11/19/1999 -- -- The federal government, under pressure from conservation groups to save vanishing populations of wild Atlantic salmon, proposed an endangered species listing Wednesday to protect the fish in eight Maine rivers.
The proposal, which was expected, would give federal agencies more authority to regulate fish farming, agricultural irrigation and other activities regarded as threats to the fish and their river habitats.
But the decision was attacked by Gov. Angus King and Sen. Olympia Snowe. They questioned the science behind the listing and claimed it may impose a hardship on residents of Washington County, where several of the rivers are located.
Environmentalists said they will continue to press a lawsuit to require an immediate emergency listing. They said that under Wednesday's proposal, 15 months or more could pass before federal protection actually takes effect.
"We don't feel the salmon has 15 months," said Sue Scott, a spokeswoman for the Atlantic Salmon Federation, a leading salmon conservation group with offices in Maine and New Brunswick.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service will hold a public hearing in January, followed by a period of deliberation. If approved, the listing would designate salmon as endangered, defined by law as a species that "is at risk of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range."
The designation would apply in eight rivers: the Dennys, East Machias, Machias, Narraguagus and Pleasant in Washington County; the Sheepscot and Ducktrap in midcoast Maine; and Cove Brook, a tributary of the Penobscot.
Fisheries biologists counted only 29 adult salmon in those rivers this year. Thousands once swam up the rivers from the Atlantic Ocean to spawn in the days before European settlement.
The state has been trying to boost salmon populations since 1997 under a conservation plan that brings together government scientists, private landowners, industry and citizen volunteers. The work done under the plan includes stricter enforcement of fishing laws, land acquisitions to protect sensitive riverfront property, and the development of new regulations that require environmentally sound practices on aquaculture farms.
But federal agencies say the state conservation plan isn't doing the job.
Jamie R. Clark, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said Wednesday the state has failed to reduce significant threats from aquaculture, fish disease, habitat changes in the rivers and catch-and-release fishing.
"It's time to consider tougher protective measures to ensure survival of the species," she said.
Federal agencies have been especially critical of the state's failure to restrict the use of imported strains of fish by Maine's aquaculture industry. Fish farmers say they need to introduce European genes into native salmon so they will grow fast enough to compete with farmed fish from Norway and Chile.
However, biologists believe that aquaculture fish escaping from pens could compete for limited habitat, pass diseases or interbreed with wild fish, diluting their genetic integrity and making it more difficult for them to survive in the wild.
Joseph McGonigle, director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
King has stood fast with the aquaculture industry, which generates $60 million in annual sales and employs 960 people, mostly in economically depressed Washington County.
He accused the federal government Wednesday of "misusing the Endangered Species Act" by failing to conduct a more rigorous scientific review of problems affecting the salmon population.
The governor said Maine's rivers have been heavily stocked with hatchery salmon for 70 years, raising questions about the genetic identity of the salmon the federal agencies currently regard as "wild."
Snowe, R-Maine, also questioned the science behind the listing decision. She released portions of a letter Wednesday to the National Academy of Sciences, asking it to undertake an independent review of the scientific data on salmon.
But private conservation groups that support a listing dismiss the scientific concerns.
"I think it's just an attempt to stall things," said Charles Gauvin, president of Trout Unlimited. "It's been exhaustively studied by people who are eminently qualified."
Gauvin also disputed King's suggestion that a listing will impose economic hardships in Maine.
"I think what he's doing is posturing and creating this specter of the federal government taking things over," Gauvin said. "We don't need that kind of polarizing at this point."
The decision to list salmon, published in Wednesday's Federal Register, comes six years after environmental activists filed a petition with the federal government seeking Endangered Species Act protection for the fish.
Two years after the petition was filed, the government proposed to list wild salmon as "threatened," meaning they were in imminent danger of extinction. That proposal was withdrawn in 1997, after King objected to the listing and offered Maine's conservation plan as an alternative course of action.
Today, much of the biological data the agencies relied upon to support their listing proposal can be found in the petition the environmental groups filed in 1993.
But at least one of the petitioners found little satisfaction Wednesday in the government's belated decision.
David Carle, who heads the Conservation Action Project in New Hampshire, said too much time has passed, and another year or more could go by before the listing proposed Wednesday becomes final.
He said King's claims that protecting salmon would hurt Maine were unfounded.
"I feel sorry for the governor because he really has no legacy, but the legacy that's emerging is that he's presiding over the extinction of the salmon," he said.