12/2/1999 -- -- Time was when fly rods packed the wooden racks at Eddington Salmon Club, and dozens of fishermen waded into swirling Penobscot River pools. Anglers here still recall how sportsmen waited their turn along the shore, ribbing one another over coffee and trading tips on how to play the fish whose dexterity and strength made them feel as if they had succeeded in hooking a pickup truck.
"You'd see 10, 12 salmon at a time jumping here, jumping there, and hundreds of people fishing," said Richard Ruhlin, a Democratic state senator and president of the Penobscot Salmon Club, incorporated in the 1880s when this river was one of the nation's most famous salmon holes. But these days, with a glance outside to the roiling waters, he said, "we'll look out these windows and occasionally we'll see a salmon jumping, occasionally. But I don't think I've seen more than 25 people at a time."
What Ruhlin has witnessed is the vanishing of wild Atlantic salmon, an event more than a century in the making that is finally threatening to put eight rivers of this Northeast state on a course already charted by the Pacific Northwest: the Endangered Species List.
Continued threats to wild salmon - as opposed to the farm-raised ones that appear on restaurant menus - and preliminary evidence that adult fish are spawning and young ones surviving at lower rates than expected recently prompted the federal government to override Maine's conservation plan and propose classifying the nation's last self-sustaining wild salmon runs in danger of extinction.
While acknowledging its efforts, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service determined that the state is failing to protect certain salmon. If approved, the endangered species classification would likely accelerate Maine's five-year plan (now in its third year) with added protections and restrictions on salmon farming and agricultural industries, officials said. A final determination is expected within a year.
"Some elements of the plan are working and maybe working well, but it's not enough," said Andrew Rosenberg, deputy director of the National Marine Fisheries Service. "The fish are in trouble."
The Nov. 17 announcement shocked Maine Gov. Angus King (I) and provoked fighting words from state officials, salmon farmers, fishermen and conservationists who say the proposal goes too far or not far enough. Critics complain that the listing unfairly focuses on rivers in an economically depressed region of the state and disregards other factors such as predators, habitat destruction and pollution that have effected an overall decline in North Atlantic stocks.
Such a move could "well spell the end of aquaculture in Maine" and "serves neither the salmon nor the people of Maine," King said. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), who chairs the Senate panel overseeing oceans and fishing, predicted "disastrous consequences" and asked the National Academy of Sciences to conduct an independent review.
"Regrettably, the result of this step will be less - rather than more - protection for wild salmon," said Snowe, who blasted the Clinton administration for its "abrupt reversal" two years after endorsing Maine's salmon recovery plan. "Clearly, the many different industries that would be affected by such a listing will fight . . . every step of the way."
Environmentalists contend that federal agencies stepped in too late, allowing the state to underfund and delay conservation as salmon reserves declined. Their pending lawsuits demand immediate emergency listing of Atlantic salmon as an endangered species, while hearings heat up here on a proposed statewide ban on salmon fishing altogether. "The last thing these wild Atlantic salmon need is more politics," said Charles Gauvin, president of Arlington, Va.-based Trout Unlimited, a leading fish conservation group. "Emergency listing is the only way to avoid political stalling."
Andrew Goode, director of U.S. programs for the Atlantic Salmon Federation in Brunswick, Maine, agreed: "The listing is good, but it's not coming soon enough."
Survival of wild salmon has been an issue in Maine at least since the first federal government hatchery was established near Bangor in the late 19th century. Since then, the salmon has been assaulted by everything from forest clear-cutting that erodes waterways to dams that impede migration. (Unlike Pacific salmon, which spawn once and die, Atlantic salmon migrate to the ocean and return upstream to spawn again.)
The two federal agencies considered listing the salmon as a threatened species in 1995 but withdrew their proposal in December 1997 after Maine launched its recovery strategy. The plan called for increased stocking, improved habitats and the creation of watershed councils, among other initiatives. It also included improved oversight of salmon farms, which use European hybrids, and agribusiness that diverts water for irrigation.
Federal biologists recently became alarmed, however, after detecting two new salmon diseases. They have also blamed the state for failing to regulate water withdrawals and the use of hybrids by aquaculture. Only 23 returning adult fish were documented by federal biologists on two rivers over a short sampling period this year, representing a severe decline from when hundreds of fish returned years ago to their native waters to spawn.
The Pleasant River, for instance, used to attract 40-pound salmon large enough to stretch across the hood of a car, said Torrey Sheafe, an assistant program coordinator for the Downeast Salmon Federation in Columbia Falls, which acts as a liaison between the federal government and watershed councils. But Sheafe hasn't seen an adult fish return in two years, and the only salmon angler he knows travels to Russia to fish.
"In my opinion, the state of Maine can't do enough," he said. "Maine hasn't got the economy to do a salmon plan, and the plan didn't hold anyone accountable to the results. The only option is to use the federal government's assistance."
At stake, too, is the survival of Maine's $60 million-a-year aquaculture industry, the nation's largest producer of salmon with 10 farms statewide. Conservationists and federal officials worry that European-strain salmon can escape from sea cages near river mouths and mingle with wild salmon, diluting the species and spreading disease. But salmon farmers say the last known escape occurred in 1994, and no disease has been traced to their operations.
"We really see the listing as pretty much a declaration of war on the aquaculture industry once and for all," said Joseph McGonigle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association in Brewer, located across the Penobscot River from Bangor. "There is no possibility that the Maine industry will be able to survive under the conditions we are told will occur after listing."
Before talks with federal officials broke down last year, McGonigle said the industry had agreed to install fail-safe cage systems within one year and fully contain hybrid strains within two. Banning the use of European genetic material would make Maine uncompetitive against international salmon producers, as would other restrictions, he said.
"If the federal government tells us tomorrow to go 20 miles offshore, we're done. There is no alternative. If they tell us to stop using genetic strains from Europe, we're done slower, but we're done," said Des Fitzgerald, general manager of Atlantic Salmon of Maine, one of the largest salmon farms in the state. "I care about the critter. I also care about the salmon farms, and they are not mutually exclusive."
Caught in the middle of the tussle are lone fishermen such as Penobscot's Ruhlin, who may be first to feel the squeeze if their pastime does indeed become a thing of the past.
At the Eddington Salmon Club several miles north of Bangor, anglers don't expect to receive much support from the public, whose sympathies lie with the Maine lobster and its cuddly red stuffed replicas in airports and tourist shops throughout the Northeast. They also recognize that salmon fishing is considered an elitist hobby because it requires special skills, as evidenced by the framed collections of salmon flies on clubhouse walls.
Still, many anglers say they will go along with what is best for the fish if everyone else does. They believe they are the true conservationists, the eyes and ears of the salmon, and the best river guardians of all.
"We have to start working together," said Louis Horvath, 72. "If we fix up this habitat, they will return. I know that will happen, and I'm going to live long enough to see that happen, too."