Restoring Atlantic salmon in Maine requires different considerations

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission recently solicited comments on its draft environmental impact statement for the four lower dams on the Kennebec River at a series of meetings in Augusta and Waterville. Public comments overwhelmingly favored more stringent measures to ensure fish migration, including more stringent dam removal than described in the environmental impact statement.

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “The world as we have created it is a process of thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” This statement applies to the situation surrounding the lower Kennebec dams.

Biologist John Waldman, in his book Running Silver, recounts colonial-era accounts of how people could once “run on the backs of schools of salmon, herring, and other fish that swam up the rivers along the Atlantic coast.”

The world our ancestors created is very different. Anadromous fish migrations have generally been destroyed on the east coast of the United States, and Maine is home to the largest remaining ones. Much of the improvement is due to the demolition of the Edwards Dam on the Kennebec over 20 years ago, which allowed the Sebasticook River and, more recently, China Lake to be reconnected.

Unfortunately, the overall picture in Maine is far less encouraging: native anadromous species can only effectively use less than 10% of their former range.

On the Penobscot, Maine's largest river basin and the birthplace of the salmon fishing tradition, the first two dams were removed over 10 years ago, but salmon migration remains inadequate because the fish cannot pass Milford Dam, the first dam remaining in the system, within 48 hours. This weakens them and impairs their ability to spawn successfully. Maine's best Atlantic salmon river has only a remnant population that is kept alive by artificial stocking.

In the Androscoggin, Maine's third largest watershed, disruptions to fish passage at Brunswick high tide have occurred throughout the term of the current FERC license.

The Saco River is Maine's fourth-largest watershed and its largest restoration disaster. Despite fish passage agreements dating back over 30 years, the Cataract Project has yet to demonstrate effective fish passage at high tide. Skelton Dam, the next major dam upstream, is the only one in the system that provides another fish passage. The March 2024 Saco Anadromous Fish Passage Report reported only a single Atlantic salmon ascending the East Channel Fishway in 2023. While it is widely known that the Saco was a historic salmon river, the Saco's restoration history is one of endless delays, missed milestones, and right-of-way schedule shifts. There have been no consequences for hydroelectric operators as this sad saga continues. With seven dams within the first 40 miles, the restoration picture for the Saco is grim.

FERC's record in supporting the restoration of deep-sea fisheries is abysmal, and the new environmental impact statement proposes the same approaches for a critical portion of the distinct population segment of Atlantic salmon in the Gulf of Maine, the last Atlantic salmon population in the country.

The Kennebec River basin is Maine's second largest basin and is over 600 feet wide in the section defined by the lower four dams, making it extremely difficult for fish to find relatively narrow fish passages. Unless more stringent measures are taken for the lower Kennebec dams than those set forth in FERC's Environmental Impact Statement, we can realistically expect only a series of missed milestones, delays and rescheduling like at Saco, resulting in little improvement to the status quo and continuing to deny Atlantic salmon and their native, co-evolved species free access to the motherland of spawning habitat in the Sandy River basin.

With few concrete dates set, the planned remediation will not be able to be implemented within a reasonable timeframe. Climate change will exacerbate the situation. Delays will mean that efforts will take decades, not years. As climate change progresses, the data used to make project decisions in the draft environmental impact statement will become increasingly out of date.

To return to the Einstein quote, this process is the result of current thinking. FERC needs to change its thinking.

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