Atlantic Salmon may never be restored to Maine’s rivers, but we sure have spent a lot of money trying

Atlantic salmonI have sometimes thought that if the hundreds of millions of dollars we’ve spent trying to restore Atlantic salmon to Maine’s rivers had been spent on any other fish species, we’d have a lot more fish to catch. But after reading The President’s Salmon, published by Down East Books and written by Catherine Schmitt, I realize this project has been about a lot more than salmon. And a lot has been accomplished, although, unfortunately, that doesn’t include the restoration of salmon.

Schmitt started writing about the Penobscot River while working as a University of Maine research assistant, and she just kept at it, researching the history and issues all over Maine and beyond. It was an impressive body of work and I learned a lot from reading her book, which is fascinating. I actually read it all one day at camp, on the headwaters of one of the streams that feed the West Branch of the Penobscot River, featured in this book. Seemed like a very appropriate place to read the book.

This isn’t just a history of this complicated issue. It’s a very compelling and interesting story, with a timely message for all of us.

On page 30, I read about a legislative committee charged with consolidating fish and game laws in 1912. Yes, the laws were too complicated even then. I proposed legislation this year to create a new commission to simplify hunting and fishing rules, and in response, Maine’s Fish and Wildlife Department and the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine agreed to work together to do that, at least for fishing rules and laws. They are just getting to work on that project.

In Schmitt’s account, I read that in 1912, the legislative committee “reinstated an 1883 law prohibiting salmon fishing ‘any other way than by the ordinary mode of angling with single baited hooks and lines, artificial flies, artificial minnows, artificial insects, spoon hooks, and spinners.” They also outlawed the use of spears to harvest salmon.

On pages 41 and 42, I read of the beginning of the end for Maine’s Atlantic salmon, with the building of dams up the West Branch of the Penobscot, as well as up and down the entire Penobscot River. I also learned that the impact of log driving on salmon was a big negative. By the time I got to page 55, commercial salmon anglers had come to rely on hatcheries to produce their fish, although the success of hatchery stocking was decidedly inconsistent. At one point the government actually traded the eggs of Maine brook trout to Canada for Atlantic salmon eggs to augment collection of Penobscot fish.

While much of the book focuses on the Penobscot River, I found the chapters on other rivers that flow into the Penobscot to be especially interesting, particularly the chapters on the Wassataquoik, near my camp and mostly inside of Baxter State Park, and Seboomook where I fished as a kid.

There are many complicating issues when it comes to the demise of Atlantic salmon and our inability to restore them to Maine rivers. Schmitt explores and explains them all. For example, here’s something from page 69: “By the 1850s, competition between weir fishermen, salmon netters, and upstream residents on the Penobscot had resulted in hundreds of confusing and contradictory special laws. But with so many changes in the regulations, sometimes multiple times in a single legislative session, and variable enforcement and compliance, it is hard to tell what worked or didn’t work from year to year. From decade to decade, however, the trend became clear.”

The population of Atlantic salmon was going was down, down, down. And yes, the effort to restore this great fish to our rivers has been going on for more than 150 years. Many of the battles involved the Penobscot Indians, whose traditional fishery vanished over time. The Penobscots have played a major role in the effort to restore salmon and other species to the Penobscot River.

I had no idea that Maine’s first hatcheries produced so many different fish: Chinook salmon, coho salmon, steelhead, and grayling were stocked in the Penobscot and other East Coast rivers. By 1900, Charles Atkins was raising 15 species at his Craig Brook hatchery. But the catch of salmon peaked in 1888 at 205,149 pounds. We’d never get back to that annual catch, no matter how hard we tried.

The problems were many, focused on dams that salmon could not get past to access their spawning grounds, and severe pollution from mills along the river. On page 110 I learned, “With pollution-choked dead zones and inadequate passage at the dams, only the very strongest salmon were able to reach spawning beds upriver. Since 1872, the Craig Brook fish hatchery had put 56 million salmon into the Penobscot River, but by 1964 scientific studies had confirmed, again, that Atlantic salmon runs could not be restored or even maintained by stocking alone.”

Eventually, Maine and federal fisheries managers decided the Penobscot River offered the best chance of restoring Atlantic salmon, and abandoned our other rivers. We built fishways, fought and stopped new dams from being built, removed lots of pollution, but still, the salmon floundered.

On page 121, I read, “Fishways are pointless if there are no fish around to use them. So Maine worked with other New England states and federal agencies to reorganize and expand the hatchery program. In the 1950s and 1960s, declines in Penobscot salmon runs had forced the hatchery to once again use eggs from Canada (the Miramichi River), supplemented with eggs from Machias and Narraguagus salmon. Throughout this period, hatcheries stocked only fry and parr, with poor results. In the late 1960s, stocking had switched largely to smolts. In 1974, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service constructed an $8.5 million hatchery at Green Lake to produce smolts for the Penobscot, with funding from the Federal Aid to Sport Fish Restoration Program.”

And finally, we got to a time when I became active in some of these issues. I remember clearly when the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, where I had served as a member of the Board and President, joined other groups to stop the Big A dam project on the West Branch of the Penobscot River. That fight is covered in detail in this book. I particularly enjoyed reading about my friend Matt Scott: “In courageous testimony, Department of Environmental Protection biologist Matt Scott told federal officials the Big A reservoir would fail EPA’s dissolved oxygen criteria for several months of the year, degrading fish habitat.” We actually lost that battle, but after Great Northern got their permit, they abandoned the Big A dam project, “citing a drain on financial resources, foreign competition, and problems with state regulatory agencies. Great Northern was unhappy with several conditions of the permit,” wrote Schmitt.

For many years, the first Atlantic salmon caught in Maine was sent to the President of the United States, a wonderful tradition which ended when the salmon was placed on the federal Endangered Species List (a move that Maine opposed) and fishing for these magnificent fish was prohibited.

A pathetically small number of salmon – most of them raised in the state’s federal hatcheries – still return to the Penobscot to spawn, but we have not given up this fight. As Schmitt explains, “More than a few dam removals are needed to restore the continuum of stream networks and reconnect freshwater and ocean ecosystems. The factors that contributed to the decline of Maine’s salmon – private ownership of the watershed by timber, pulp and paper companies – may be the very things that end up saving Atlantic salmon.

“Extensive forest cover throughout the watershed has protected water quality. More than 100 dams in the Penobscot watershed continue to block fish passage, but compared to other rivers of its size, the Penobscot has relatively few major dams or other development. The Penobscot continues to be a ‘model river’ for Atlantic salmon restoration,” concludes Schmitt.

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. Islandport Press published a book of George's favorite columns, "A Life Lived Outdoors" in 2014. In 2014, George also won a Maine Press Association award for writing the state's bet sports blog. In 2016, Down East Books published George's book, Maine Sporting Camps, and Islandport Press published George and his wife Linda's travel book, Take It From ME, about their favorite Maine inns and restaurants.