For much of the spring, those who keep an eager eye turned toward the Veazie Dam were left shaking their heads as Atlantic salmon returns to the Penobscot River lagged far behind the pace set during a banner 2011 season.
Those prized fish, which are counted at the fish trap in Veazie before many are sent to Craig Brook National Fish Hatchery in Orland, just weren’t present.
Near the end of October — just before Hurricane Sandy arrived — crews working for the Maine Department of Marine Resouces’ Bureau of Sea-Run Fisheries and Habitat called it quits and closed the trap for the year.
The final Penobscot salmon total: 624 fish — the second lowest since the trap went into operation in 1978.
By contrast, a healthy total of 3,125 salmon returned to the trap in 2011. The only year worse, according to statistics provided by the Bureau of Sea-Run Fisheries and Habitat, was 2000, when just 534 salmon found their way back to Veazie.
On Thursday I touched base with Andrew Goode, the Atlantic Salmon Federation’s vice president for U.S. programs, who said Maine isn’t alone: Returns on Canadian rivers were also lower than they have been in years past.
“[The Department of Marine Resources] is doing redd counts on Down East rivers this week but that won’t change the overall scenario,” Goode said in an email. “The overall trend in North America has been increasing [returns] for the past decade so hopefully this year is an anomaly.”
Goode referred me to a report that will appear in a future issue of the ASF Maine Council newsletter for more information.
The headline on the report gets right to the point: “The Numbers Are In — 2012 Was Dismal For Salmon,” it reads.
“Not that we are revealing what all salmon angers aren’t already aware of but the final numbers are in and we can definitively report that in 2012, there was a major decline in the returns of wild Atlantic salmon to most Canadian and New England rivers,” the report begins.
According to that report, the number of larger fish, which have spent more than one winter at sea, declined a bit, but not at an alarming level.
“The bad news was that grilse (salmon that spend one winter at sea) numbers plunged across all regions,” the report states. “Also, the summer’s lack of rain and high temperatures exacerbated the situation. The salmon that did return were reluctant to enter the low, warm waters that were depleted of oxygen.”
The report points out that salmon returns in Newfoundland and Labrador decreased from the 2011 totals by 25 to 30 percent, on average.
But on one of New Brunswick’s most famous salmon rivers, things were worse.
“In New Brunswick, the Southwest Miramichi grilse run was only 25 percent of last year and the large salmon numbers were 79 percent of last year,” according to the report.
The ASF thinks the number of large salmon that did return will be sufficient to meet spawning requirements on the Miramichi. Runs in Quebec were also lower than hoped for, but not “disastrously so,” according to the report.
And as for conditions closer to home? Well, the ASF was disappointed in the Penobscot returns, but is enthusiastic about the future.
“Fortunately, the removal of the Great Works Dam this year, the pending removal of Veazie next year, and subsequent decommissioning of [the] Howland [dam] bodes well for the future of Atlantic salmon on this river,” the report states.
The report also offers some suggestions on the big question on the minds of many salmon conservationists: What happened to the grilse?
“This is the question everyone is looking for the answer to and many scenarios are being put forward,” the report says. Among the suspects: “Sea lice infestation from aquaculture operations, heavy predation from seals, birds and striped bass (this population has exploded in Miramichi Bay) to a lack of prey species for the salmon to feed on.
“We have heard of some data indicating very cold temperatures in the Labrador Sea which could have limited food supply and thus survival of grilse,” the report continues.
Some of the data that has been collected seems to support the theory that food sources may have been compromised, according to the report.
“It appears that the grilse that did return to [the Penobscot] this year were generally smaller than normal, with many anglers in Canada reporting that they were catching a lot of two-pound grilse,” the report stated. “This may be an indication of a lack of food at some time during the year from the smolt to the grilse stage that might have caused some to die and survivors to be smaller. What is apparent is that the mortality issue is one that is occuring in the sea, since grilse runs are generally down all over and do not appear to be related to smolt production in fresh water.”
Here’s hoping for a better 2013.