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Kennebec Atlantic salmon rescue highlights challenges protecting this endangered species

PETE WARNER Jul 2, 2021

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Both adult Atlantic salmon and smolts needed rescue after flash boards were installed to raise the water height of Lockwood Dam at Waterville. Photo Steve Hirschberg

Maine’s Atlantic salmon are endangered and those who are committed to restoring the fish in our rivers sometimes go to extraordinary lengths to help.

Maine is home to the only remaining populations of wild Atlantic salmon in the United States and have since 2009 been protected in most Maine rivers under the Endangered Species Act. The fish encounter many obstacles, both natural and manmade, as they attempt to traverse Maine rivers on their way to the ocean and back to their spawning and rearing grounds.

A recent event on the Kennebec River in Waterville was evidence of the challenges the fish face and the extent of efforts made to assist them.

On June 15, some Atlantic salmon became stranded below the Lockwood Dam, one of four hydroelectric projects located on the Kennebec owned by Brookfield Renewable U.S.

According to the Maine Department of Marine Resources, whose assistance was requested in advance by the company, three adult salmon and approximately 23 smolts (juvenile salmon) were isolated in different pools resulting from repair work performed at the dam.

Lockwood Dam is presently the end of the line for Atlantic salmon trying to reach their ideal habitat on the Sandy River, located some 50 miles upriver in Phillips. There, the department has re-established spawning and rearing grounds.

The cooperative rescue effort came amid tensions between Brookfield and the marine resources department. In March, Brookfield filed suit against the department, which is revising its river management plan to require dams to improve their fish passage methods to allow more fish, especially Atlantic salmon, to reach their spawning grounds.

The department also supports the removal of at least two of dams and possibly the other two.

The Lockwood Dam is equipped with a fishway, which is designed to attract Atlantic salmon with turbulent water, usher them up alongside the dam and deposit them into holding tanks. The few salmon that make it that far — 18 have been counted there this year as of Monday — are then taken by truck to the Sandy River and released.

The strandings occurred as Brookfield conducted its annual repair of flashboards at the dam designed to raise the operating water level and increase flow to the turbines.

“The half-day project on June 15, that included flashboard repairs and the installation of a ramp for eel passage, was planned and executed with the consultation and approval of state and federal fisheries agencies,” said Miranda Kessel, manager of stakeholder relations for Brookfield.

However, the work results in areas below the dam becoming dry and creates some ledge pools in which Atlantic salmon and other fish can become trapped.

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Maine DMR staff carry an Atlantic salmon to a canoe for transport to shore in order to move it to the Sandy River. Photo Steve Hirschberg

Of the three adult salmon and 23 smolts trapped, one adult was netted and painstakingly moved to a waiting transport tank for relocation, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

Two other salmon seen in one large pool at the dam could not be rescued because of the size and depth of the pool, but some flashboards were altered to allow water from above the dam to flow into that pool.

Sean Ledwin, the director of the department’s Sea Run Fisheries and Habitat Division, said the smolts were fish that had swam downstream, past all four Brookfield dams, from the Sandy River, on their first trip to the Atlantic Ocean.

“Obviously, it’s not an ideal situation,” Ledwin said. “The fishway itself isn’t very effective and then this [stranding] is another issue on top of that. The company’s obviously aware that this happens and kind of coordinates the rescue with us.”

Four Brookfield employees were joined by six members of the marine resources staff, two representatives of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and, for the first time, approximately 10 volunteers from Trout Unlimited.

The Maine Department of Marine Resources reported the rescued adult salmon was a male that had a fork length — the distance from the tip of its snout to the base of the fork in its tail — of almost 29 inches. An examination of the scales identified it as a naturally reared fish that had spent two years in the river and two winters at sea before returning to the Kennebec.

Trout Unlimited documented the entire process. It included netting the salmon, placing it in a tub of water and taking it to shore in a canoe. It was then put in a rubber bag and passed up a steep bank, from person to person, and finally placed in a tank on a department truck for relocation to the Sandy River.

The rescue reportedly involved 11 minutes of active handling of the fish, from netting to release in the tank, according to Trout Unlimited.

“Being there and seeing what happens when it [a fish rescue] occurs, it really hit me pretty viscerally,” said Jeff Reardon, Trout Unlimited’s Maine brook trout project director.

“They’re endangered and every single one counts.”

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Atlantic salmon smolt found stranded on the ledges below Lockwood Dam. Photo Maine DMR

The rescued Atlantic salmon was described as having numerous health issues and injuries including water lice, scrapes along the top and sides, an abrasion on its underside, two split fins and a bruised snout.

Ledwin said the fish face a gauntlet of predators and natural obstacles that can cause such conditions.

Representatives of the Atlantic Salmon Federation and Trout Unlimited criticized Brookfield’s dam operations in terms of their impact on the fish.

“The speculative and sensationalized claims by these groups reflect their singular focus on forcing the removal of dams on the lower Kennebec,” said Kessel, who pointed to some potential negative impacts from doing so.

That includes a potential loss of river recreational use, having a local source of renewable energy, jobs and tax incentives.

Brookfield is required under the federal Endangered Species Act to have procedures in place to assist or rescue any Atlantic salmon that are adversely impacted by their operations.

The Atlantic Salmon Federation and Trout Unlimited point out that Brookfield has for 16 months been operating the Lockwood Dam without “take” protection under the federal Endangered Species Act, which prohibits harassing, pursuing, hunting, shooting, wounding, killing, trapping, capturing or collecting the Atlantic salmon.

“What transpired at Lockwood [on June 15] may be routine for Brookfield, but it is unacceptable and illegal,” said John Burrows, director of U.S. Programs for the Atlantic Salmon Federation.

“Looking at what we need to do to recover salmon in the Gulf of Maine, the native population, we’ve got to make the Kennebec work,” he said.

With a take permit in effect, some of the negative outcomes that could occur during a rescue operation are considered allowable.

Brookfield is taking interim measures while following Endangered Species Act guidelines to assist or rescue Atlantic salmon impacted by its dam operations.

“We continue to have ongoing engagement with federal fisheries agencies around initiatives already underway to ensure protection of fish species,” Kessel said.

“An Interim Species Protection Plan for Shawmut and a Species Protection Plan for Lockwood, Hydro Kennebec, and Weston [dams] was filed on June 1, well in advance of a May 2022 deadline,” she said.

The struggle on the Kennebec River continues.

Endangered Atlantic salmon are being stocked and reared in the Sandy River in the hope they head down the Kennebec River to the sea, survive, return and spawn.

Brookfield Renewable continues to produce hydroelectric power for its customers with its dams under federal guidelines. At Lockwood, salmon at least have a chance to enter the fishway and get into the holding tanks to be transported upriver.

The hope among scientists is that all four of the Kennebec dams, if still operating, eventually will have functioning fishways that will allow Atlantic salmon and other fish to safely get upriver.

In the meantime, conservation groups are working to help the fish survive and reproduce in Maine rivers.