Conservation

Last Call: Saving the Nation’s Atlantic Salmon from Extinction

President George H. Bush and angler Claude Westfall with the final Presidential Salmon. Then Maine U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe (third from proper) appears on | C.Z. Westfall photograph

Editor’s Notice: That is the second article in our sequence on fly fishing conservation.  This sequence seems with the help of Swift Fly Fishing, makers of Epic Fly Rods.

Will wild native Atlantic salmon go the way in which of the passenger pigeon, or will we have the ability to carry them again from the brink of extinction as we did the bald eagle, our Nationwide Chicken, or bison, our Nationwide Mammal? Because the lights dim on the “King of Fish,” we should ask ourselves, are we doing the whole lot we will to stop the lack of the nation’s iconic Atlantic salmon? The reply, sadly, isn’t any….

Until we will get everybody on the identical web page, wild native Atlantic salmon may turn into a footnote within the archives of Native American, early European settlement, and outside sporting historical past. Sadly, politics, turf, paranoia, selfishness, and an absence of ecological enlightenment are all coming into play because the final Atlantic salmon in the US inch nearer to oblivion.

“35 or so years in the past whereas at Grand Pitch on Maine’s Seboeis River, I noticed one thing out of the nook of my eye. As I stared on the brown water crashing over the rocks, a fish I estimated to be 30-inches or extra, leaped from the water and tried to clear the falls, solely to slip again into the white foam beneath. It tried twice extra earlier than disappearing into the blackness. I had simply seen my first Atlantic salmon within the wilds of Maine. That fish has haunted me ever since.” – Bob Mallard

Species of Nationwide Significance

Whereas the US doesn’t have an official Nationwide Fish, if we did, Atlantic salmon could be on the high of the listing of candidates. Resulting from their historic abundance, Atlantic salmon had been a critically vital meals supply for the indigenous individuals of the northeast. They had been utilized by early European settlers as properly.

Atlantic salmon additionally helped outline the US’s leisure angling scene, and performed an vital position in early outside sporting historical past, lore, literature, artwork, and tradition. The fish of alternative of presidents comparable to George H. Bush, sports activities figures like Boston Purple Sox legend Ted Williams, and fly fishing icons comparable to Lee Wulff, Atlantic salmon symbolize the top of leisure angling.

Presidential Salmon

For roughly eighty years, longer than most who’re studying this have been alive, the primary Atlantic salmon caught in America every season was delivered to the President of the US. The primary fish went to President Taft in 1912, and the final, befittingly, to part-time Maine resident and avid Atlantic salmon angler President George H. Bush in 1992.

Known as the “Presidential Salmon,” most, however not all, of the fish despatched to the president got here from the fabled Penobscot River in Maine, named for the Native American tribe that inhabits its shores to today. Sadly, by the point the follow began, these iconic fish had been already in bother as a result of building of dams which prevented them from reaching their historic spawning grounds.

“It’s previous time for the State of Maine to acknowledge the endangered standing of Atlantic salmon and embrace a management position in defending and celebrating this King (and Queen) of Fish.” – Catherine Schmitt,  creator of “The President’s Salmon”

Salmon Golf equipment

Maine was house to a number of non-public Salmon Golf equipment. Established in 1887, the Penobscot Salmon Club in Brewer is alleged to be the oldest fishing membership in America. The fabled Veazie Salmon Club and Eddington Salmon Club are situated on the Penobscot as properly. All three are nonetheless in operation, however like their namesake fish, treading water. The Dennys River Sportsman’s Membership was situated in Downeast, Maine. Sadly, it’s now not in operation, sitting deserted and in disrepair.

Atlantic Salmon Fly Fishing

This signal on the entrance to the now defunct Dennys River Sportsman’s Membership speaks volumes | Bob Mallard photograph

Asleep on the Wheel

By 1948, issues had gotten so dangerous, the industrial fishery for Atlantic salmon was suspended.  After a long time of foot-dragging and reckless inaction, in 2000, Atlantic salmon had been lastly listed as “Endangered” by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS,) a era after they need to have been.  

Because of political wrangling by then Governor of Maine Angus King, with help from former U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe, solely Cove Brook and the Dennys, Ducktrap, East Machias, Machias, Narraguagus, Nice, and Sheepscot Rivers had been included within the itemizing, leaving the critically vital Penobscot River and its center and higher tributaries swinging within the wind.  

Governor King, now a U.S. Senator, threatened the federal authorities that if the fish had been listed, Maine would cease cooperating on salmon restoration efforts.  Senator Snowe sounded the alarm that itemizing Atlantic salmon would outcome within the “financial decapitation” of Washington County, and particularly the domestically vital aquaculture and blueberry industries, neither of which occurred.

