Each spring, those with an interest in fisheries conservation and Atlantic salmon start paying particular attention to the Penobscot River and an activity that has taken place there every year since 1978: Salmon are trapped, examined, and often trucked to Craig Brook National Fish Hatchery in East Orland.
The results of those daily trips to the Veazie Dam’s fish trap are tallied and shared with the public. Anglers who remember the glory days of salmon fishing on the river are among the most eager river-watchers, and when the fish count swells, so do hopes for the iconic species.
That was the case last year, when 3,124 salmon returned to the Penobscot.
Alas, some years aren’t so great. Some years, the salmon don’t come back. Some years, we river-watchers become increasingly depressed as the tally lags behind the pace set in past years.
And this is turning into one of those years.
Mitch Simpson, a biologist with the Maine Bureau of Sea-Run Fisheries and Habitat, reports that salmon returns have essentially stopped over the past few weeks, and the seasonal total stands at just 609 fish. Only two fish have entered the Veazie trap over the past two weeks, and just 46 fish have showed up in the past month.
That’s not all that odd: Salmon typically stop entering the river when the water warms, and the river has been quite balmy for several weeks now.
No, the worst part is this: By the same date a year ago, 2,916 fish — 93 percent of the eventual yearly total — had arrived at the Veazie Dam.
If last year’s pattern holds true and we’ve already welcomed 93 percent of this year’s run to town, we can expect a total season salmon return of 652 fish when biologists shut down the trap this fall.
Disclaimer: This total is not based on biology; instead, it’s a simple mathematical extrapolation that may not come true. A further disclaimer: History indicates it may well be pretty close.
According to the Bureau of Sea-Run Fisheries and Habitat’s 2010 Penobscot River Report, in 2010, 96 percent of the season’s fish were caught before Aug. 1. In 2009, 98 percent had reached Veazie by that date. And in 2008, 93 percent of the yearly catch came before Aug. 1.
And if our seasonal total comes in at 650 fish, give or take, that would be the second-lowest total in the history of the Veazie Dam fish trap, ahead of only the 534 fish trapped in 2000.
Sobering news, to say the least. And we’re not alone.
Atlantic Salmon Federation charts show that at some tracking locations in New Brunswick, the Atlantic salmon returns are much lower than they were last year, a fact that another Maine biologist confirmed for me a few weeks back.
Thankfully, salmon biologists often remind us during the good years, “one year does not make a trend.”
Or, as Red Sox fans have been saying forever: “Wait until next year.”