Atlantic Salmon and The Endangered Species Act: Questions and Answers
8/12/1999 — — Why have you waited so long to sue for listing? For both Trout Unlimited (TU) and the Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF), the suit represents a last resort effort to protect Atlantic salmon before they go extinct in the United States. We have supported in good faith the Maine Conservation Plan and have worked to implement it on the ground. We have been frustrated by the State of Maine’s failure to adequately fund the Plan and have come to realize the Plan has several fundamental flaws, namely severe underfunding, lack of enforcement and lack of accountability. Wild Atlantic salmon populations in Maine continue to decline in the 1990s despite the creation of the Maine Conservation Plan and are now nearing extinction. In 1998, the Atlantic Salmon Commission estimated only 60-120 wild salmon returned to the seven rivers covered under the Maine Conservation Plan. Several rivers are down to less than five returning salmon since the Plan was approved in 1997. On 10 August 1999, one Maine salmon biologist said in a public meeting that several of Maine’s wild populations are “pretty damned close to extinction.” Given this sad reality, our organizations’ mission compels us to call for the strongest actions possible to prevent the final extinction of the last wild Atlantic salmon runs in the United States.
Will catch and release fishing for salmon still be allowed? At this point, we believe the numbers (10 or fewer adult salmon in some rivers) are so low that any additional stress on the remaining spawning adults, including catch and release fishing, is not in the best interest of these few surviving salmon. Catch and Release fishing can be considered a take under federal law. If the federal government list salmon as endangered, then catch and release angling for salmon will not be allowed. If salmon are designated as threatened, then catch and release may be allowed. Only those populations and rivers included under the listing would be subject to the federal rules on fishing. Thus, while the lower Penobscot tributaries may be included under a listing the main stem could still be open to catch and release angling as it is today.
What will happen to the State of Maine Conservation Plan? The Endangered Species Act requires that a recovery plan be developed for any species listed as threatened or endangered. We believe the Maine Plan is a good blueprint for voluntary action. With a higher level of funding, enforcement and accountability, it can serve as the foundation for an excellent recovery plan.
What will happen to the Atlantic Salmon Commission? The State of Maine’s continued involvement is critical to the restoration of salmon stocks in Maine. The state needs to continue to stay involved and make a stronger commitment to saving salmon from extinction. The Commission (formerly the Atlantic Salmon Authority) has already demonstrated their ability to work effectively with the federal government. Governor Angus King, the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the Department of Marine Resources, the Land Use Regulatory Commission and the Department of Environmental Protection need to do the same.
How will a listing affect private individuals and private industry? The economic catastrophe often predicted by industry and politicians in the event Atlantic salmon are protected under the Endangered Species Act is based more on hysteria than on factual evidence. Since 1973, Maine people and businesses have lived harmoniously alongside a number of wildlife species protected under the Endangered Species Act, including the bald eagle, peregrine falcon, piping plover and shortnose sturgeon. Opponents of protecting Atlantic salmon as an endangered species in Maine have yet to document a single case of economic hardship resulting from efforts to protect bald eagles, falcons, plovers and sturgeon where they live in Maine. As such, we have no reason to expect economic hardship from providing Maine’s remaining wild Atlantic salmon with the same protection afforded to Maine’s bald eagles and other protected wildlife species.
Why are salmon populations so low? Historically, 500,000 wild Atlantic salmon returned and spawned in New England rivers each year. In 1998 just 60-120 wild salmon were estimated to have returned to spawn in the seven Maine rivers that are the focus of the Maine Conservation Plan. That represents a decline of 99.9 percent. Adult salmon returns on some of Maine’s most important wild rivers are 90 percent lower than they were just 15 years ago. In the last two decades a complex set of natural and human-caused problems have brought these last wild runs to the very brink of extinction. Overharvest of Maine salmon by offshore fleets and anglers in the 1970s and 1980s greatly reduced the number of salmon left alive to spawn in Maine rivers.
In the last decade, the remaining populations have become so small that they are extremely sensitive to myriad impacts that would not be devastating if the populations were still healthy. There is no “smoking gun” causing the decline of Maine’s salmon. Their condition now could be better attributed to “death by a thousand paper cuts.” Most likely, the severe decline we are seeing today results from the cumulative impacts of our abuse of Maine’s salmon and their habitat over the last two centuries. In short, the fish are telling us they simply cannot take it anymore.
