Balancing Salmon and Power on the Penobscot

by Bill Taylor
Spring 2004

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.

The Penobscot is a huge watershed, draining approximately 9,000 square miles, about one-third of the state. No one knows how many thousands of Atlantic salmon ran up the Penobscot each year before the heavy hand of humankind wreaked havoc. Biologists conservatively estimate that the annual salmon run was between 50,000 and 100,000 spawners. Considering the abundance of exceptional habitat in the Penobscot and its many tributaries, the salmon runs were likely much larger.

Decades of neglect, overfishing, poor forestry practices, pollution and, in particular, the construction of hydroelectric dams that blocked salmon migrations took a heavy toll. Despite all the insults it has suffered, the Penobscot River still represents the last, best chance of ever again having healthy, self-sustaining runs of wild Atlantic salmon in the U.S. In 2002, 780 adult salmon ascended the Penobscot, more than double the Atlantic salmon returns to all other U.S. rivers combined. By September 2003, more than 1,100 had returned, the most since 1998.

In the fall of 2003, following two years of discussions, the coalition of conservation groups, tribe and hydropower representatives reached an agreement that represents one of the largest and most creative river restoration projects ever launched. The plan will remove the two lowermost dams on the river, decommission a third and construct an innovative fish bypass channel around it, opening up 500 miles of quality habitat for Atlantic salmon and other anadromous fish. Fish passage will also be improved at four dams upriver, and six other dams will enhance their energy efficiency to maintain power production.

Both conservation and hydropower interests have called the plan an unprecedented victory for both the salmon and industry. The plan could serve as both the impetus and model for similar projects throughout the nation.

As much as this ambitious river restoration initiative means to Atlantic salmon, it means much more to the Penobscot Indian Nation, which has depended upon the river's life to sustain native lives for several thousand years. Thriving and abundant fisheries for Atlantic salmon, shad, sturgeon, eel and other fish were once integral to the Penobscots' way of life. But the Penobscots haven't fished for salmon for several decades. The commercial fishery at the river's mouth was closed in 1947, when only 40 salmon were taken. The recreational salmon fishery was closed even to catch-and-release fishing in 2000. Today, even though the fisheries have all but disappeared, the Penobscots' Eel and Sturgeon Clans remain prominent within their community.

The restoration of the Penobscot River has an international element as well. In 2002, in an agreement with the Atlantic Salmon Federation, the North Atlantic Salmon Fund and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Greenland's commercial salmon fishermen suspended their fishery. For four decades the Greenland fishery had heavily exploited both Canadian and U.S. salmon wintering in the North Atlantic off Greenland's coast.

The Penobscot River restoration will benefit more than salmon. With the removal of the dams on the lower main stem, we will open 100 percent of the historic habitat for several species of fish and open to all species superb spawning and juvenile rearing habitat farther upriver. Eagles, ospreys and herons that breed and nest along the Penobscot and depend on fish for food will also benefit.

After decades of misuse and abuse, we have the opportunity to breathe new life into the Penobscot River and secure for our children and grandchildren a future that includes wild Atlantic salmon.

About the Author

Bill Taylor is president and CEO of the Atlantic Salmon Federation.