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Federal Officials Release Recovery Plan for Endangered Atlantic Salmon

A pre-smolt Atlantic salmon in Orland, Maine, in 2009.
A pre-smolt Atlantic salmon in Orland, Maine, in 2009.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries have released a draft recovery plan for endangered Atlantic salmon in the Gulf of Maine.

The last remnant populations of Atlantic salmon, which once ranged from Long Island Sound to northeastern Canada, can now be found in just a few rivers and streams in central and eastern Maine. And fisheries officials are making the fish a priority for funding.

Known as the “king of fish” for their strength, speed and leaping ability, Atlantic salmon are still a sight to behold on the Penobscot River. It used to be that the first one caught was sent to the president of the United States each spring.

But their numbers have vanished over the centuries, from an estimated 100,000 in the 1800s to just 731 fish in 2015. They were first listed as endangered on seven Maine rivers in 2000.

In 2009 the listing was expanded to include a larger territory. But it has taken the federal fisheries agencies until now to come up with a recovery plan for the fish, a requirement of the Endangered Species Act.

“So the plan is supposed to identify specific recovery actions that need to be done in order to get us to recovery. It’s also supposed to define what recovery is,” says Dan Kircheis, a fisheries biologist with NOAA who says working to remove dams, where possible, is one of the primary actions called for in the plan. “There’s a lot of small dams that were built around the time of the log drives. They were used for old sawmills and various purposes like that, that don’t serve their original purpose. So if we can find opportunities to remove dams that really don’t have much of a purpose right now, then we’d love to take an opportunity to do that.”

In the case of hydroelectric dams, the plan calls for more regulatory mechanisms to ensure better fish passage. It also references culvert and road crossing improvements, something the state has been working to address through passage of a water bond last year.

And when it comes to the marine environment, Kircheis says the focus is on trying to reduce fish pressure on salmon in the waters off Greenland.

Many of these threats have been previously identified, but Andy Goode of the Atlantic Salmon Federation in Brunswick says he likes the plan’s goal to define recovery with a firm number.

“To get Atlantic salmon off the Endangered Species List you’d have to have at least 2,000 wild fish in each of the three geographic areas in Maine, and you’d have to have an upward trend over a period of a decade,” he says.

In addition to the recovery plan, NOAA Fisheries has designated Atlantic salmon as one of eight Species in the Spotlight. That means the species is critically endangered and at risk of extinction in the near future.

Kircheis says it also means recovering the fish is a priority for the agency that includes additional resources.

“We’ve had several funding initiatives come out just over the last few months that are geared toward prioritizing Species in the Spotlight for this funding,” he says.

Two informational meetings about the draft recovery plan are scheduled for April 19 in Brewer and April 20 in Waterville.

Copyright 2016 Maine Public