Placing Fishing Earlier than Fish

Whereas Maine’s Atlantic salmon shares had been collapsing, anglers continued to reap what had been now critically vital spawning-age fish.  The partitions of most salmon golf equipment are plagued by footage of anglers holding massive lifeless Atlantic salmon.  In the meantime, these identical anglers had been blaming everybody however themselves for the demise of their prized quarry.  

In 2006 the now defunct Maine Atlantic Salmon Fee (MASC) went ahead with an ill-advised experimental fishing season for Atlantic salmon on the Penobscot River.  Whether or not pushed by public and/or political strain, potential revenue from particular allow gross sales, or a want to create some good will with the angling neighborhood is unclear.  Regardless, it was certain to create issues, as conservation of endangered species and recreation don’t combine, no less than properly.

On the time, USFWS was enterprise a evaluation of Atlantic salmon restoration efforts.  One of many points was to find out whether or not the Penobscot and Kennebec Rivers must be added to the restoration zone, or Distinct Inhabitants Section (DPS).  Not solely did they drive Maine to droop the experimental fishing season attributable to too many fish being caught, they finally added the Penobscot and Kennebec, together with the Androscoggin River, to the listing of protected waters. 

Fly Fishing for Salmon

The now shuttered Dennys River Sportsman’s Membership | Bob Mallard photograph

Righting a Fallacious

In 2009, the federal ESA itemizing pertaining to Atlantic salmon was expanded to incorporate the Penobscot, Kennebec, and Androscoggin Rivers, the previous of which is, and all the time has been, ground-zero for Atlantic salmon conservation and restoration in the US. This acknowledges that the species as a complete, not simply particular populations, is in bother.

State of the Salmon

Wild native Atlantic salmon had been as soon as discovered from Connecticut to Maine, in addition to upstate New York. New York’s widespread Salmon River, an economically vital and nationally-known leisure fishery, was named for Atlantic salmon, not the nonnative Pacific salmon that draw legions of anglers to the river at the moment. As we speak, what few wild native Atlantic salmon are left in America are present in Maine.

Dwayne Shaw, Government Director of Downeast Salmon Federation (DSF), estimates that fewer than 100 “wild” Atlantic salmon, these born in nature from naturally deposited eggs, at the moment return to Maine rivers in a given yr, the remainder are of stocked origin. Whereas Pacific salmon advocates elevate the pink flag when runs drop into the 1000’s, that will be purpose to rejoice for Atlantic salmon advocates.

“Fewer than 100, and possibly as few as a number of dozen, wild Atlantic salmon are returning to the entire DPS in some latest years. And it’s extra probably than not that one or each of their mother and father got here from a hatchery.” – Dwayne Shaw, Government Director, DSF

Maine or Bust

Federal restoration efforts on the Connecticut River and its tributaries in Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire, and the Merrimack River and its tributaries in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, have been suspended. Whereas the strains (brood inventory) are nonetheless being maintained in a federal hatchery, stocking has ceased. Because of this the one energetic Atlantic salmon restoration left in the US is in Maine.

Issues at Sea

Atlantic salmon runs, grownup fish coming back from the ocean to their natal rivers and streams to spawn, are dangerously low and have been for many years. Why that is so shouldn’t be utterly clear, and certain attributable to a mixture of points, a few of which we would not have a whole lot of management over. This makes what is occurring in inland waters much more vital, as in terms of Atlantic salmon, all of it comes all the way down to numbers, and the extra fish that make it to sea, the extra that can come again to spawn.

Social Points

Rallying the lots to guard, protect, or restore one thing they can’t see isn’t straightforward. In contrast to eagles, bison, sea turtles, and lots of different threatened species, except you fish, you’ll by no means see an Atlantic salmon within the wild. They don’t soar overhead, saunter throughout the plains, or crawl up on the beech to deposit their eggs, they simply swim unnoticed within the darkness of our rivers and streams.

Traditionally, when it got here to fish conservation, it was sportsmen, or extra particularly, leisure anglers, who led the cost. Sadly, the emphasis was often “wild,” and never essentially “native.” Sadly, in lots of instances, anglers see extra worth in nonnative species than they do what belongs there. And generally, conservation concerned gamefish, species we may fish for – and herein lies the issue.

Having been closed to leisure angling for twenty years, lots of at the moment’s anglers have by no means fished for native Atlantic salmon, no less than in the US, and those that have are getting previous. As we lose Atlantic salmon advocates to Father Time, we’re not changing them attributable to an absence of familiarity, and by default, curiosity. Just like the fish themselves and the fabled Salmon Golf equipment, Atlantic salmon advocates are at risk of going away.

