the Penobscot, Kennebec and Androscoggin rivers as well as in Downeast Maine.
That federal protection means individuals and landowners — including dam owners — can be held liable for activities that “harass, harm, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect” the fish.
While federal regulators often work closely with dam owners to help them comply with the Endangered Species Act, some organizations and individuals have filed suit in federal court against owners of larger dams to force them to take more drastic steps.
NOAA is creating a new process aimed at helping dam owners more quickly and smoothly navigate the lengthy and potentially time-consuming process of receiving the permits necessary to remove a dam or build a fishway to allow passage upstream.
In the past, each project had to have its own conservation plan to minimize effects on the species. But the agency hopes to develop a boiler-plate conservation plan that would help speed the process.
“We want to engage dam owners in the development of a general conservation plan that will save them time, energy and money as we work to recover Atlantic salmon,” Patricia Kurkul, the NOAA Fisheries Service’s northeast region administrator, said in a statement.
“This will provide a streamlined process for dam owners to secure necessary permits to allow for the incidental take of Atlantic salmon that does not jeopardize species survival or recovery,” Kurkul said.
Past projects help illustrate how quickly fish species return to upper sections of a river or stream once a dam is removed.
Perhaps the best-known example is the Edwards Dam in Augusta. Almost immediately after the dam’s demolition in 1999, striped bass were being caught near Waterville and today more than 2.7 million alewives have been counted at the upstream Benton dam.
Along the Penobscot, Atlantic salmon were showing up in the Sedgeunkedunk Stream within days of the removal of the Mill Dam in Brewer in 2009. The subsequent removal of the Meadow Dam in Orrington has further reopened that stream to salmon, lamprey and other native fish that historically spawned in the stream.
The NOAA meeting in Brewer will be held on Wednesday, Aug. 10 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Penobscot County Conservation Association. The Augusta meeting will be held on Monday, Aug. 15 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Governor Hill Mansion. The Machias meeting will be held on Thursday, Aug. 18 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the University of Maine at Machias.