Fish conservation groups expressed growing frustration Wednesday with repeated delays by the U.S. agencies charged with deciding whether Atlantic salmon in Maine will be listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Originally, a decision on the federal listing was expected in April. Then it was said to be coming in June, then July. Officials from Trout Unlimited said they recently heard that a decision wouldn’t be forthcoming until November.
“My fear is they’re not waiting for more information … They’re waiting for something political to happen,” said Jeff Reardon, the chairman of the Maine Council of Trout Unlimited.
He speculated that more time was being allowed to consummate a back-room deal that will satisfy the state, which believes its own salmon conservation plan is working, and the federal government, which is being pressured — by a lawsuit and other means — to better protect the fish.
Mary Colligan of the National Marine Fisheries Service, one of the agencies responsible for making a recommendation on whether Atlantic salmon should get federal protection, said the delays are due to the service’s heavy workload. In addition to preparing a status review, which compares historic salmon populations to the present numbers and attempts to predict their future, the agency also must respond to a federal lawsuit filed by conservation groups challenging a decision not to list fish as an endangered species in 1997.
Colligan, who works in the fisheries service’s Protected Resources Division in Gloucester, Mass., said her agency was nearly done with the status review and expected to send it to the federal headquarters next week — or the week thereafter at the latest. Soon after that, her office will forward a recommendation on whether the fish should be listed to the headquarters in Washington. She said she expected that office to review the documents quickly and make a decision. That should happen before fall, she said.
The Washington headquarters typically follows the recommendation made by the regional office, Colligan said. She refused to say whether her office would call for the federal listing.
The conservation groups believe a federal listing is inevitable because there are so few wild salmon in Maine’s rivers. “The evidence is pretty clear that listing is needed,” Reardon said. “I don’t see how the [fisheries] services can avoid it.”
Still, he was concerned by comments Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt made last week during a visit to Maine for the breaching of Edwards Dam in Augusta. The secretary said it was important that Maine has a salmon conservation plan and that the state has made a real commitment to that plan.
Reardon said it was ironic that Babbitt made his comments after visiting the Kennebec River and Souadabscook Stream, a tributary of the Penobscot River in Hampden. Both rivers are home to wild Atlantic salmon, but neither is covered by the state’s conservation plan, which applies to the Dennys, East Machias, Machias, Narraguagus and Pleasant rivers in Washington County, the Ducktrap River in Waldo County and the Sheepscot River in Lincoln County.
The fact that the state’s plan only covers seven rivers in Maine is a major reason the Atlantic Salmon Federation, a U.S. and Canadian organization that promotes salmon conservation, has recently become an outspoken critic, said the group’s president Bill Taylor.
The federation is also upset that the state will not follow stringent international protocols for the management of aquaculture pens that raise salmon. Farm raised salmon can escape from the pens and introduce new diseases to the wild fish and compete with them for food and mates for spawning. Taylor criticized Gov. Angus King for favoring the aquaculture business over the preservation of wild salmon.
“On paper, the Maine state conservation plan is a darn good one,” Taylor said from his office in St. Andrews, New Brunswick. “But, the plan is long on strategy and short on action.”
In addition to requiring that salmon pens be moved away from the mouths of rivers where wild salmon live, Taylor said the state should put more money into its conservation plan. Under legislation passed this year, the state’s Atlantic Salmon Authority will get more money and an executive director will be hired to work full time on the conservation plan. Taylor called these efforts “only a drop in the bucket” and said millions of dollars should be devoted to salmon conservation.
In May, Taylor wrote strongly worded letters to Gov. King urging him to tackle the aquaculture issue, to include all Maine rivers that are home to salmon in the plan and to staff and fund the state’s conservation efforts. The governor responded that these issues are being addressed.
Taylor termed the response “pitifully weak” and said his group was considering joining the current federal lawsuit or filing its own to push for the endangered species listing. Trout Unlimited has also said it is ready to file a lawsuit.
In January, Defenders of Wildlife and other national and state conservation groups filed suit against Secretary Babbitt and the fisheries services for not listing salmon as an endangered species. The federal agencies dropped a proposal to list the fish when the state said its conservation plan would offer adequate protection for the salmon.
The state of Maine, as well as the Maine Blueberry Commission, the Maine Pulp and Paper Association and the Maine Wood Products Council, have filed petitions to intervene in the suit. A motion is also pending to move the court proceedings from Washington, D.C., to Maine.