The federal government has loudly touted and helped to fund a historic project to remove dams on the Penobscot River. So it is an odd time for the government to move ahead with plans to expand the endangered species designation for Atlantic salmon to include the Penobscot, Kennebec and Androscoggin rivers. At a time when cooperative conservation is favored over government mandates and the state and nation need more renewable energy, including hydroelectricity, expanding the endangered species listing could undermine those efforts. As it moves forward, the federal government must ensure this does not happen.
Atlantic salmon in eight Maine rivers, most of them in Washington County, were declared endangered by the federal government in 2000. Since then, federal agencies have considered what to do with the state’s three largest rivers.
In their proposal to include the Penobscot, Kennebec and Androscoggin in the endangered species listing, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration identify dams as the largest threat to salmon habitat. This threat is being addressed on the Maine river with the largest salmon population through the Penobscot Restoration Project, which will remove two dams and modify five others on the river to reopen 1,000 miles of habitat for salmon and other fish.
The project recently announced it has raised the $25 million needed to purchase the dams in Veazie and Old Town that will be removed. A dam in Howland will be decommissioned, but remain in place with a new fish passage system. Fish passage will be improved at the remaining dams, which will increase their power generation to largely make up for the electricity lost from the dams to be idled. Similar cooperative agreements have resulted in dam removals on the Kennebec as well.
If this is not the approach the federal government believes will best help restore salmon populations, it should have made that known long ago. Rather, the Penobscot project was touted as “perhaps the most significant step to restore the Atlantic salmon in the past century” by former Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton in 2004.
NOAA and fishery service officials also must explain how hatchery practices, which are blamed in Wednesday’s Federal Register notice for the small numbers of salmon in Maine, will change with the listing since the federal government already runs the hatcheries.
They must also explain how the listing will help salmon when there are no plans to dedicate additional federal funds toward increasing fish numbers, which have remained dismally low in the eight rivers already under the Endangered Species Act.
Although it is early, it is encouraging that state officials are not reacting with the “sky is falling” hysteria that met the listing proposal nine years ago. The ESA listing required changes in blueberry growing, aquaculture and forestry, but those industries were not doomed by the listing.
The challenge for state and federal officials, as well as industry, conservation groups, landowners, anglers and others, is to find a way to speed up cooperative efforts to ensure the survival of the state’s salmon, no matter where they live.