Bangor Daily News

This major effort to restore Atlantic salmon involves a company that raises the fish for food

Nick Sambides Jr.

Oct 5, 2019
As many as 15,000 adult Atlantic salmon will be put into the Penobscot River over the next three years, most of them after being raised in penstocks off the coast of Washington County. They are expected to create up to 56 million eggs as part of one of the most ambitious efforts yet at reversing the decades-long decimation of Maine’s wild salmon population.

The first 5,000 fish will be placed in the East Branch of the Penobscot River near the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument next fall as part of the Salmon for Maine’s Rivers program, which is funded by a $1.1 million federal grant and involves the state and federal governments, a Native American tribe and a New Brunswick-based company that raises salmon in pens off the Maine coast.

The grant will pay for successive annual infusions of 5,000 Atlantic salmon — half of them female — into the river until 2022, said Sean Ledwin, director of sea-run fisheries at the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

While only a tiny fraction of the 56 million eggs are expected to survive long enough to contribute to restoring Maine’s wild salmon population, the program could still lead to a 20-fold increase in the number of eggs that Atlantic salmon leave in the river. Atlantic salmon have been listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act since 2000 and can be legally harvested in the U.S. only from fish farms.

With previous efforts placing as many as 500 fish in the river annually, the 15,000 fish represent the largest infusion of Atlantic salmon into the river in modern history. The program grows out of a $63.5 million effort that began 15 years ago when a power company agreed to demolish two Penobscot River dams and create a fish bypass in a third, opening nearly 1,000 miles of habitat that had been closed to river-run fish since the 1800s.

“The scale and the timing of the project to utilize the high-quality habitats we now have in the river gives us our best opportunity yet to try to realize salmon recovery in the Penobscot River,” Ledwin said. “The large numbers of fish and high-quality habitat should yield the largest numbers of naturally reared offspring that have been seen in the river in decades.”

If successful, and reproducible in other Maine rivers, the program could all by itself get the Atlantic’s salmon’s endangered species status downgraded in Maine to threatened, meaning that the fish’s extinction would no longer be considered imminent, Ledwin said.

Natural selection

Once a thriving industry, Maine’s commercial wild salmon fishery ended in the 1940s. Today, only farm-raised Atlantic salmon are found in U.S. supermarkets. The Atlantic salmon’s endangered status has led the U.S., the world’s largest market for the fish, to import 98 percent of its supply, and more recently prompted companies to seek permits to construct land-based salmon farms in Bucksport and Belfast.

Like most of the Atlantic salmon generated for other river-seeding programs, most of the first 5,000 salmon — about 4,500 — that go into the river in fall 2020 will have been grown to smolt size at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hatcheries on Green Lake in Ellsworth and Craig Brook in East Orland.

The rest will come from penstocks off the coast of the Washington County town of Cutler.

In each of the following years, however, a growing percentage will come from the penstocks, having been caught as smolts — fish that are 1 to 2 years old — in the Penobscot and grown in the penstocks for two years before being released back into the river to spawn, said Casey Clark, a resource management coordinator with the Department of Marine Resources.

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