Salmon returns on Penobscot slow

After a 2012 season during which only 624 Atlantic salmon were counted at the Veazie Dam fish trap, conservationists hoped that trend — one that was mirrored in Canadian salmon rivers as well — would end with a banner 2013 season.

Don’t get alarmed … yet. But it hasn’t started out that way.

As of Thursday, just 35 salmon had returned to the Penobscot River and been counted, according to biologist Mitch Simpson of the Maine Department of Marine Resources’ Bureau of Sea-Run Fisheries and Habitat.

Attempts to reach Simpson on Friday to see if the biologist had any explanation for the low number of fish that have returned thus far were not immediately successful.

There are two ways to look at the numbers.

First, the pessimistic: Last year was a bad one, overall, for salmon returns, but by the same date a year ago 141 fish — 22.6 percent of the total yearly run — had already returned to the Penobscot.

And last year’s total of 624 fish was the second-lowest since the Veazie Dam fish trap was installed in 1978, and followed a stellar 2011 season during which 3,121 fish returned to the river.

Second, the optimistic: Comparing last year to this one is like … well … comparing Atlantic salmon to sunfish. The reason: Last year the state enjoyed an unseasonably warm spring, and everything seemed to happen earlier than normal. We mowed our lawns earlier. We got sunburned earlier. And the salmon might have come earlier, too, due to warm water temperatures in the river.

The salmon aren’t talking, so it’s tough to know for sure.

And (as they say in political elections) early returns don’t determine a thing.

Consider: By May 23, 1986, just 14 Atlantic salmon had returned to the Veazie Dam.

Why look at 1986, you ask? Because that was the year the modern record for salmon returns — 4,134 — was set.

All of which might mean that we’re in for another off year for salmon returns … or that we’ve got a potential record-setter (in a good way) in front of us.

Time will tell.

And while we’re left with more questions than answers when it comes to salmon, the news is far better when it comes to river herring, or “alewives.”

As you might recall, reestablishing alewife runs in the Penobscot has been a key component of the ongoing Penobscot River Restoration Project, and the folks that staff the fish trap in Veazie have been counting those schools of fish as they head upstream.

The numbers are staggering, and bode well for the future.

First, let’s step back a few years.

According the Simpson’s most recent report, a total of 848 river herring were trapped on the Penobscot during the 2009 season. In 2010, that number dropped to 182. The catch over the subsequent two years was even lower — 84 in 2011 and 19 in 2012.

Care to guess the total this year, as of Thursday?

Try 9,194.

The folks who have spearheaded the Penobscot project have long maintained that the ambitious undertaking is not a salmon-recovery effort. Instead, opening 1,000 miles of stream and river habitat to sea-going fish will benefit the entire watershed, they’ve said.

It seems the alewives agree.

And that’s a good thing.

Editor’s note: Bangor Daily News Publisher Richard J. Warren is co-chairman of the Penobscot River Restoration Trust’s capital campaign.

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John Holyoke

About John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. Today, he's the Outdoors editor for the BDN, a job that allows him to meet up with Maine outdoors enthusiasts in their natural habitat. The stories he gathers provide fodder for his columns, and this blog.