AUGUSTA, Maine — Last week’s federal announcement that Atlantic salmon in three of Maine’s largest rivers were being added to the Endangered Species List came as no surprise to anyone involved in the salmon issue.
In fact, several observers half-heartedly referred to the endangered designation as “the worst-kept secret in Maine.”
But while the designation was widely anticipated, the impacts of that decision are largely unknown.
How will the dozens of industries — some employing hundreds of workers directly and supporting thousands of others — be affected by stricter rules on wastewater discharges and fish passage around hydropower dams?
How does the additional protection help salmon populations teetering on extinction despite decades of attention from conservationists and tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer money?
Will the federal edict sully the spirit of cooperation that has led to historic dam removal agreements on the Kennebec and Penobscot rivers?
Officials at PPL Corp., who are selling three Penobscot River dams to a coalition as part of one of those historic agreements, indicated they hope the impacts will be minimal.
The project to remove the Veazie and Great Works dams and bypass the Howland dam is expected to re-open nearly 1,000 miles of aquatic habitat to salmon, shad and other sea-run fish species. The two federal agencies involved in the endangered listing — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — are both parties to the Penobscot River restoration agreement.
“We very much feel that the work we have been doing over the past several years is very consistent with what the agencies are looking for,” said PPL spokesman George Lewis.
Many of the industries operating within the watersheds of the three rivers had followed the Baldacci administration’s lead and urged the federal agencies to list salmon as “threatened” rather than “endangered.”
A “threatened” designation, they argued, still strengthens regulatory protections for the fish while allowing more flexibility to develop mutual conservation plans. The lesser designation also left the window open — if only a crack — for the state to continue holding an annual catch-and-release salmon fishing season on the Penobscot, which some regard as critical to maintaining angler support for the conservation efforts.
“In any event, it’s listed, and we’re going to have to make the best of it,” said William Taylor, an attorney at Pierce Atwood in Portland who represented the interests of a dozen large and small businesses or landowners potentially affected by the listing.
One of the major concerns for Taylor’s clients, which he declined to name, is the additional oversight required for projects that require federal permits or receive federal money. That means federal agencies will have to be consulted on potential impacts to salmon during dam relicensing, wastewater discharge permitting and wetlands alterations.
Nearly 90 businesses or municipalities discharge water into the three rivers or tributaries covered by the listing. Then there are dams, forestry companies that build logging roads and bridges, agricultural operations — all of which will require federal consultations at some point.
“The federal services don’t have the staff,” Taylor said. “I don’t believe they know what they are getting into. These three rivers are working rivers. It’s not like the Down East rivers.”
Businesses and industries operating along eight Down East rivers and the lower stretches of the Kennebec and Penobscot rivers have been dealing with endangered salmon since 2000.
And although there have been impacts — such as on Washington County’s blueberry growers’ access to water for irrigation — the region’s agriculture and forestry industries never collapsed, as some had predicted.
But the situation on the Penobscot, Kennebec and Androscoggin is far more complex due to the scale of industrialization, the rivers’ importance to Maine’s economy and the massive size of their watersheds.
Federal officials insist they understand the significance of the listing and the uneasiness it has caused among some.
“We intend to continue working with the state’s industries to respond to their concerns,” Mary Colligan, director of protected resources with NOAA’s northeast fisheries service, said last week.
Most of those concerns seem to stem from uncertainty.
“The short answer is we don’t know what it really means for us other than it’s probably not going to be a good thing,” said Keith Van Scotter, president and CEO of Lincoln Paper and Tissue. The Lincoln mill now meets all of the requirements for discharge into the Penobscot, Van Scotter noted.
John Williams, president of the Maine Pulp and Paper Association, pointed out that nearly all of the state’s remaining mills are located along the Kennebec, Penobscot and Androscoggin rivers. Like other industry groups and the state, MPPA had argued that threatened listing provided protection while allowing some flex room.
Williams said his organization, which represents all of the state’s major mills, is concerned the listing will slow down permitting, thereby putting companies at a disadvantage.
“I do get the feeling that they want to work with us,” Williams said of the federal agencies. “It’s just a much bigger, slower bureaucracy.”
Of course, advocates for an endangered listing point out that businesses along the Penobscot and Kennebec have been under the regulatory scrutiny of the Endangered Species Act for years and industry has not disappeared along the rivers.
Both rivers are home to shortnose sturgeon, first protected as an endangered species more than 40 years ago. Federal biologists and their supporters often point to Cianbro Corp.’s recent dredging of the Penobscot along a stretch of river in Brewer popular with shortnose sturgeon as proof that protected species and industrial development can co-exist.
Additionally, the 2000 federal decision protected salmon in the lower stretches of the two rivers.
“We have to answer inquiries about the fish, and we are very [attentive] to our discharges,” said Bill Cohen, spokesman for Verso Paper, which operates a mill in Bucksport. “Has it held us back and been a big impact? The answer is no.”
Cohen said the listing could have greater impacts at Verso’s Jay mill, which also operates a dam along the Androscoggin. The federal license for the dam requires the company to build a fishway around the dam if and when salmon start showing up.
But Cohen echoed concerns expressed by others that environmental groups could use the endangered listing to slow to a crawl or halt the permitting process, thereby adding to companies’ costs.
Nick Bennett, staff scientist with the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said his organization has no game plan for responding to permits. It’s still unclear what the best strategies are for saving salmon, he said.
The listing means that some industries likely will have to do a better job of protecting salmon and their habitat, he said. But cleaning up the rivers and reopening upstream habitat for salmon and other fish species benefits the economy and society in general, he said.
As for arguments that salmon in the three rivers should have been listed as threatened, Bennett pointed out that historic estimates are that anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 salmon used to return to the Penobscot annually. Similarly large numbers are believed to have returned to the other two rivers, too, before industrialization and overfishing nearly wiped them out.
The fact that the run on the Penobscot is between 1,000 and 2,000 and is just a few dozen fish on the Kennebec and Androscoggin is proof that Maine’s salmon are not just threatened but are endangered, he said.
“There’s an issue of credibility here,” he said. “And if you have a species that is really at the edge of extinction, which this one is, then that is what the Endangered Species Act is for.”