Alewives and blue-backed herring in the Dennys River. Credit: Gabor Degre

A state project to help four species of fish pass more easily between the ocean and lakes and rivers in eastern Washington County is getting a $30 million boost from the federal government.

The money will go toward restoration projects spread out over more than 300,000 acres in roughly 20 municipalities and townships in eastern Washington County, including the replacement of undersized culverts that block fish passage. Work will be done in watersheds that drain into the lower St. Croix River, Cobscook and Passamaquoddy bays, and Grand Manan Channel.

The head of a fish habitat conservation group active in eastern Maine said Wednesday’s announcement of the federal funding was “fantastic” news.

“We are encouraged to see this level of investment,” said Dwayne Shaw, executive director of the Downeast Salmon Federation. “A program of this magnitude is beginning to approach a level commensurate with the immense importance of fisheries recovery to our region’s economy and culture.”

Officials with the state departments of Marine Resources and Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the federal agency awarding the funding, said that improving fish passage between the ocean and the lakes and rivers in the project area will be beneficial to both the environment and the economy of Washington County, which has active commercial sea-run fisheries and draws recreational anglers from around the world.

Diadromous fish, which spend parts of their life cycles in fresh water and other parts in salt water, have access only to “a fraction” of the historical spawning and rearing habitat in Maine that is critical to federally endangered Atlantic salmon and four other species identified by federal fisheries regulators as species of concern — the American eel, alewife, blueback herring and rainbow smelt, officials said. If fish are unable to reach the habitat that is critical to successive life stages, they cannot grow or reproduce, resulting in reduced fish populations and overall negative effects to watershed health, they said.

Restoring fish access to those habitats also is important for the Passamaquoddy Tribe, which state and federal officials said is the project’s lead partner.

“Fishing has been a culturally defining activity for generations of Native Americans who rely on the watersheds for sustenance and outdoor recreation,” officials said in announcing the funding. “Passamaquoddy lands — including Pleasant Point Reservation — are located directly in the project area.”

Patrick Keliher, commissioner of Maine’s marine resources department, said that restoring migratory routes for sea-run fisheries is “vital” for the project area.

“Our rivers in Down East Maine have great potential,” he said. “Improving passage and habitat for species like American eels, river herring and Atlantic salmon will provide significant ecological benefits, recreational opportunities and economic value throughout the region.”

Watch: Salmon restoration efforts in Piscataquis River

Bill Trotter

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....