Two hundred years ago, tens of thousands of Atlantic salmon entered the mouth of the Penobscot River on their way to spawning grounds in the heart of the North Woods of Maine. The salmon provided jobs, food, and security to the people of Maine. Over the years, dams were built that blocked and altered the natural flow of the river. These barriers also limited salmon from reaching their spawning areas in the headwaters of the watershed. Last year only 1,650 Atlantic salmon passed the Veazie dam on the Penobscot.
Apparently, the age of dam building is not over. Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. hopes to build another dam on the Penobscot River — the Basin Mills project. This project would add more electricity to the present glut of power available here in New England. According to Robert S. Briggs, president and CEO of Bangor Hydro, the strategic focus of the company will be to move from policies of discouraging electricity consumption (conservation) to expanding the use of electricity (use more power). Bangor Hydro’s goal of increasing unneeded electrical production by building the Basin Mills project could cause the extinction of Atlantic salmon from the Penobscot River.
There is an ongoing program to restore Atlantic salmon to the Penobscot River. The leaders of the program include the Maine Atlantic Sea Run Salmon Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The goal of the program is to restore a self-sustaining population of Atlantic salmon to the Penobscot River. There are varying opinions on the present status of the restoration program. Apparently, Bangor Hydro has taken both sides in the debate.
According to documents associated with the Basin Mills project, Bangor Hydro claims that the Atlantic salmon restoration program is not working. Steven Shepard, fish biologist for Bangor Hydro, testified during the Basin Mills hearings about computer models of salmon population trends. According to Shepard, his modeling showed that “as the years progress there is a general, downward progression in the probability of a successful maintenance of the restoration.” He termed the prospect for restoration without Bangor Hydro’s trap and truck and stocking proposals “decidedly bleak.”
Other hired Bangor Hydro consultants testified that once stocking of Atlantic salmon is terminated, the restored salmon population on the Penobscot will enter “an ever decreasing `death spiral’ ” and that “the (salmon) restoration program, as it is currently conceived, is almost certainly doomed to failure.”
These doom and gloom statements are in stark contrast to comments submitted by Bangor Hydro to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the proposal to protect Atlantic salmon under the Endangered Species Act. Bangor Hydro states that “listing Atlantic salmon under the Endangered Species Act is unnecessary due to the relative success of current salmon management. The management of Atlantic salmon on the Penobscot over the last 20 years must be characterized as a success. … (O)nly 131 `wild’ salmon were counted on the Penobscot from 1970 to 1980. Now the annual `wild’ component is nearly three times as large and increasing rapidly. This is the true measure of the success of Atlantic salmon restoration.”
This year the number of Atlantic salmon returning to the Penobscot are some of the lowest in recent history. Less than 800 salmon have been counted at the Veazie dam, the first dam on the river. Other rivers including the Aroostook, Saint Croix, Dennys, Machias, and Androscoggin all have had less than 10 Atlantic salmon return. The United States is on the verge of losing the noble Atlantic salmon from its rivers. The building of the Basin Mills project could be the final nail in the salmon’s coffin.
Bangor Hydro cannot have it both ways. The Atlantic salmon is in serious trouble. History tells us about the large numbers of anadromous fish — shad, herring, alewives, and salmon — returning to the rivers of Maine before dams were built. Today, these dams block migration causing the species poulations to decline sharply. Until there is adequate fish passage on the rivers — both up — and downstream — the Atlantic salmon will teeter on extinction. Regardless of the various positions of Bangor Hydro, dams are destroying the ability of salmon to survive. The Basin Mills project should not be built and Atlantic salmon need the protection of the Endangered Species Act before it is too late.
David N. Carle is the associate executive director of RESTORE: The North Woods, based in Concord, Mass.