Sturgeon moving upstream in Penobscot after dam removal

Wikipedia Commons photo.

By Jeff Reardon

When I was a teenager, my grandmother rented an apartment in her house to a grad student at UNH who was studying in Great Bay, a large estuary on the Maine/New Hampshire border. 

One summer he caught a sturgeon in his nets, brought it to her house, and tacked it up on the wall of her barn, where it dried into a leathery fossil. A netted sturgeon in those days was rare enough to be an event a student wanted to memorialize with a trophy. 

To a kid who grew up on 6-inch trout from the local brook, it was huge and exotic. More than 3 feet long, it looked like a cross between a shark and a dinosaur, its sides covered with bony plates. These plates—known as “scutes”—were fashioned into tools by Native Americans, and are a common find in archeological sites along our coast and major rivers that speaks to their former abundance and use as food. 

Well into the 19th century the Kennebec River hosted a commercial sturgeon fishery for both caviar and meat. When I duck hunt and striper fish, the tide table I check most often is the one for Sturgeon Island, at one time the epicenter for the fishery at the mouth of Merrymeeting Bay on the lower Kennebec.

But sturgeon numbers waned.

Shortnose sturgeon were listed as endangered in 1967. Atlantic sturgeon were commercially fished in the Hudson River until a moratorium in 1998, and were listed as endangered (most of their range) or threatened (in the Gulf of Maine) in 2010.

Neither species has been a target for anglers in my lifetime, though I once foul-hooked a sturgeon while casting for stripers on a sand flat, and was damn glad when the hook pulled out and it swam away. 

When the Edwards Dam was removed from the Kennebec in 1999, sturgeon were the first fish observed upstream. They are hard to miss. 

In late spring and summer, for unknown reasons, they leap from the water and come crashing down on their sides. Given their size — a shortnose sturgeon may range up to 4 feet long, and an Atlantic sturgeon more than 10 — they make quote a splash. 

By the summer of 2000, leaping sturgeon were a common sight 17 miles upstream in Waterville. There were stories that one leaped and landed across the front of someone’s kayak, and lots of us had close calls in canoes and small boats. We became sturgeon fans. A local brewpub named its best beer Gurgling Sturgeon Stout.

On Nov. 16, 2015, a team of researchers announced that sturgeon have been detected for the first time upstream of the former Veazie Dam on the Penobscot River, which was removed in 2013. 

Gayle Zydlewski from the University of Maine has been working for years to tag sturgeon with sonic “pingers,” deploying an array of detectors to track them. 

For years, sturgeon tagged in the lower Penobscot have been documented below the Veazie Dam, and also traveling from the Penobscot River to the Kennebec in what appear to be spawning migrations. This summer, three of the tagged shortnose sturgeon were detected upstream of the breached dam — the first sturgeon to reach that habitat in more than 150 years. 

Along with this year’s record returns of more than 1,800 American shad and nearly 600,000 river herring, these sturgeon show the remarkable power of recovery for sea-run fish when access to their river habitat is restored. 

Their recovery rewards nearly 30 years of effort by Trout Unlimited and a host of partners to re-open habitat on the Penobscot. 

Jeff Reardon oversees Trout Unlimited's programs in Maine.

Comments

 
said on Monday, November 23rd, 2015

Great post. This is the core of why to join TU. Thanks for shearing.

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