An Atlantic salmon makes its way to a holding tank at the Milford Dam fishway at Brookfield Energy in Milford Wednesday. After more than three decades capturing Atlantic salmon at the Veazie Dam, that operation has moved to Milford, where a new fishlift was unveiled in 2014. Credit: Ashley L. Conti / BDN

The fish lift on the Penobscot River at the Milford Dam closed for the season on Nov. 16, and fisheries personnel say the annual run of Atlantic salmon was encouraging, but more conservation work is needed on the federally endangered species.

The unofficial count — before Maine Department of Marine Resources staffers analyze data and make sure that recaptured fish are only counted once — is 1,603 salmon that have been counted in the Penobscot this year. That’s up from 1,152 in 2019, and is the biggest run of salmon since 2011, when 3,125 salmon returned to the river. The average run for the eight years from 2012 to 2019 was just 708 salmon per year.

Jason Valliere, a marine resource scientist for the DMR, said the total marked the continuation of a positive pattern.

“We have had an increasing trend since 2014, the year after the removal of Veazie and Great Works dams [as part of the Penobscot River Restoration Project],” Valliere said. “More fish in the river means more natural spawning and hopefully more ‘natural origin’ returns in future years. This is important because natural origin returns are one of the metrics used to assess restoration efforts. Smolt stocked fish (hatchery product) count toward yearly returns but are not used to move the restoration success needle.”

Atlantic salmon in most Maine rivers have been protected under the federal Endangered Species Act since 2000. Federal protection was expanded to all Maine rivers in 2009, with the addition of the Penobscot, Androscoggin and Kennebec rivers. Among the results of the federal listing: Fishing for Atlantic salmon is not allowed on any Maine river.

Earlier this year conservation groups and individuals were rebuffed when they asked the state to consider listing fish on the Maine endangered species list to strengthen the protections the federal listing has provided.

Valliere said an extended period of warm weather likely led to an extended period of salmon migration, and some salmon were still arriving at the Milford Dam in October and early November.

“The Penobscot River warmed up very quickly this summer and flows were very low. This likely resulted in more fish than normal holding in the lower river/estuary until travel conditions upstream were more favorable,” Valliere said. “Fall rains and cooling river temperatures are environmental cues and trigger fish to move. When conditions got right, these fish headed upstream toward spawning grounds.”

While two years in a row of an increased run is good news, Valliere said plenty of work remains to be done.

“It’s going to take more time before we can truly assess the success of recent restoration efforts like dam removal and improved fish passage for salmon,” Valliere said. “It takes many generations to do this due to natural population variation year to year due to weather and ocean conditions. We hope the run continues to increase, most importantly the naturally reared component of the run, and that the needle continues to move toward restoration target goals.”

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John Holyoke

John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. Today, he's the Outdoors editor for the BDN, a job that allows him to meet up with Maine outdoors enthusiasts in their...