Is the problem just in Maine? No. Like Maine, Canadian stocks have also seen steep declines in recent decades. Canadian salmon rivers have lost 90 percent of their historic salmon population and now have less than 40 percent of the required number of returning spawning salmon to adequately seed their rivers. The European run of Atlantic salmon is now experiencing serious declines for the first time as Scotland, Ireland, Norway and England continue to overfish these stocks. Like the rivers of Downeast Maine, many salmon runs in rivers in Canada’s Bay of Fundy are now at the edge of extinction. And like Maine, many historic runs in Canadian rivers are completely extinct.
Why is the Pacific Northwest expected to receive $100 million for salmon recovery while Maine is getting just a few million? The Governors of Washington, Oregon, California and Idaho are committed to saving their dwindling salmon stocks with strong, pro-active measures. Unlike Maine, these states are working with the federal government to protect their salmon, and not in opposition to it. Their attitude and the value they place on saving their native salmon has paid off in this expected $100,000,000 federal appropriation next year.
I’ve heard the salmon decline is due to problempain the ocean that we have no control over. How is a listing going to help? Certainly, more research is needed to determine what is happening to salmon in the marine environment. A listing would help direct more federal funds to Maine by making conservation of the United States’ last wild Atlantic salmon a much higher priority than it is today. Many factors continue to harm U.S. salmon in freshwater, including habitat degradation from development and agriculture, water withdrawals from salmon rivers, poaching of adult salmon and the killing of young salmon by anglers fishing for other species. All of these factors exacerbate the poor marine survival conditions faced by Maine salmon today and make a hard situation even harder.
Aren’t all Atlantic salmon the same? No. Salmon from across North America and Europe have evolved over thousands of years to the specific physical, biological and ecological characteristics of their natal rivers. Earlier this century, Maine stocked Canadian salmon in its rivers and found their survival was very poor compared to Maine’s local, wild stocks. This is in part due to geography. Maine salmon must travel over 1,000 miles to distant ocean feeding grounds, following ancient migration routes passed on from their parents. Salmon from other nations have much shorter migration routes and different feeding grounds. When placed in Maine rivers, these “foreign” salmon lack the critical instincts needed to survive there. If Maine’s remaining wild salmon go extinct, the critical survival adaptations that have allowed salmon to persist in our rivers for eons will be gone and cannot be replaced by stockings of salmon from other nations.
Can’t we just stock more young salmon? Young salmon stocked in Maine’s wild salmon rivers must come from adult salmon from those same rivers, i.e. their parents. Unfortunately, so few adult salmon are returning to these rivers that since the early 1990s, biologists have been forced to take juvenile salmon from the rivers and raise them in hatcheries to adulthood simply to have any eggs at all for stocking. If the severe decline in salmon returns continues, there will be no adult or juvenile salmon in these rivers left to provide any eggs for stocking. At that point, the Maine runs will be fully extinct. Several Maine rivers, including the Dennys and Sheepscot, are getting very close to this point today.
Will the removal of the Edwards Dam help salmon? Yes. Removal of the Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River will help the river’s small wild, remnant salmon run by providing more than 18 miles of additional habitat for spawning, juvenile development and overwintering. Removal of Edwards has also energized citizen efforts to protect the river and its habitat for salmon and many other important native fish species. As important, the Edwards removal shows that dam removal is a feasible and legitimate option when the environmental costs outweigh the economic benefits of keeping a low-power dam in operation. The Edwards precedent is already leading to much greater scrutiny of the costs and benefits of other low-power dams blocking Maine’s salmon rivers.
Why the worry? There seem to be plenty of salmon in the supermarket. These are all aquaculture fish raised in pens off the coasts of Maine, Canada, Europe and Chile. These farms pose significant threats to wild salmon if they escape and find their ways in to wild salmon rivers. TU and ASF are concerned by the potential for escapees to transmit diseases and cause irreversible genetic alterations in the wild stocks. Due to selective breeding and domestication, farmed salmon are as different from wild salmon as domestic Thanksgiving turkeys and their wild counterparts.