Dam impact: Brunswick’s once-great salmon run down to a trickle

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BRUNSWICK — The Androscoggin River used to host one of the most prolific runs of Atlantic salmon on the East Coast.

A 1673 account from a commercial fishing operation in Brunswick reported fishermen pulled out 40 barrels of salmon in three weeks, according to the nonprofit group Maine Rivers. The only reason the anglers stopped was because they ran out of salt needed to pack the fish.

But times have changed.

This year, the state Department of Marine Resources counted just two salmon as they went up the fish ladder at the Brunswick dam. The year before that, DMR logged three.

“Historically … those numbers were in the tens of thousands,” John Burrows, director of New England Programs for the Atlantic Salmon Federation, said in an interview Monday.

“You’re never going to see that again on the Androscoggin,” Burrows added.

Members and supporters of the Downeast Salmon Federation met at Frontier Cafe this month to talk about the recovery of Atlantic salmon in Maine. The group is implementing a new stocking program to bring salmon back to the five major rivers in Downeast Maine: the Dennys, East Machias, Machias, Pleasant and Narraguagus.

“(I’m here) to talk about the recovery that we think is possible in the years ahead,” Dwayne Shaw, DSF’s executive director, told the crowd assembled on Dec. 3.

Through a combination of stocking, land conservation, and increased fish passage, DSF thinks it can bring salmon back to their historic spawning grounds.

But such a recovery is not in the cards for the few fish that try to pass through Brunswick every year. In the words of Paul Christman, a biologist with DMR, “we just don’t have the resources to move active restoration forward.”

Flailing recovery

Christman describes the state’s recovery efforts in the Androscoggin as “on the passive side.”

“That’s fancy talk for: ‘We’re not doing any stocking there’,” he said in a Dec. 4 interview.

The state actively stocks 10 rivers for recovery purposes, Christman said, including the Saco, Penobscot and East Machias. And recovery seems to be working in some places.

Salmon in the Penobscot are making a noticeable comeback, thanks to stocking and a unique partnership between environmental nonprofits, the Penobscot Indian Nation, public agencies, and a hydro power operator to remove dams from the main stem of the state’s longest river.

But these rebounds in the Penobscot and Downeast rivers represent just a fraction of what the historic fishery used to be. The Maine Atlantic Salmon Museum estimates that sportfishing for Atlantic salmon used to bring in millions of dollars in the Bangor area alone.

Maine salmon were so legendary that, beginning in 1912, the first Atlantic salmon caught in the state each year was sent to the president of the United States. The last president to receive one was George H. W. Bush.

Without the presidential fish, Maine’s rivers are not just devoid of a historically spectacular sight, but of critical nutrients.

“Salmon are – were – the ‘king of fish,'” Joshua Royte, a senior conservation planner with the Nature Conservancy of Maine, said earlier this month.

Unlike their western counterparts, Atlantic salmon can spawn multiple times, leaving from and returning to their birth streams more than once. “They provide … all these nutrients that they gained when they grew into these huge, meter-long fish out in the ocean,” Royte said.

The fish bring marine-derived nitrogen into the inland rivers, and recondition the stream bottom as they build their nests in the gravel, according to Royte. “(They) nurture this really rich food web,” he said, from aquatic insects all the way up to bald eagles and bears.

But all that good, cold, rocky tributary habitat is locked way up in the Androscoggin River watershed, according to Burrows, of the Atlantic Salmon Federation.

To get there, fish have to cross “five, six, seven hydro dams … it’s basically impossible to have salmon restoration with that many large dams impacting the river system,” he said.

“It’s hard to see getting a big number (of salmon) back without doing something dramatically different on the river,” he added.

Failed attempts

There have been attempts over recent years to bring the salmon back to the Androscoggin.

Friends of Merrymeeting Bay, an environmental nonprofit, has sued the owners of the three lowermost Androscoggin dams on the grounds they violate provisions in the Endangered Species Act.

FOMB alleges that the dam owners are illegally “taking” the endangered species because the dams “(kill) and (injure) salmon with … rotating turbine blades when the fish try to pass through them,” and also “(impede) upstream and downstream salmon passage,” according to court filings.

Maine’s Atlantic salmon were not federally listed as endangered until 2000. Even then, only the populations of seven Downeast rivers were protected by federal law.

The Androscoggin, Kennebec and Penobscot salmon were added in 2009 at the urging of environmental groups like FOMB.

In the decision to add to the list, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service stated that “the greatest impediment to self-sustaining Atlantic salmon populations in Maine is obstructed fish passage and degraded habitat caused by dams,” according to court documents.

But all three complaints were struck down.

In the case against the Brunswick dam, then owned by NextEra Energy Resources, U.S. District Court Judge George Singal ruled that because the dam operator was granted an interim federal species protection permit during the litigation, FOMB’s complaint was voided, according to FOMB Chairman Ed Friedman.

“The Atlantic salmon in the Kennebec and Androscoggin are on the verge of extinction, yet the dam owners and government agencies continue to stall,” Friedman said at the time.

Meanwhile, there is a fish ladder at the Brunswick dam, built in the 1980s, that’s meant to allow Atlantic salmon passage upstream.

Even Brookfield Renewable Energy Partners, the company that now owns and operates the facility, admits not many salmon pass through it.

“Since construction of the passages at Brunswick, the numbers have been minimal for Atlantic salmon but we do pass river herring and other species,” Robert Richter, compliance specialist at Brookfield, said in a written statement Tuesday.

Not giving in yet

In 2014, when DMR logged three salmon at Brunswick’s fish ladder, one of the fish actually turned around and swam up the Kennebec, according to Burrows.

But the other two had a destination in mind.

Back in 2009, Burrow’s organization, the Atlantic Salmon Federation, took out a small dam on the Little River, a tributary of the Androscoggin that runs along the Topsham-Lisbon border. According to their radio tags, Burrows said, both Androscoggin fish spawned in that newly opened habitat.

Last year, those two fish leaped up the nearly 600-foot-long, 40-foot-high ladder to clear the Brunswick dam. Then they could swim, unimpeded, back to the cold water of their spawning grounds.

That, Burrows says, “is pretty remarkable.”

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or wwuthmann@theforecaster.net. Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

The Androscoggin River used to have some of the largest salmon runs on the East Coast. In the last year, the state has recorded just two salmon passing the Brunswick fish ladder.The fish ladder at the Brunswick dam was built in the 1980s. The hydroelectric facility is now owned and operated by Brookfield Renewable Energy Partners.

An Atlantic salmon leaps a falls in Newfoundland, Canada.

Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.
  • sapereaudeprime

    Putting hatchery-raised salmon into their ancestral waters is only half the restoration. The other half is recovering their diadromous prey species. 19th century observers noted that smelt seemed essential for salmon continuity, and smelt were nearly exterminated in most salmon streams between 1870 and 1910. Thomaston, on the St. George River estuary, shipped out over 40 tons of smelt on the Maine Central RR in 1879-80, and that was indicative of the pressure on the species–it could be caught in quantity with little overhead for gear, and it found a ready market in NYC, Boston and Philadelphia. Tomcod may have been another in that category; both species were hit heavily by local shadow fisheries that didn’t include bona fide commercial fishermen. The vertebrate base of the diadromous trophic pyramid was removed by schoolboys, farmers, and seasonal employees out of work in the winter.