On an average day in greater Bangor, most of the city’s residents pay little attention to the river that flows past, and even less attention to the invisible fish that are streaming northward in an annual return from the sea.
But the river flows on. And the fish, in various quantities each year, are there.
This year, fisheries experts at the Maine Department of Marine Resources say that there’s more Atlantic salmon in the Penobscot, and in Down East rivers then there have been in recent years.
Since two dams on the lower Penobscot — one in Veazie, and one at Great Works — were removed over the past five years as part of the Penobscot River Restoration Project, access to upstream habitat has increased dramatically. In many spots, fish returning from the sea have been able to swim in places that their ancestors hadn’t had access to for nearly 150 years.
While PRRP proponents alway said that the project was not an Atlantic salmon-specific endeavor — it would instead aid a complete roster of sea-run fish — salmon have always been the star attraction on the Penobscot, and in rivers farther Down East, including the Narraguagus, Machias and East Machias.
This year, after five years of low salmon returns on the Penobscot, a small bump in the returns has been tracked at the fish lift at the Milford Dam.
As of July 7, a total of 722 Atlantic salmon had been counted at the fish lift, the highest total by that date since 2011. Last year, only 454 salmon had been counted by July 3, when the most comparable weekly report was issued.
And while 2011’s seasonal total of about 3,000 salmon won’t be approached this year, the return is a marked improvement over each of the last five years.
“While it is hard to say for sure what is driving production this year, naturally reared salmon likely experienced beneficial conditions in the marine environment [while at sea], which resulted in better than expected survival rates,” Sean Ledwin, the new director of the Sea Run Fisheries and Habitat Division of the Maine DMR, wrote in an email.
During the state government shutdown that occurred during the first week of July, the fish lift at Milford was opened up because state employees would not be present to transport them to the Craig Brook National Fish Hatchery in Orland, where many of the river’s Atlantic salmon are taken and used to serve as broodstock for the next generation of salmon.
The fish lift was monitored, however.
“There were 20 mature adult salmon that passed the site during the shutdown, which now have the opportunity to spawn in the wild,” Ledwin wrote.
Ledwin said that a “reserve” stock of captive broodstock salmon at Green Lake National Fish Hatchery in Ellsworth should allow for sufficient hatchery production, even though fewer than optimal broodstock may be captured this year.
Another bright spot: Up in Howland, another 30 miles upriver from Bangor on the Penobscot, a dam bypass that was completed last year allows a variety of fish to swim freely even farther than before.
“Fish are successfully passing through the Howland bypass, with Atlantic salmon and other species found far upstream in 2016 and 2017,” Ledwin wrote. “The most robust fish counts take place at Milford, but tagged fish surveys have shown that one-third or more of the Atlantic salmon that pass Milford go up the Piscataquis River.”
And Down East, in Washington County, the traditional salmon rivers are having solid years, the scientists said.
“2017 is shaping up to be a good year for Atlantic salmon Down East,” wrote Ernie Atkinson, a DMR scientist in the Sea Run Fisheries and Habitat Division. “Based on preliminary returns to the Narraguagus [River] trap, it appears that marine survival has been higher over the past couple of years than for 2016 or earlier adult cohorts.”
Atkinson said 25 adult salmon had been counted on the Narraguagus.
Big stripers show up
A year ago, many of the striped bass that headed up the Penobscot were very small “schoolie” fish, ranging from 10 to 14 inches long. This year, though fewer stripers have been counted in Milford — 597 vs. 800 on roughly the same date a year ago — the size of those fish has increased a bit.
One avid angler said he saw a pair of 20-pound stripers caught just below Milford a week ago, in fact. Mitch Simpson, a Maine Department of Marine Resources scientist in the Sea Run Fisheries and Habitat Division, said that reports of fewer stripers or shad in the river this year — nearly twice as many shad, 7,512, were counted a year ago — is not a problem.
“The numbers far exceed those from the previous Veazie trap before the Penobscot River Restoration Project was implemented,” Simpson wrote in an email. “Shad numbers were high everywhere across the East Coast last year, so lower numbers this year may be due to natural variability.”
And yes, Simpson said he was aware of the big stripers in the river.
“We have heard of larger stripers being caught below Milford. It is not surprising, as they now have access all the way to the site at Milford without downstream the downstream dams,” he wrote.
And those stripers are allowed to swim upriver from Milford.
“We pass all the stripers upstream [of the dam] that we catch at Milford, but have not seen a keeper [longer than 28 inches] at the lift. The majority of the fish are in the 12- to 20-inch range, weighing 1 to 2 pounds,” Simpson wrote.
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Sean Ledwin.