July 02, 2020
Sports Column

Fishing for answers to odd federal rule

Having publicly stated, vocally and in print, that I considered the Penobscot River’s special fall fishing season for Atlantic salmon to be nothing more than eyewash, I intended to let my opinion rest. That is, until I learned why the rules of the special season prohibited fishing in the Bangor Salmon Pool. After all, it was there, starting in the late 1800s, that the river’s salmon fishing history was written by the Penobscot Salmon Club.

To cover the water thoroughly, however, and allowing that every cast begins with a back cast, I revert to last March and the Maine Atlantic Salmon Commission’s public “scoping session” arranged to discuss the prospects of a special fall fishing season. The meeting was held at the Penobscot County Conservation Association’s clubhouse overlooking the Penobscot in North Brewer.

During the meeting, I asked why fishing wouldn’t be allowed at the Bangor Salmon Pool if a special fall season were approved. The answer was that the season was only being discussed, nothing was written in stone, and if limited fall fishing were approved, the rules would be changed to include the Bangor pool. Obviously, the season was opened, but the rule prohibiting fishing in the pool wasn’t changed.

Rankled, I wondered why the once world-famous fishing ground was excluded from the highly publicized special season. My mental casting, however, was unproductive. So, intent on landing an answer, I called the ASC office and spoke with fisheries biologist Norm Dube. Simply put, I was left speechless when Norm said salmon holding downstream of the Bangor Dam, in other words the Bangor Salmon Pool, were listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. It’s common knowledge that salmon in the so-called Down East rivers were listed as endangered in 2000, but I was unaware that Penobscot River salmon were partially protected by the ESA. And from what I’ve gathered, so were a lot of other people. Thus, the Penobscot Salmon Club, registered as a National Historical Site and also the nation’s oldest salmon club, no longer has a Home Pool.

With that in mind, I began talking to myself: “This is absolute absurdity. How can salmon be listed as endangered in only one section of a river? Either they’re endangered or they’re not. Saying that salmon holding on the downstream side of the dam are endangered but if they move to the upstream side they’re not is ludicrous. What’s the story behind that? And can it be interpreted as an indication that Penobscot salmon are going to be listed as endangered, period?” Having long believed that to be the intention of the federal fisheries agencies, I wondered if they were angling toward making that decision.

As it turned out, I didn’t wonder for long: According to the media advisory released with the recently completed 2006 status review for Atlantic salmon populations in the United States, “The review concludes that the populations protected under the federal Endangered Species Act in 2000, called the Gulf of Maine distinct population segment, should be expanded to include salmon in the Androscoggin, Kennebec, and Penobscot rivers, as well as hatchery fish used in the recovery effort.” There you have it, Sport, in black and white. You can take it from there.

The review was conducted by scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Maine Atlantic Salmon Commission, and the Penobscot Indian Nation. Different interpretations of the review can be heard, of course, depending on who’s talking and which side of the river they’re on, so to speak.

Though disturbing, the review didn’t dissuade me from wondering why salmon holding downstream of the Bangor Dam were listed as endangered. Fishing for an answer, I called Dick Ruhlin, chairman of the ASC. As an aside, Sen. Ruhlin and I go back a ways. Starting with the long-ago April day – we were in high school – when the late Dave Mercier, one of Maine’s legendary game wardens, chased us off Souadabscook Stream for fishing out of season. More than a decade later, 1965 to be exact, Dick and several other Bangor area outdoors addicts went to Augusta and initiated efforts to clean the Penobscot River, which at that time was an open sewer.

In answer to my question, Dick said, “The feds think that salmon holding below the dam could result in the restoration of the Cove Brook run.” Again, I was taken aback. The Cove Brook run, which was listed as endangered, went out with the tide about six years ago and hasn’t returned. Since then, salmon returning to the Penobscot have swum past the brook, which enters the river at Bald Hill Cove in Winterport.

Actually, the history of the Cove Brook run is brief. The small population resulted from an oxygen block that occurred in the river at Bald Hill Cove in the early 1960s. According to Al Meister, retired chief biologist of the former Atlantic Sea-Run Salmon Commission (now the ASC), the oxygen block was attributed to pollution from pulp and paper industries combined with low, warm water. Unable to swim past the block, a few salmon, seeking cool oxygenated water and responding to their spawning instincts, entered Cove Brook and reproduced. Indeed, it’s unfortunate that the Cove Brook run was lost. All told, though, it doesn’t seem likely that the run will be restored by salmon holding downstream of the Bangor Dam. Think about it, since the removal of most of the dam, the fish don’t hold for long in the Bangor Salmon Pool.

Thankfully, in 1967 the late Sen. Ed Muskie introduced the Clean Waters Act. The resulting reductions of pollution in the Penobscot and revitalization of the river’s environment and ecologies were, in a word, monumental. Shortly thereafter, salmon were again showing in the Bangor Salmon Pool. If not for the ASRSC stocking and imprinting smolts in the tidewater below the Bangor Dam, many anglers hereabouts would never have known the aura and excitement of casting flies to the king of freshwater game fish. I for one think Al Meister was never given the recognition he deserved for directing that program.

I could go on writing about the Penobscot River’s salmon runs being supplemented and sustained by stockings since the early 1900s; and about the fact that if the Penobscot’s current smolt-stocking program were discontinued today, four or five years from now there would be few salmon returning to the river; and about the completion of the Mattaseunk Dam, in 1935, obstructing salmon from the East Branch of the Penobscot, then the last of the river’s historical salmon spawning grounds; and about the Penobscot Salmon Club’s record book showing that the rod catch decreased steadily from 1935 until 1956, when a page-filling zero containing the words, “No Fish,” were scrawled in the book.

I could write about the Bangor Salmon Pool and the Veazie and Eddington pools being silvered with salmon from the 1970s into the 1990s, and about the fishermen from far and wide who migrated to those pools come spring time, not to mention their annual contributions of more than $1 million to the local economy. Moreover, I could write about never seeing a Penobscot fisherman fall into a fit of depression because the 14-pounder he caught had a fin clipped and about the Penobscot Salmon Club being reactivated, the presidential salmon tradition re-established, and the Veazie and Eddington salmon clubs being organized. And I could write about the great days and grand times that began with seeing old friends and new faces at opening-day breakfasts and the first shout of “Fish on!” rising above the rush of the river. But to do so now would make about as much sense as fishing with frayed leader.

As for the feds’ status review, my feeling is that if they intend to list Penobscot River salmon as endangered, they should do it, be done with it, and stop playing political games. In retrospect, I think the river’s fishermen and ASC biologists alike would have been better off if the measure had been implemented in 1999, when salmon fishing was prohibited on the Penobscot. Thus, the ensuing years of annoying earaches and eyewash would have been eliminated. There would have been no more false casting, guessing, and second-guessing. No more noncommittal answers to questions asked at meetings and hearings that were essentially social events. And, most important, there would have been no casting of crumbs to starving fishermen who, for decades, supported the Penobscot’s salmon-restoration programs because they believed their expenditures of time, effort, and money would result in the restoration of the river’s storied salmon fishing history and tradition.

Tom Hennessey’s columns and artwork can be accessed on the BDN Internet page at www.bangornews.com. Tom’s e-mail address is: thennessey@bangordailynews.net. Web site address is: www.tomhennessey.com.

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