Old News Archive

Maine's Atlantic Salmon

August 15, 2006 - TRC

Atlantic salmon were once plentiful in Maine’s Rivers, providing a recreational and commercial fishery for many years. Ninety years ago, a tradition was born when the first salmon caught in the Bangor Salmon Pool on the Penobscot River was delivered to the President of the United States. When the population of salmon plummeted in the early nineteen nineties, the tradition ended. Today, Maine is the only state in the United States with a remnant wild population of Atlantic salmon. Like the Presidential Salmon of the 20th century, this is a mark of distinction we hold as a State. Atlantic salmon are a part of our heritage and mirror the history of our rivers. Sea run Atlantic salmon was once common in Maine’s coastal rivers, with adults migrating far inland in search of their natal waters. Once plentiful runs of salmon were blocked by dams, overexploited in the rivers and at sea, and pollution fouled the water.

Management of Atlantic salmon began in Maine when the Maine Legislature appointed Charles Atkins and Nathan Foster in 1867 as the first two Commissioners of Fisheries for the State of Maine. Atkins became the sole Commissioner two years later and was charged with assessing the state of fish in Maine waters. Atkins blamed the small runs of Atlantic salmon in Maine on dams and over fishing. Pollution was cited as a third cause of the decline. He began a stocking program and addressed the need for passage at dam obstructions. Upon leaving the job as Commissioner, he continued his work on fish propagation and his legacy continues to this day at the Craig Brook National Fish Hatchery. Despite his efforts and the efforts of other dedicated people, populations continued to decline.

Anglers in Maine, frustrated by the continued decline in Atlantic salmon returns, took matters into their own hands. In 1939 a Maine State General Salmon Committee was formed at the close of a conference hosted by the Bangor Chamber of Commerce and the Penobscot Salmon Committee. At the same time, then Maine Governor Lewis Barrows was working on an effort to restore salmon in Maine. Throughout New England the trend was the same, efforts were undertaken by multiple partners to develop a strategy to restore populations of salmon. Many of the restoration recommendations of the day are similar to what is happening today. Rivers were surveyed to identify problems, habitat areas, and obstructions. Based on the surveys, certain rivers were chosen for further restoration and management experiments. Fishing laws were changed. Methods were identified for counting returning adults and for comparing stocking strategies. This was the start of a long restoration program that continues today.

The Atlantic Sea Run Salmon Commission (ASRSC) was formed in 1947. The Commission was made up of the Commissioners of the two state fisheries agencies, the Department of Inland Fisheries and Game and the Department of Sea and Shore Fisheries, and one public member appointed by the Governor. The ASRSC worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the University of Maine to establish a Research Committee, which coordinated restoration and management of Atlantic salmon in Maine. In 1959 an Advisory Commission was formed to bring in other interested parties. The ASRSC continued its efforts to restore salmon rivers in Maine through improved fish passage, obstruction removal and stocking. The efforts were focused on ten rivers. Populations began to increase in several rivers. Due to the success of the restoration in those rivers, the ASRSC began working in others rivers and participating in international restoration efforts. The Atlantic Salmon Authority replaced the ASRSC in 1995.

The current Atlantic Salmon Commission was established by the Maine legislature in 1998 and is recognized as the lead entity for Atlantic salmon recovery statewide. Even though the Commission is focused on Atlantic salmon, there is broad recognition that efforts to restore salmon benefit the entire community of organisms in the watersheds they inhabit. This requires a shift in how we think about recovery of Atlantic salmon in Maine. This shift will not happen overnight and patience is required while the Commission and our partners navigate the many challenges ahead, including dealing with resource shortages, developing public and political support, and addressing other challenges that are barriers to recovery. It is imperative that we address the multiple threats to salmon systematically through adaptive management over a period of time in order to identify the degree of impact each has on the species.

Now less than 2,000 adult salmon return to Maine rivers. Efforts have been underway to halt the downward trend of salmon in Maine for over 130 years. In light of both budget constraints and the precarious status of the population of Atlantic salmon, the Maine Atlantic Salmon Commission is increasingly proactive in looking at the problems facing the species in new ways.

The threats to Atlantic salmon that lead to the dramatic decline throughout the 1990s are most likely associated with a chain of concurrent events in which there has been no opportunity for populations to recover, even as significant known threats are removed. Today we are in a position where we no longer have a silver bullet to salmon recovery, but rather have a conglomerate of threats ranging from increased predation resulting from a shift in fish species assemblages, to aluminum toxicity associated with air pollution. Non-native species such as northern pike and small mouth bass have been illegally introduced and compete with and prey upon juvenile Atlantic salmon. Dams continue to block the passage of adults to spawning habitat. The capability of the assessable habitat to successfully incubate eggs and produce juvenile salmon may be limited due to sedimentation, reduced water flows and water quality. Recent research indicates that over winter survival of larger parr is low leading to depressed numbers of out migrating smolts. Climate change and marine survival are also unknown factors, but are thought to be somewhat responsible for the declining populations.

Research and management activities are aimed at determining and halting the causes of the precipitous decline in Atlantic salmon returning to Maine waters. The Commission and our partners have developed and agreed upon priority areas where we will devote available staff and funding. The priorities are: investigate survival of the species while at sea, continue to operate and evaluate the hatchery programs, and assess and restore habitat. The use of the best available science is critical to making management decisions about the Atlantic salmon. Ongoing Commission research projects are directed towards determining survival among freshwater life stages and understanding the biological and environmental factors affecting habitat and therefore survival. Our major partners, NOAA-Fisheries and US Fish and Wildlife focus on marine survival and operate the hatcheries.

