AUGUSTA — The possibility of limited salmon fishing bobbed up in the Senate on Thursday when a bill to open three rivers for catch-and-release fishing passed by a 23-12 vote.
The bill, LD 2579, passed in first reading to allow salmon fishing on the Penobscot, St. Croix and Saco rivers, over objections that the river stocks were too depleted.
The bill will proceed to the House.
Sponsor Sen. Richard P. Ruhlin, D-Brewer, said his family has fished for salmon on the Penobscot River for generations. That fishing, which has a $14 million impact on the river area, should be allowed to continue regardless of the December 1999 vote by the Maine Salmon Commission to close all rivers to salmon fishing, he said. The decision was made in response to a federal proposal to add salmon to the Endangered Species Act.
“The state can manage our rivers better than Big Brother,” Ruhlin said. The Ruhlin bill would open the three rivers from May 1 to July 5, then from the Sunday before Labor Day to Oct. 10. If the bill fails, there will be no salmon fishing in any river in the state.
The federal and state effort to limit salmon fishing is not based on good scientific data, the senator said. One study indicated that the Penobscot River needed 500 salmon to return each year and spawn to continue the fishery. The river stocks have exceeded 500 salmon for the past 25 years and more salmon are returning today than 25 years ago, he said.
Officials admitted that salmon fishing on the Penobscot River was banned to avoid complaints from other areas that were closed, Ruhlin told the Senate.
“The feds have overstepped their bounds. This is a turf war, plain and simple. Let’s keep our motels, campgrounds and stores in mind,” Ruhlin said.
Even a catch-and-release fishery will harm the salmon stocks, according to Sen. Marge L. Kilkelly, D-Wiscasset, who offered different statistics.
The Penobscot River should have 8,300 returning salmon each year to maintain stocks, according to federal studies. But only 900 fish, or less than 10 percent of recommended levels, returned last year, Kilkelly said. Current population is the lowest in history and 20 percent lower than the previous year, she said.
Even a mortality of 1 percent is too much, she said. The dwindling stocks are “too vulnerable even for catch and release,” she said.
Fishermen excluded from other areas would overwhelm the three rivers if they were opened, Kilkelly said.