Long Delayed Maine Atlantic Salmon Recovery Plan Released

John Burrows, ASF Director of New England Programs

Feb 26, 2019
ASF's Andy Goode (left) and John Burrows (right) have proven to be invaluable and effective in restoration efforts for all migratory fish species in Maine. An article in the latest ATLANTIC SALMON JOURNAL provides details of ASF's efforts. Photo Jim O'Reilly
The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) have released the long-delayed Final Recovery Plan for the Gulf of Maine distinct population segment (DPS) of endangered wild Atlantic salmon. The salmon runs that make up the Gulf of Maine DPS represent the last wild Atlantic salmon remaining in the United States.

It has been a long time coming, after nearly two decades of protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for some of the rivers. Initially salmon in eight Maine rivers, the Dennys, East Machias, Machias, Narraguagus, Pleasant, Ducktrap, Sheepscot and Cove Brook were protected in late 2000.

In 2009, the endangered status was expanded to include all salmon populations existing between the Androscoggin River in the south to the Dennys River in the east. This includes both the Kennebec and Penobscot Rivers, the two largest watersheds located entirely within the State of Maine. These two rivers historically had some of the largest runs of Atlantic salmon in North America (100,000+ adults each) before dams, water pollution, habitat degradation, and over-fishing nearly wiped them out.

At the time of the expanded listing back in 2009, the federal services identified three major threats to Atlantic salmon, along with dozens of secondary threats:
  • dams 
  • the lack of adequate regulatory mechanisms to address dams
  • low marine survival
These remain the most significant threats, but new information collected over the last decade has led the services to add:
  • road stream crossings
  • intercept fisheries in the North Atlantic (i.e., fisheries off West Greenland, St. Pierre and Miquelon, and Labrador)
  • climate change
The bulk of the recovery plan is focused on the site-specific management actions necessary to conserve salmon along with estimates of the time and funding required to achieve the plan’s goals. It also includes the criteria that must be met in order to remove salmon from the endangered species list.

For planning, management, and recovery purposes, the DPS is broken down into three separate geographic areas referred to as Salmon Habitat Recovery Units, or SHRUs:
  1. Merrymeeting Bay SHRU (the Androscoggin and Kennebec Rivers east to the St. George River)
  2. Penobscot Bay SHRU (the Penobscot basin extending west to the Ducktrap River)
  3. Downeast Coastal SHRU (all coastal watersheds from the Union River east to the Dennys River).
For salmon to be deemed “recovered” under the Plan, the threats facing the species need to be addressed and each of the following criteria need to be met:

The DPS has a self-sustaining annual return of at least 2,000 wild adults in each SHRU.

Each SHRU has a positive mean growth rate of greater than 1.0 in the 10 years prior to delisting and the DPS demonstrates “self-sustaining persistence.” This means that the total wild population in each SHRU has less than a 50-percent probability of falling below 500 adult wild spawners in the next 15-year period.

There is a minimum of 30,000 accessible and suitable habitat units in each SHRU.

The Recovery Plan seems modest when looking at its goal of having a population of 6,000 adult wild Atlantic salmon spread across a region that historically had a population of at least 250,000 adults. Yet, last year and in many recent years, we have had less than 1,000 adults return to the rivers in the Gulf of Maine DPS, the vast majority of which spent some portion of their life in a hatchery. From that perspective, going from scores of wild salmon to thousands of them seems like a near impossible task.
John Burrows during an autumn 2018 survey on Sandy River in western Maine.

A Long Slog Ahead

The Recovery Plan itself estimates that it could take up to 75 years, or 15 generations, for salmon to meet the recovery criteria and be removed from the endangered species list. The Plan also estimates that an additional $24.6 million per year (beyond the current $8.6 million in federal funding) will be necessary to implement priority recovery actions between 2019 and 2023. After that, the plan estimates it could take several hundred million dollars over the next 75 years to address the major threats and recover the species.

Recovery plans are not regulatory documents, and they do not arrive with the funding necessary to implement their recommendations. So, at best, this Plan really only lays-out a road map for salmon recovery without any resources to make it happen. And the timeline for recovery is simply too long. It may indeed take 75 years for the salmon population to respond and increase in abundance and diversity, but the habitat criteria and most important dam removals that will be needed to allow salmon to be able to make it on their own can all be accomplished within 20 years. Salmon simply cannot wait any longer than that.

An increase in federal funding is going to be essential to move from the state of preventing extinction – which is where we have been for several decades – to actually increasing the wild population, but it is not likely we will ever get to the funding levels outlined in the Plan.

Instead, salmon recovery will depend in great part on private funding and partnerships involving the federal government, State of Maine, Native American tribes, non-governmental organizations, anglers, private landowners, towns and counties, and business and industry. The Plan actually indicates exactly this, stating that it will take partnerships to make recovery happen, but it many ways this comes across as an abdication of responsibility by the federal government.

Fortunately, there are dozens of entities involved in salmon conservation in Maine and we are already working together to address the major threats. The NGO community has been a leader in salmon conservation and the overall restoration of native sea-fish in Maine. Collectively, we have removed dozens of dams, constructed numerous fishways, and replaced hundreds of road stream crossings with new, adequately sized culverts and bridges.

Big dams on the Kennebec and Penobscot River have come down, beginning with the Edwards Dam on the Kennebec in the summer of 1999.

Organizations like ASF, the Downeast Salmon Federation, Project SHARE, The Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, Maine Rivers, and many others have been working hard to restore access to and permanently protect the best salmon habitat in Maine and we have made great progress. Already, species such as river herring and American shad are recolonizing historic habitats that had been blocked by dams for more than 200 years.

Tremendous steps have already been taken, but we need an extraordinary effort over the next 20 years and it is critical for all levels of government to increase their efforts and provide strong actions for years to come.

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