On Monday, crews began demolishing the Penobscot River’s Veazie Dam. It marked an important moment for sea-run fish, efforts to restore a complex habitat and unlikely partnerships. The day was notable not only for the state but also for the nation: The dam breaching is part of one of the largest river restoration projects in the country’s history.
For more than a century, the Veazie Dam has prevented 11 species of sea-run fish from reaching more than 1,000 miles of their native habitat. Now those fish — including the endangered Atlantic salmon, American shad, river herring, endangered shortnose sturgeon, threatened Atlantic sturgeon, striped bass, rainbow smelt and tomcod — are closer than ever to being able to return to their native waters to feed, spawn and boost the larger ecosystem.
People across the U.S. are paying attention to the fate of the Atlantic salmon, especially since truly native populations of the fish now only exist in Maine. The single best way to nurture and grow the species is to restore access to the Penobscot River by taking down dams, according to the National Academy of Sciences. When opened, biologists say, the second largest river system in New England could eventually be home to 10,000-12,000 Atlantic salmon, up from the low thousands today.
It will be possible because of the collaboration between diverse groups: those overseeing hydropower production, the Penobscot Indian Nation, environmentalists and the state and federal government. The removal of the Veazie Dam — the lowermost barrier on the river — is just the most recent feat of the Penobscot River Restoration Project. Last year, crews took out the Great Works Dam between Old Town and Bradley. Next, a fish passage is needed at a dam in Howland.
Another key to success lies with the very item supposedly being removed: hydropower. In fact, though, hydropower production will only increase because six other dams are authorized to boost production. The compromise provides a good lesson for others to learn from: Protection of the environment and hydropower production are not mutually exclusive options.
The once-thriving fisheries of the Penobscot River shaped this area’s economy and culture. Removing the 830-foot concrete dam — in an area where dams have existed in some form since the early 1800s — will only help restore and protect those local economies and cultural traditions. Improving species diversity will help sustain the Penobscot Indian Nation, as Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis said Monday. We also hope to see an increase in the number of visiting sportsmen and recreational boaters, in addition to more productive coastal fisheries.
Overall, though, the success of the project lies with its ability to benefit a host of interests at the state and federal level, whether economic or environmental.