Penobscot dam removal will provide big benefits

Posted May 15, 2009, at 7:33 p.m.

There are few things that could offer greater long-term benefits to midcoast Maine than the proposed removal of dams on the Penobscot River. The Penobscot River restoration effort will improve species diversity, restore numerous fisheries and provide a renewed, sustainable economic opportunity for the communities bordering the Penobscot River and both sides of Penobscot Bay.

Sea-run fish migrating up Maine’s rivers were once a powerful economic driver that generated thousands of sustainable, year-round jobs throughout the state. That potential is still there. The only thing needed to bring them back to the Penobscot is to remove a couple of dams to let them back in. The fish will do the rest.

Some might be tempted to say, “Why bother with all this just for a couple of hatchery-reared salmon?” The response is, “Because it’s not just the salmon.” There may well be thousands of Atlantic salmon runs in a reopened river someday, but salmon are just the tip of the iceberg. Maine’s rivers and streams once supported huge runs of several other species of fish, but only salmon could get past the dams. Before dams closed the Penobscot, there were annual spawning runs of shad, alewives and bluebacks that numbered in the millions, while salmon, striped bass, eels and sturgeon were plentiful enough to provide additional fisheries.

Once Maine reopens its largest river and reestablishes its sea-run stocks, sportsmen throughout the country will flock to the area. Sustainable runs of Atlantic salmon, shad and stripers in the Penobscot would spin off benefits to every town bordering the river.

But the key to this opportunity lies in the fact that river towns and cities would not be the only ones to benefit from a revitalized river. Reopening the Penobscot River will restore three different types of fisheries — each with accompanying economic benefits. The first, of course, is restoring the river fisheries; the other two are in the marine world, and would help revitalize the state’s fabled coastal fisheries.

The second restoration occurs where the river meets the sea. Thousands of groundfish like cod, haddock and stripers would be drawn back to the bay to prey upon the renewed migrations of adult and young alewives, shad and bluebacks. Once again the river would provide the extra forage base for groundfish that made Penobscot Bay so productive. The third restoration would be the repopulation of the historic groundfish spawning areas and nursery grounds to create sustainable local populations of groundfish and re-establish much of Penobscot’s original marine coastal shelf species assemblage.

Rivers are critical to making Maine’s coastal fisheries productive. As each one became choked with dams and their huge runs of fish waned, local inshore groundfish stocks slowly disappeared along with them. Right now, the once famous stocks of cod, haddock and flounder — the groundfish — are severely depleted from Portland to Canada. Reopening the Penobscot River will reverse that trend and unleash a potent biological engine that could provide Mainers with countless new jobs.

Today there’s an overwhelming need for the state to stand up with the thousands of commercial and recreational fishermen who live and work from head-of-the-tide to outer Penobscot Bay, and with all of us who just plain enjoy being near a living, vital river. Support ending nearly two centuries of its strangulation by restoring the native fish that belong in this beautiful river. Let’s get on with the rebuilding process.

Ted Ames, a longtime fisherman and lobsterman, is a founder of the Penobscot East Resource Center and member of the Stonington Fisheries Alliance.

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