Commission staff is responsible for monitoring the population of Atlantic salmon through counting adults at fish traps like the one at the Veazie Dam on the Penobscot and through redd counts on rivers without adult traps. For the first time in years adult Atlantic salmon, and other diadromous fish, are being counted on the Kennebec River at the new passage facility at the Lockwood Dam. Juveniles are monitored through snorkel and e-fishing surveys. Out-migrating smolts are assessed through the use of rotary screw traps. All of this information is used to adjust management activities and stocking strategies on Maine’s salmon rivers.

Along with monitoring the population, staff and partner agencies, including NOAA-Fisheries, USFWS, University of Maine, and USGS, are also assessing the quality and quantity of habitat, as well as attempting to understand the behavior of adult and juvenile fish. A few examples of current research are: tracking of movement of smolts and adults, improving knowledge of habitat quality, assessing land use impacts, evaluating decadal thermal trends, and investigating the impacts of water chemistry on salmon physiology. This research will be used assess the influence of biotic and abiotic conditions on salmon density, growth, and survival. We also intend to develop and test hypotheses on the links among habitat quality and salmon populations that will lead to habitat restoration prescriptions.

The Commission recognizes that understanding and addressing both ecological and social processes relating to Atlantic salmon are critical to the recovery of the species. While our effort to coordinate among the resource agencies is critical for Atlantic salmon, it is not enough. Recovery of the species cannot be accomplished without the significant contributions of other federal and state agencies, conservation organizations, local organizations, industry representatives and private citizens. We look forward to continued and enhanced coordination with these organizations, entities and individuals. A top priority is to attempt to re-engage the public in recovery efforts. Public support is also needed to bolster political support. Atlantic salmon are part of the heritage of Maine, as illustrated by the continued support of conservation organizations such as the salmon clubs, both economically and socially, and the Commission is dedicated to re-establishing that connection.

The Penobscot Project (www.penobscotriver.org) is an illustration of this concept as it partners industry; federal, state, and tribal governments; and conservation groups. Not only are the partners working together to ensure the success of the project, but also the scientific community is working together to coordinate research pertaining to the Project. The Penobscot Project is an innovative “smart hydro” river restoration project, removing two dams and building a by-pass around a third, which will restore populations of diadromous species while maintaining hydropower resources.

In 2005, the Commission revised its strategic plan. In the plan, the Commission has identified five critical elements necessary for recovery of Atlantic salmon in Maine. The five elements are interconnected and are managed concurrently. The Commission will use the five elements as the outline for developing yearly work plans. The five elements are: recognition that it is an ecosystem approach that will ultimately save this species from extinction, acknowledgment that cooperation between public and private sectors is critical to recovery, awareness that public apathy towards salmon is a threat to recovery, development of a framework to monitor recovery efforts in order to track effectiveness of efforts and to evaluate the population, habitat conditions and anthropogenic effects and finally, improved communication and coordination between governmental agencies, including local, state and federal, is critical.

The Commission is dedicated to taking a new approach to salmon recovery by building on a quality program to focus efforts and expand partners. We recognize that we need our partners, as recovery will only happen through a collaborative effort. The Commission will continue to: work on re-instating a sport fishery, assess and manage populations, support the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s hatchery operations, assess and improve fish passage, protect riparian habitat, and coordinate State conservation efforts, but will do so using a holistic perspective and focusing on our identified priorities. In addition, an assessment of the current approach to management of Atlantic salmon and the implications of management from an ecosystem prospective is also warranted. Along with an assessment of the current management approaches, a discussion of what is needed to implement new policy and management measures is required, including both natural and social science issues.

A symbol of movement forward is the re-opening of a catch and release only fishery on Penobscot River this Fall. This will be a limited, experimental open season for directed angling for Atlantic salmon from September 15, 2006 to October 15, 2006 on the Penobscot River. The season is fly fishing only and the fly must be tied on a single pointed barbless hook. Any salmon hooked must be released immediately without injury and no salmon shall be removed from the water for any reason. Although no Presidential Salmon will be sent to Washington as a result of this limited season, it can be seen as a sign of progress, as we strive to reconnect the people of Maine to this heritage.

To learn more about the Maine Atlantic Salmon Commission and our programs please contact us at www.maine.gov/asc.

By Melissa Laser

Conservation Planner, Atlantic Salmon Commission

Although the population has been trending downward since the 1990s, efforts such as the Penobscot Project and the new fish passage facilities in the Kennebec River drainage offer renewed hope for Atlantic salmon in Maine. Please see table below.

Documented Returns
Penobscot Other Rivers Maine
1967.........0.........................733
1968.......13.........................559
1969.......77.........................423
1970.....136.........................436
1971.....114.........................309
1972.....337.........................667
1973.....311.........................251
1974.....581.........................251
1975...1000.........................265
1976.....668.........................101
1977.....644.........................207
1978...1785.........................374
1979.....897.........................207
1980...3308.........................449
1981...3424.........................366
1982...4177.........................234
1983.....952.........................182
1984...1809.........................308
1985...3370.........................175
1986...4541.........................215
1987...2519...........................87
1988...2863.........................103
1989...3120.........................134
1990...3385.........................368
1991...1767.........................135
1992...2387.........................118
1993...1774.........................166
1994...1049...........................82
1995...1336...........................77
1996...2044.........................111
1997...1355..........................38
1998...1210..........................27
1999.....968..........................37
2000.....534..........................28
2001.....785..........................58
2002.....780..........................12
2003...1112..........................34
2004...1323..........................24
2005.....985..........................23


Submitted by Mark Latti, IFW


NOTE - This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of the TRC Alliance Team.