A news story in the Aug. 2 issue of The Coastal Journal about Atlantic salmon in the Kennebec River included unattributed material from an opinion column written by wildlife biologist Ron Joseph published July 23 in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel. The material included several sentences repeated verbatim without identifying the source. We apologize to Dr. Joseph for using his work without acknowledging his authorship.
by Elisa Hawkes
Coastal Journal staff
BATH — For the past 100 years, Atlantic salmon have been near extinction in New England rivers. In mid-July, an encouraging discovery was made in the Kennebec River. Five adult Atlantic salmon were live-trapped at Waterville’s Lockwood Dam, the first of four Kennebec River dams blocking the upstream passage of salmon and other sea-run fish. Near Bath, in the lower Kennebec, a sixth salmon was spotted. Although dead, the salmon measured an impressive 36 inches.
The salmon ranged in weight from 10 to 20 pounds. They were trucked upriver and released in a major tributary of the Kennebec, the Sandy River. Due to the number of dams in the Kennebec River, fish could not freely swim the 67 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to Waterville from 1835, when the Edwards Dam was built in Augusta, until 1999, when it was removed.
The maze of dams in the Kennebec and other rivers are part of the difficulty salmon, and other anadromous fish (i.e. fish that migrate up rivers from the sea to breed in fresh water), have had in continuing to inhabit these waterways. Anadromous fish such as alewives and Atlantic salmon are born in fresh water, spend much of their lives in the sea, and return to fresh water to spawn. Their inability to swim upstream to spawn has lead to the decline and eventual disappearance of salmon populations. Combined with toxic industrial and municipal wastes, Atlantic salmon vanished from the Kennebec.
Paul Christman, Atlantic salmon biologist with the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR), is working to bring the Atlantic salmon back to Maine rivers. He said hydroelectric companies along the Kennebec have banded together to work on freeing a path for anadromous fish to swim upstream. In 2006, a lift was installed at Lockwood Dam, the next obstacle in the river from Edwards Dam. Fish swim into the lift and are raised up to river level. At this point, the fish are captured and taken to the Sandy River to spawn.
Between 2003 and 2009, Christman said, small numbers of eggs were hatched in incubators along the Sandy River (anywhere from 15,000 to 50,000 eggs) and the very young fish were released into the river. According to Christman, the Sandy River has ideal conditions for salmon spawning and growth. The Sandy’s gravel bottom and cold, highly oxygenated water provides ideal habitat for salmon.
The five salmon trapped in the Kennebec a few weeks ago were probably from those eggs. They likely returned as four-year-old fish after spending two years in the north Atlantic as far away as Iceland and Greenland. Christman said the number of salmon to return to the Kennebec each year is highly dependent upon conditions in the North Atlantic, making restoration timelines hard to predict. In 2007, 11 fish returned from eggs released into the Sandy River. Last year, 64 salmon returned, 42 of which were wild, or naturally reared. Christman said not all Salmon swimming back to the Kennebec are from the Sandy River. Some are strays from other rivers such as the Penobscot.
The important thing about Salmon being found in the Kennebec from Bath through Waterville is the indication that restocking the river is possible, because we now know that fish hatched in the river will return to the Kennebec to swim upstream and spawn.
By winter 2010, Christman had proven the Kennebec River was a viable habitat for Atlantic salmon recovery. Now the true restoration would begin. He was awarded 600,000 eggs to hatch in the Sandy River. In winter of 2011, he was given 860,000 eggs, and in 2012, 920,000.
Christman has placed high hopes on the Sandy River salmon cohort of 2010. Of the 600,000 eggs he planted, he believes hundreds of adult salmon could return to the Kennebec in 2014. Christman cautions the conditions in the North Atlantic greatly affect fish survival rates. If conditions are not conducive to survival, only dozens of fish might return. According to Christman, there is no way to predict the outcome.
Atlantic salmon are on the endangered species list in the Kennebec, based upon federal guidelines. To have that status changed, there would have to be at least 2,000 Atlantic salmon in the area, including rivers other than the Kennebec, consistently over a period of years. To be downgraded to threatened, there would have to be 500 salmon in the area consistently.
Christman said the Kennebec River compares extremely positively to other rivers in terms of conditions conducive to the spawning and growth of salmon. Based on results to date, the Sandy River feeding into the Kennebec is fertile ground for Atlantic salmon.
According to Christman, the portion of the Kennebec running through Bath does not have standing pools, and is not shallow enough for Salmon fishing. He said when Atlantic salmon are once again completely restored to the river, Bath would not be an ideal location for angling. However, the fish would once again swiftly swim upstream to spawn and pass out again, to live a good portion of their lives in the sea. A piece of Bath history and part of its natural environment will have been restored.
“The Kennebec is the greatest river in the state of Maine, maybe in New England,” Christman said. “I’m fascinated by everything in it. It is such a large part of the history of the colonies. They [salmon] haven’t been here for almost 200 years, but they will be again, soon.
“The community along the Sandy River has really been excited about this. They get excited about seeing the fish in their rivers and seeing them come back each year.
“To bring an endangered species back; there is nothing more exciting or awe inspiring.”