On Thursday, as national delegations prepare to meet in Norway to discuss Atlantic salmon conservation, there’s a mixed bag of news for those who are passionate about salmon and salmon angling.
The headline on an Atlantic Salmon Federation press release, in fact, sounds downright cheery, as it announces that harvest of the fish in the North Atlantic is at an all-time low, and adult returns to North American rivers increased from 2017 to 2018.
That’s the attitude the ASF is taking heading into the annual meeting of the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization, at least.
In an accompanying report, “State of the North American Atlantic Salmon Populations,” a more sober picture begins to emerge.
According to that report, salmon returns to U.S. rivers in 2018 met only 3 percent of the conservation limit for fish that had spent two winters at sea. And what’s a “conservation limit?” That’s defined as the number of spawning adults below which populations are unable to sustain themselves, and begin to decline.
And that pretty much defines the Atlantic salmon situation here in Maine; the fish is listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. Fishing for Atlantic salmon here is not allowed, and the population that does exist is almost entirely dependent on the annual stocking of hundreds of thousands of hatchery fish.
In 2018, according to the ASF, the Penobscot had 480 large salmon and 289 small salmon return. That run of 769 fish was lower than 2017’s 849 returning salmon.
And despite those numbers, the Penobscot is still the crown jewel among U.S. salmon rivers. In the nearby Kennebec, just 11 fish returned in 2018 (compared to 38 in 2017). On the Narraguagus River, fortunes were better, with 42 salmon returning last year, nearly doubling the total from 2017.
“When it comes to wild Atlantic salmon no two places in North America are the same,” ASF President Bill Taylor said in the press release. “But despite these unique challenges, it’s encouraging that people and governments are doing their part for conservation.”
Still, more than 36,000 adult salmon were killed by indigenous and recreational anglers in Canada last year. In addition, thousands more salmon were estimated to have been lost to “unreported fishing,” or poaching, in Canada.
The total take of salmon in Canada was the lowest since record-keeping began in 1972. Still, the returns are lagging north of the border, and threats remain.
“Despite the good news on harvest and overall returns, it’s worrying that salmon populations have not rebounded further,” Taylor said. “We’re still losing ground to threats like open net-pen salmon aquaculture, habitat loss, and changing ocean conditions. We’re hopeful that Canada’s new Wild Atlantic Salmon Conservation Policy and the new U.S. Atlantic Salmon Recovery Plan will make a difference.”
There is a tiny bit of encouraging news closer to home, though. According to Jason Valliere, a marine resource scientist for the Maine Department of Marine Resources, the salmon run has begun in earnest on the Penobscot River.
On Tuesday alone, eight salmon arrived at the Milford Dam fish-counting facility, bringing the 2019 total to 24.
While that’s not grounds for a huge celebration, consider this: The run typically slows considerably after the river warms, so when the water remains cold, the salmon are likely to keep on coming. And this year, the Penobscot is running very cold — 55 degrees on Tuesday compared to 63 degrees a year ago.
Other reasons to be encouraged include the arrival of the first American shad at the Milford Dam, and the fact that nearly 1 million river herring have passed through the facility already.
That means that striped bass aren’t far behind, and anglers will likely be able to fish for them by the middle of June.
John Holyoke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 207-990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke. His first book, “Evergreens,” will be released by Islandport Press in October.