No, Gov. King, the sky is not falling. Predictably, opponents of the federal government’s latest attempt to protect Maine’s imperiled wild Atlantic salmon, including the governor, have reacted with inflammatory rhetoric but little fact. They falsely claim that protecting Maine’s heritage salmon under the Endangered Species Act would somehow “destroy Maine’s economy” or alternatively they invoke wild conspiracy theories about “outsiders” coming to turn Maine into a national park. Hogwash!
Wild claims like these are both without merit and irresponsible, especially coming from elected public officials, and serve only to divert attention away from addressing the real issue at hand — cleaning up the problems that caused the near extinction of Maine’s wild Atlantic salmon in the first place. The ongoing pollution and destruction of Maine’s precious river system should be the real target, not shooting the messenger. And that is all the ESA really is — a messenger, a warning bell telling the people of Maine that their rivers and watersheds are in danger. The looming extinction of Maine’s once great salmon runs is merely a symptom.
Cleaning up watersheds by saving Atlantic salmon in the wild is an investment in the future, not a cost. It is a way to revitalize a once prosperous salmon-based coastal economy, bring back valuable industries based on commercial and recreational fishing and bring more dollars back to beleaguered rural villages.
The fact is that salmon mean business. We found that out the hard way on the West Coast (where we are dealing successfully with more than two dozen ESA listings, not just one), as we saw our once great salmon fishing industry collapse from an economic contribution of $1.25 billion a year in 1988 to less than 20 percent of that figure today.
Mismanagement and destruction of salmon habitat in the Columbia River Basin alone already drains more than $500 annually from the Pacific Northwest economy at a cost of 25,000 jobs. With effort — and yes, much needed and long overdue changes in some of our most polluting industries — the west coast’s once abundant wild salmon fisheries are slowly being revived. Maine’s can surely do just as well — provided you don’t let your wild salmon go extinct in the meantime!
West Coast states, local governments and industries are now working in the partnership with federal agencies, under the ESA, to bring salmon back to the Pacific coast, and those efforts are starting to pay off in jobs and dollars. Surely the people of Maine are no less creative and no less adaptable.
Something of value, however difficult to quantify, is lost forever with the extinction of any wild species. Wild salmon is part of what makes Maine the great state it is. The ESA also preserves the very real economic benefits that human society reaps from wild animals, plants and healthy ecosystems. A recent study conservatively estimated that the economic benefits of biodiversity in the United States totals $300 million annually.
The economic costs of not conserving wild Atlantic salmon in Maine and throughout New England are also very significant. Wild Atlantic salmon are highly prized by anglers nationwide who are willing to spend signficant sums of money pursuing them. For instance, each salmon caught on the Penobscot River contributes approximately $800 to the local economy. Maine really needs to re-establish its commercial salmon fishery. It has been estimated that successfully restoring Atlantic salmon throughout New England would produce an economic benefit of more than $2 billion for the region. Maine cannot afford to throw away such economic opportunities. Extinction, in fact, carries a very high price tag — and is also irreversible.
Make no mistake, Maine’s remaining wild Atlantic salmon are fast approaching extinction. The failure to utilize every available means to save them, including the ESA, will have very substantial costs. Those individuals opposed to a federal listing either don’t understand these costs, are choosing to ignore them or are simply too hunkered down in an “us vs. them” mentality to see that state and federal recovery efforts can go hand in hand.
The ESA, in fact, requires a recovery plan. Thus there is no reason not to continue with an improved Maine Salmon Conservation Plan — this time with federal ESA support to help it work better — and get on with long overdue restoration. California’s salmon runs are now rebounding, primarily because of ESA protections for its long abused rivers. In the long run, as we are finding out on the west coast, the economic benefits of restoration far outweigh the costs.
We are doing just that in California and Oregon, working within the ESA, and it can be done just as well in Maine. There are now very real threats to Maine’s heritage rivers and wildlife, but extinction is simply not an option. Neither is shooting the messenger — nor is denial.
Glen Spain is the northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman’s Associations, the West Coast’s largest organization of commerical fisherman.