For more than a century, conservationists have sought to restore the Atlantic salmon population in the Penobscot River. Each year, river-watchers eagerly await the return of those fish, many of which are trapped and transported to a hatchery where they’ll be used to produce the next generation of Penobscot salmon.
Unfortunately, for the third consecutive year the number of fish returning from the sea is nothing to celebrate.
According to Mitch Simpson of the Maine Department of Marine Resources’ Bureau of Sea-Run Fisheries and Habitat, just 257 salmon had returned to the Milford Dam fish trapping facility as of Monday.
In recent years, by the end of July more than 90 percent of the total yearly run arrived in the river and were counted. Up until last year, those fish were counted at the Veazie Dam, which has since been removed.
Could the change of count location be causing problems? It’s possible. In an email sent in mid-July, Simpson explained that capturing fish at the new site proved difficult early in the season, for a variety of reasons.
“The Milford fish lift has had its ups and downs during its first year of operation,” Simpson wrote at the time. “We opened the fish lift April 15, however river flows were above the safe operating range. Once flows were within the safe operating range of the fish lift, we began regular operations on May 5.
“High flows and several maintenance issues with the lift has made this season’s operations somewhat intermittent at times, although the fish lift is currently running properly,” he wrote.
The news isn’t all bad at the lift: Among the fish that have been trapped are 805 American shad and 187,438 river herring.
But for the Atlantic salmon, things aren’t looking so good.
If the previous years counting trends hold true and the bulk of this year’s run is over, 2014 is setting up to be the Penobscot’s worst year for Atlantic salmon returns since fish were first counted at Veazie in 1978.
Last year’s total of 372 fish is the lowest on record. The 608 fish that returned in 2012 ranks fifth-lowest.
A year ago, scientists painted a bleak picture of the plight of Atlantic salmon, blaming climate and ecosystem changes for a decline in the number of salmon returning to rivers.
And the Atlantic salmon news isn’t rosy elsewhere, either.
Late last week the Atlantic Salmon Commission, which is based in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, issued a press release that urged anglers to voluntarily release all of their salmon.
The reason: The number of both salmon and grilse, which are defined by the ASF as mature salmon less than 63 centimeters in length, are low in many Canadian salmon rivers.
In Maine, Atlantic salmon are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act, and fishing for them is not allowed.
The ASF’s message might seem to be unnecessary to some. After all, modern Atlantic salmon anglers are often among the most steadfast adherents to a catch-and-release ethic.
Not so in Quebec, the ASF points out. Quebec is the only province where anglers are allowed to kill large Atlantic salmon. And last season, they did just that: 2,932 large salmon were killed.
Grilse are another story: A year ago, anglers across eastern Canada killed more than 35,000 of the smaller fish.
The ASF has promoted a live-release program for several years, and says that it’s particularly important for anglers to practice live-release when stocks are not burgeoning.
“It will pay anglers to exercise caution by carefully releasing all their salmon and grilse to ensure they spawn and contribute to sustainable runs in future years,” ASF president Bill Taylor said in the news release. “Despite our hope that runs are just late, it is possible that the decreased numbers we are seeing will not improve much during the remainder of the 2014 season.”
Among the ASF’s observations of this year’s run:
— Several rivers in Quebec, including the Matane and the Matapedia, are experiencing a significant drop in the number of returning fish.
— Numbers are down on the Northwest and Southwest Miramichi in New Brunswick when compared to last year. Especially sobering: Last year’s numbers were also low.
— On the Restigouche River, grilse numbers are extremely low, and larger salmon are less plentiful than they were in 2013.
— And in Newfoundland, information provided by Fisheries and Oceans Canada indicates that some of the province’s most important salmon rivers, including the Exploits, are experiencing much lower returns than they did a year ago.