On Tuesday, the news many had expected finally arrived: Federal agencies are moving forward with a plan to expand the protection of Gulf of Maine Atlantic salmon by including fish in the Kennebec, Androscoggin and Penobscot rivers under an endangered species listing.

On Wednesday, I received a phone message from a man who was apparently finding a way to remain optimistic.

“I was wondering if there’s going to be a fall season for Atlantic salmon on the Penobscot this year,” the man asked.

The answer to his question: No. When a spring season was held in May, the fall season that had been staged in 2006 and 2007 was discontinued.

Now here’s the somber answer to the question he didn’t ask: If you’re hoping to fish on the Penobscot River again in the near future, don’t hold your breath.

As you may remember, the National Oceanic and Atmos-pheric Administration’s Fisheries Service, along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, listed the Gulf of Maine salmon as endangered back in 2000, with a couple of caveats.

At the time the agencies deferred listing the fish found in portions of the Penobscot and the Kennebec, as well as some of their tributaries, pending further research.

Six years later, in 2006, the agencies released a review of the status of Atlantic salmon in Maine, and the latest proposed action is “consistent with recommendations” made in that report, according to NOAA.

During the two years since that status review, many salmon conservationists predicted it was just a matter of time before the federal government stepped into the fray in Maine, and the entire Penobscot fell under some sort of federal listing.

On the Androscoggin and Kennebec, Atlantic salmon fishing isn’t a factor, but anglers are still worried.

The concern that’s been tossed back and forth on Internet message boards for years is pretty straight-forward.

If Atlantic salmon in those rivers are given an ESA listing, would the stocking of other species like brown trout or rainbow trout be curtailed or halted to protect juvenile salmon?

For the record, Atlantic salmon returns on those rivers are dismal: According to the Maine Bureau of Sea-Run Fisheries and Habitat’s Web site, as of Wednesday only 20 fish had returned to the Kennebec this year and just 17 had returned to the Androscoggin.

On the Penobscot, things are a bit different: Here, this year’s run is being heralded as a bright spot in recent salmon conservation efforts.

So far, 2,085 fish have made it upstream as far as the Veazie Dam this year.

For the past three years, limited one-month catch-and-release salmon seasons were held. There’s an ongoing effort to improve fish habitat through the Penobscot River Restoration Project.

People are excited at the possibilities.

People are pitching in.

And now, I expect, many people will step forward to tell the federal agencies exactly what they think.

I support conservation and restoration efforts on the Penobscot, and have seen, first-hand, how enthusiastic anglers were when they got the chance to fish “their” river during the springtime after an eight-year closure.

The people I met were people who thought they were part of the solution to the problems facing the river.

Now, they may learn they’re seen as part of the problem.

When NOAA announced its plan to list the Penobscot salmon, officials pointed out that about 2,000 fish had returned to the river this year. Then, apparently, creative math took over.

“This is a slight increase over recent years,” NOAA’s press release stated.

Slight increase?

Not even close.

In 2007, just 916 fish returned to the Penobscot. Over the past five years, an average of 1,076 fish made it to the Veazie Dam.

When an extra thousand fish head home to spawn … and you’re only getting a thousand, on average, each year … I’d think that statistical bump would be called “significant.” Or “stunning.” Or “pretty cool.”

Anything but “slight.”

Truth be told, this year’s returns make 2008 the 11th best year since the Veazie Dam trap began operation in 1978. And this year’s total is the highest in 16 years.

Of course, one year doesn’t make a trend, and scientists rely on the data.

One piece of data you might want to consider, however: NOAA says this year’s total, while a “slight” increase, is still just 10 percent of what’s needed “before spawning stocks are thought to be in good condition.”

That’s right. Ten percent.

I’m an optimist at heart, and I’d love to see a day when those 20,000 adult salmon return to the Penobscot River in a single year.

I’m also realistic enough to realize that no unfunded ESA listing — that’s right, there’s no money attached to the proposed federal action — would do much to help us reach that lofty NOAA goal.

What do you think?

I’m curious what readers think about the proposed ESA listing that would include the Penobscot River.

If you’ve got an opinion, please consider dropping me an e-mail.

I’ll share some of those opinions in a future column.

John Holyoke

John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. Today, he's the Outdoors editor for the BDN, a job that allows him to meet up with Maine outdoors enthusiasts in their...