Failed Efforts

Like Pacific salmon and steelhead restoration applications that bomb our rivers with fish raised in conventional hatcheries, Atlantic salmon restoration efforts are failing, and miserably. To count on extremely domesticated fish to outlive in waters which have been closely compromised by dams, invasive fish, warming water, and different components, is naïve at finest, and at worst, a recipe for catastrophe.

When one thing’s not working, you modify course. So far as Atlantic salmon go, that is the place we now discover ourselves: it’s not working and we should change or danger shedding the species. However change comes painfully slowly when typically understaffed and underfunded authorities companies and non-profits are concerned, and on this case, far too slowly for the final remaining Atlantic salmon in America.

Pushing the Envelope

Non-typical stocking applications like these employed by DSF at their Peter Grey Hatchery are displaying some promise. Raised in untreated water from their natal river, and difficult love slightly than coddling, these fish are higher suited to life within the wild. Early stories point out that DSF could also be on to one thing, as smolt returns related to the fish they elevate are greater than these originating within the federal hatchery. However that is only a Band-Assist, and a solution to maintain fish within the rivers whereas we deal with the large image.

And to be clear, nobody needs to get out of the hatchery enterprise greater than DSF, and in reality, they by no means needed to be within the hatchery enterprise within the first place. However they can’t get out of it till the inhabitants is stabilized, or the federal authorities pulls the plug on Downeast Maine’s Atlantic salmon as they did Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont.

DSF’s Peter Grey Hatchery on the banks of the East Machias River | Bob Mallard photograph

Who’s Stepping Up?

DSF, Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF), and lots of different teams and people labored lengthy and exhausting to drive the critically vital federal ESA itemizing for Atlantic salmon. Had this not occurred, it’s very probably there could be no Atlantic salmon left in the US. These teams proceed to take away dams – a critically vital a part of the puzzle, set up fish-passage, enhance in-stream habitat, defend vital riparian areas, plant eggs, inventory fish, publish indicators, and so forth.

Underneath the federal itemizing for Atlantic salmon, accountability for managing the species is shared between USFWS and Maine Department of Marine Resources (MDMR.) The previous spends hundreds of thousands of {dollars} a yr on hatchery upkeep, stocking, and different restoration efforts, and the latter assists them and serves because the native boots on the bottom authorities company.

When the Maine Chapter of Native Fish Coalition (NFC) approached MDMR to debate the shortage of a maximum length limit on brown trout, which intently resemble Atlantic salmon, in coastal waters, they responded instantly and instituted a 25-inch limit to guard critically vital grownup Atlantic salmon from unintentional harvest attributable to misidentification.

Working with DSF, ASF, and MDMR, Maine NFC designed an informational sign for Downeast Maine’s Atlantic salmon rivers and streams. What few indicators we may discover had been in poor form and connected to timber, posts, and kiosks that lay hidden within the brush. It seemed as if we had given up on salmon, the very last thing we would like individuals to consider. The indicators state that the fish are there, they’re endangered, and you can not legally fish for them, together with a request: Please assist defend these uncommon native fish. The thought was to remind individuals of what we had been doing and why.

Native Fish Coalition

Native Fish Coalition Nationwide Vice Chair and Maine Chair Emily Bastian on the higher Narraguagus River | Bob Mallard photograph

Who’s Not?

Sadly, whereas accountable for the well-being of most fish present in Maine’s inland waters, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW) has taken a hands-off place in regard to Atlantic salmon. When requested in the event that they needed to be a part of NFC’s Atlantic salmon signal, MDIFW declined, stating, “We don’t handle that species.” The truth that the indicators had been being posted on water they handle and police warranted their involvement.

Whereas MDIFW has made some concessions, comparable to a 25-inch maximum length limit on landlocked salmon and brown trout in rivers and streams to assist defend critically vital grownup Atlantic salmon from misidentification and unintentional harvest, they haven’t prolonged the identical protections to the lakes the place massive grownup Atlantic salmon could winter over.

MDMR has a 14-inch minimum length limit on landlocked salmon and brown trout in coastal waters to assist defend juvenile Atlantic salmon from unintentional harvest attributable to misidentification. Whereas MDIFW has a 14-inch minimal size restrict on landlocked salmon in rivers and streams, the restrict on brown trout, a species simply confused with Atlantic salmon and current in some Atlantic salmon watersheds, is simply 6 inches, placing juvenile Atlantic salmon in danger.

