by Bill Taylor
Wild Atlantic salmon, like the bison of the western Plains and the salmon of the Pacific Northwest, are a defining element of their environment. For centuries, native peoples from the Connecticut River to Ungava Bay depended upon the annual runs of Atlantic salmon for food, ceremony and custom. Lucrative commercial and recreational fisheries built on salmon sustained vibrant coastal and river economies.
Salmon were once so numerous, woodsmen in the lumber camps of New England and Atlantic Canada often complained that they had to eat salmon several times a week. Nicholas Denys, a 17th century French governor of what are now the Provinces of Maritime Canada, compared the great numbers of Atlantic salmon in the Miramichi River to that of the then-plentiful but now-extinct passenger pigeon. "If the pigeons plagued us by their abundance the salmon gave us even more trouble. So large a quantity of them enters into this river that at night one is unable to sleep, so great is the noise they make in falling upon the water after having thrown or darted themselves into the air."
But centuries of mismanagement, destruction of spawning habitat, polluting of rivers and the building of dams forced our once-abundant Atlantic salmon runs into a steady downward spiral. By the late 1990s, wild Atlantic salmon were at or near all-time lows throughout much of their historic range. In North America, wild Atlantic salmon populations dropped 70 percent, from 1.6 million spawning adults in the early 1970s to fewer than 400,000 by 1998.
Nowhere has the decline been more severe than in Maine, home to the last remaining wild runs of Atlantic salmon in the United States. In 2000, in a move that should have been taken a decade earlier, the U.S. government, heeding calls from conservationists, finally listed the few wild salmon still returning to several little rivers in Downeast Maine as endangered. A few years ago it would have been all too easy to write off the Atlantic salmon in the United States. But today there is renewed hope for their restoration. Growing numbers of Atlantic salmon advocates are beginning to turn the tide, their resilience and tenacity matched only by that of the salmon itself. The brightest example of this growing optimism is focused on Maine's Penobscot River, where a coalition of conservation groups, the Penobscot Indian Nation, state and federal agencies and dam owners is committed to restoring the state's largest river to health.