On June 14, hundreds of people, including federal, state, local and tribal officials and conservation partners, gathered in Howland, Maine, to celebrate the completion of the last major milestone in the Penobscot River Restoration Project, considered one of the largest, most innovative river restoration projects in the nation.

For the first time in more than a century, American shad, river herring, and Atlantic salmon could swim freely around the Howland dam to and from important historic spawning and rearing habitat, thanks to the completion of the large, stream-like fish “bypass” channel around the dam. The bypass reconnected the Piscataquis River to the main stem of the Penobscot and the Gulf of Maine, allowing sea-run fish to swim freely past the dam for the first time in almost 200 years.

The completion fulfilled the Penobscot Project’s goal of significantly improving access to 2,000 miles of Maine’s largest river for 11 species of native sea-run fish, while maintaining energy through increased hydropower generation at other dams in the watershed.

The project is already showing success. More than two million river herring are expected to surge past the former Veazie dam site this year, and recently more than 225 Atlantic salmon have also entered the river. In 2016, the river herring count (alewife and blueback herring) totaled 1.8 million, and more than 7,000 American shad were counted upriver as well.

Sea-run fish are rapidly recolonizing places they haven’t been able to reach since the 1800s. River herring, shad, eels, and Atlantic salmon have been sighted more than 90 miles above the former Veazie dam at the Mattaceunk dam in Medway and also into the upper reaches of the Mattawamkeag River. Sturgeon are reclaiming their historic habitats upriver as well.

“It is thrilling to see the river rebounding since the Penobscot Project reconnected the Gulf of Maine to more than 2,000 miles of upstream waters,” said Don Hudson, Chairman of the Penobscot River Restoration Trust. “The fish know just what to do, and the eagles, otters, wildlife watchers, boaters, and fishermen do, too.”

Five years ago, in June 2012, the Great Works dam removal began, followed by the removal of the Veazie dam at the head of tide in 2013. At the same time, dam owners built a fish elevator at the Milford dam, now the only dam on the lower Penobscot. Dam owners increased power generation at several other locations within the Penobscot watershed to maintain and even increase power generation in the river. 

The restored river provides many cultural, economic, and recreational opportunities from the Penobscot headwaters to the Gulf of Maine. As a result of the project, the river now better supports Penobscot Nation tribal culture, renews traditional uses, and provides broad benefits to fish and wildlife along the river corridor and into the Gulf of Maine. The project has also resulted in increased business and regulatory certainty for the dam owners.

The Penobscot River Restoration Trust is a nonprofit organization responsible for completing the core elements of the Penobscot Project. Members are the Penobscot Indian Nation, American Rivers, Atlantic Salmon Federation, Maine Audubon, Natural Resources Council of Maine, Trout Unlimited, and The Nature Conservancy.