In late 2019, MDIFW proposed stocking nonnative brown trout in Patrick Lake, the headwaters of the East Machias River. MDIFW famous “Patrick Lake lies within the Gulf of Maine DPS for Atlantic salmon,” and that an earlier stocking program, 2001-2004, was terminated attributable to “public concern for stocking brown trout inside an Atlantic salmon drainage.” After opposition from NFC, DSF, and others, the proposal was withdrawn in Might 2020, with MDIFW citing issues about low returns in regard to stocked brown trout, not the well-being of endangered native Atlantic salmon.

MDIFW lately undertook an effort to redo their species administration plans. Maine NFC and others participated within the Arctic charr working group, and Maine TU and others within the brook trout working group. There have been teams for lake trout, landlocked salmon – most of that are nonnative, lake whitefish, baitfish, and nonnative bass as properly. There was no working group, nor administration plan, for Atlantic salmon.

Throughout a latest vote of the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund board in regard to funding to assist take away a fish-blocking dam on the Dennys River, a chosen Atlantic salmon river, the lone dissenting vote got here from MDIFW, who when requested mentioned it was “not a precedence.” Whereas they finally modified their vote, it confirmed what many had been involved about – MDIFW shouldn’t be absolutely dedicated to Atlantic salmon restoration.

Why Does this Matter?

Atlantic salmon spend the primary three to 4 years of their lives in freshwater. They go from egg to alevin to fry to parr, earlier than dropping to the ocean as 6-8” fish often called smolts. Atlantic salmon return to their natal rivers and streams to spawn after one to 3 years at sea, and typically winter over in freshwater lakes earlier than going again to the ocean. The method is repeated till the fish dies.

Whereas in freshwater, Atlantic salmon are inclined to misidentification and incidental mortality by the hands of anglers. Most Atlantic salmon waters are open to the usage of bait, which in keeping with most research comes with a 30% incidental mortality rate (IMR). There isn’t any solution to fish these waters with out encountering juvenile, and even grownup, Atlantic salmon. And many of the lakes the place grownup Atlantic salmon would possibly overwinter are open to ice fishing which has an excellent greater IMR.

Juvenile Atlantic salmon are additionally topic to competitors for meals and area, and predation, from nonnative fish. Per MDIFW, “Sea-run Atlantic salmon happen in lots of Maine’s inland waters the place landlocked Atlantic salmon and brown trout may additionally exist.” The Kennebec River and its major Atlantic salmon spawning tributary, the Sandy River, are being actively stocked with nonnative browns. And nonnative landlocked salmon are discovered all through the Penobscot system, in addition to some Downeast rivers.

Whereas MDMR is technically accountable for the species, for the primary three to 4 years of their life, Maine’s Atlantic salmon stay in water managed and policed by MDIFW. With out MDIFW absolutely dedicated to their safety and restoration, Atlantic salmon restoration might be an uphill battle at finest. Once more, the state of affairs concerning Atlantic salmon is dire, and we’d like everybody on the identical web page, particularly MDIFW.

Atlantic salmon endangered

Grownup Atlantic salmon | art work by Karen Talbot

Salmon Matter… All of Them

As a part of a “citizen scientist” brook trout survey venture sponsored by Maine Audubon, Maine TU, and MDIFW, volunteers fish coastal streams and rivers, a few of that are house to Atlantic salmon, and file their catch. Whereas synthetic lures and flies are advisable, volunteers are allowed to make use of, and in some instances, inspired to make use of, bait, one thing I challenged however to no avail.

Throughout an outing to Downeast Maine, a volunteer posted an image of a bleeding salmon on the grass that had been caught by one of many venture coordinators. Whereas mentioned to be a landlocked salmon, upon nearer inspection the fish was missing a fin-clip, indicating it was probably an Atlantic salmon, and probably a uncommon wild one. To danger killing any uncommon Atlantic salmon simply to show comparatively widespread brook trout are there doesn’t make sense.

“Nevertheless, in case you are unsuccessful catching trout with synthetic lures, earlier than you permit your survey website it’s possible you’ll wish to strive utilizing worms to evaluate whether or not brook trout are current.” – Maine TU Web site

Endangered or Not?

Probably the most obvious inconsistency in regard to Atlantic salmon administration in Maine is that whereas the species is listed as Endangered on the federal degree, and the one Atlantic salmon left in the US are in Maine, they don’t seem to be listed as Endangered on the state degree. This consists of each the Maine Endangered Species Act (MESA,) and the Maine Marine Endangered Species Act (ESA.) They aren’t labeled as “Threatened” both. And amazingly, they don’t seem to be even listed as a Species of Special Concern.

On the federally mandated Wildlife Action Plan degree, Maine’s Atlantic salmon are listed as a Tier 1 Species of Greatest Conservation Need, two steps beneath Endangered, one step beneath Threatened, and the identical standing granted to Arctic charr, a Species of Particular Concern. Per MDIFW, Arctic charr usually are not even uncommon, as NFC was requested to take away the phrase “uncommon” from a co-branded informational signal pertaining to such.

“If the variety of moose or white-tailed deer in Maine numbered lower than 100, it’s very probably that the regulatory companies of Maine would listing them as endangered. Why has the state did not do the identical for Atlantic salmon?” – Topher Browne, creator of “Atlantic Salmon Magic”

To attempt to get everybody on the identical web page as Atlantic salmon enter their final lap, NFC, Maine NFC, DSF, ASF, Maine Council ASF, Union Salmon Affiliation, Upstream Watch, Kennebec Reborn, Friends of Merrymeeting Bay, Elliotsville Basis, former MDIFW Commissioner Ray “Bucky” Owen, former MDIFW Deputy Commissioner Matthew Scott, former MASC Biologist Edward Baum, retired MDIFW Fisheries Biologist Joan Garner Trial, PhD; retired Maine Division of Environmental Safety Biologist Mark Whiting, PhD; in addition to authors Catherine Schmitt and Topher Browne, are petitioning MDIFW to listing Atlantic salmon as Endangered on the state degree.

“Wild Atlantic salmon as soon as ranged throughout New England. As we speak, these fish persist in solely a handful of Maine rivers and never sufficient is being completed to carry them again from the sting of extinction. A state itemizing would assist deal with plenty of vital threats to the species that the federal itemizing has been unable to deal with for the final 20 years.”- John Burrows, Government Director of U.S. Operations, ASF

Failure to Unite

Sadly, as is commonly the case in terms of fish, some conservation teams in Maine, together with Maine Audubon, Maine Rivers, and Pure Assets Council of Maine, refused to signal on, opting as a substitute to take a wait-and-see, or a much less efficient lone wolf strategy, submitting letters of help after the very fact at finest. Do these teams not consider Atlantic salmon are endangered? Do they really feel that the Maine ESA course of doesn’t work? Or are they simply afraid to get entangled in one thing that’s sure to be contentious?

The Maine TU State Council was unable to realize consensus two weeks after being requested to signal on. They mentioned they wanted a “few months” to “perceive all of the ramifications of this and what are the optimistic and adverse elements of the itemizing for the reason that species is already listed federally.”

Maine TU went on to say they “could also be able to ship a letter in help of your advice,” not signal on as a accomplice which might make a a lot stronger assertion. Once more, why? If Maine TU can’t help critically imperiled Atlantic salmon, what can they help? When approached to help the trouble to listing Atlantic salmon as Endangered on the state degree, Jeff Reardon, Nationwide TU’s Maine-based consultant, and Maine Brook Trout Venture Director, deferred to Maine TU and wouldn’t take a place. Conversely, ASF and NFC, each of whom have a nationwide and state presence, took positions on the nationwide in addition to state degree.

The state of affairs is finest summed up by Emily Bastian, Nationwide Vice Chair and Maine Chair for NFC. When you settle for the science behind Atlantic salmon, which is just about unchallenged, and care concerning the species, I don’t see how anybody may really feel in any other case. Hopefully, MDIFW and the Maine legislature will really feel the identical. In the event that they don’t, numerous {dollars} and immeasurable time might be wasted as companies work towards one another, and Maine’s most iconic fish, the “King of Fish,” slips into the abyss.

“Atlantic salmon are labeled as Endangered on the federal degree and are vulnerable to going away. The one Atlantic salmon left within the nation are in Maine, but the state has not listed them as Endangered on the state degree. Itemizing Atlantic salmon on the state degree would assist defend this vital pure useful resource, align the State of Maine with federal efforts to guard the species, and assist preserve considered one of Maine’s and the nation’s best and most emblematic fish.” – Emily Bastian, Nationwide Vice Chair, NFC

As Atlantic salmon swim their final lap, we should ask ourselves: Might my favourite fish be subsequent? What would the powers that be do if it had been brook trout that had been in bother? Yellowstone cutthroat? Steelhead? Bonefish? Tarpon? Stripers? Would they band collectively and do the whole lot attainable to save lots of the species? Or would they let turf, politics, personalities, paranoia, and so forth., get in the way in which of sound scientific choices? Let’s hope you don’t have to search out out.

 

This text seems with the help of Swift Fly Fishing, makers of Epic Fly Rods.

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