Efforts to save Maine’s wild Atlantic salmon from extinction will be ramped up in the coming years thanks to the new “Species in Spotlight” initiative launched by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The campaign’s five-year plan includes an estimated $25 million in federal funding for projects aimed at stopping the decline of the species and moving them toward recovery.

“We’re not throwing in the towel on the Atlantic salmon,” Dan Kircheis, one of the co-authors of the Species in the Spotlight Atlantic Salmon Action Plan, said. “We see the populations are low and in trouble, and we see this as a call to action to step it up. We’re going to do everything possible to turn things around for the Atlantic salmon.”

The “Species in the Spotlight” initiative is a concerted agencywide effort to save and bring public attention to species of the United States that are among the most at risk of extinction in the near future. The Atlantic salmon of the Gulf of Maine was among eight species selected for the initiative.

The other seven “species in the spotlight” are central California coast coho salmon, Cook Inlet beluga whales, Hawaiian monk seals, Pacific leatherback sea turtles, Sacramento River winter-run chinook salmon, Southern Resident killer whales in Puget Sound and white abalone.

Funds for the campaign will come from existing grants for endangered species restoration. The money will simply be prioritized for species that have been identified as “spotlight species,” Kircheis explained.

“We’re working with state, tribal and other partners to find ways that they can go after some of this money and take advantage of it,” Kircheis said.

For example, NOAA is seeking applications for $9 million in community-based habitat restoration. This funding be focused on projects that will improve protected species recovery and support sustainable fisheries. The deadline is April 6.

When it comes to the Atlantic salmon, much of the five-year plan focuses on opening up and improving their freshwater habitat in Maine through the construction of efficient, modern fishways and the removal of dams.

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” Kircheis said. “A lot of the dams on the Kennebec River don’t have fishways. We’re currently working with hydro developers on the Kennebec to get fishways in place. We’re doing the same on the Androscoggin River and the Union River. We’re hoping we’ll have a lot of new fishways within the next five years in these rivers and hopefully some dam removals, too, if we can work that into negotiations.”

The ‘King of Fish’

Atlantic salmon, known as the “King of Fish,” once lived in abundance throughout the Northeast, spawning in rivers and streams throughout Maine and as far south as the Long Island Sound. But over the years, their numbers have dwindled, largely because of the construction of dams, which block them from accessing important spawning habitat. Other factors working against their survival are water pollution, predation, commercial fishing and more recently the ecological changes because of warming ocean temperatures.

Today, the only wild Atlantic salmon found in U.S. waters exist in the rivers and streams of Maine, where they have a long history of ecological, economic and cultural importance.

“It was very much a welcome sight to see the salmon runs in the springtime after what was often a very tough winter,” said John Banks, director of Natural Resources for the Penobscot Indian Nation, reflecting on the past. “For instance, just below Indian Island, where the Milford Dam is now, our tribal folks used to net and spear salmon every spring by the tens of thousands. It was very much a staple food source that allowed our tribe to survive and prosper for a very long time.”

Atlantic salmon are anadromous fish, spending the first half of their lives in freshwater rivers and streams and the second half maturing and feeding in the ocean. They then return to their natal river to spawn, completing their life cycles.

Today, about 75 percent of the Atlantic salmon returning to the U.S. to spawn swim up the Penobscot River and lay eggs in gravel and rubble along the bottom of the river and its many tributaries, according to NOAA. To aid their return, a group of organizations and agencies have been working since 1999 to improve the waterway. This collaborative effort, known as the Penobscot River Restoration Project, has gained national recognition as one of the most innovative restoration projects in the nation and includes the removal of the Great Works Dam in 2012 and the Veazie Dam in 2013.

“We play a very prominent role in the Penobscot River Restoration Project, which makes sense,” Banks said. “This has been our tribe’s homeland for 10,000 years. We have an inherent stewardship responsibility to improve the ecological conditions of the watershed, and the Penobscot River Restoration Project allowed us to put this into action.”

More work to be done

The Species in the Spotlight Atlantic Salmon Action Plan acknowledges the success of the Penobscot River Restoration Project and other recent efforts that have been made in Maine to restore Atlantic salmon and other fish to rivers and streams.

Since 1988, 25 dams in the current range of endangered Atlantic salmon have been removed, the plan states, restoring access to more than 600 miles of rivers and streams. Twenty of those dam removals occurred since the Atlantic salmon was first listed as endangered in 2000.

Nevertheless, more than 90 percent of the rivers and streams historically used by the Atlantic salmon of the Gulf of Maine remain blocked by dams and hydropower facilities.

“This is a major problem,” Kircheis said. “Some of these dams have fishways, but the fishways are only partially effective.”

For example, several existing fishways are about 50 percent effective, meaning they let about 50 percent of the salmon pass through and up river. Kircheis said that number isn’t high enough. NOAA has determined salmon need fishways that are around 95 percent effective for their populations to survive.

“We also have downstream issues,” Kircheis said. “Fish can go over the top of a fishway, but they can also go through turbines, kind of like going through a big blender — doesn’t work out too well.”

In the next five years, Maine dams that no longer support communities will be prioritized for removal, and NOAA will work with hydroelectric companies to improve their fishways.

Five dams in Maine — the Weldon Dam on the Penobscot, the Ellsworth and Graham Station Dams on the Union River, and Shawmut and Williams Dams on the Kennebec River — will be due for relicensing in the next five years, the plan states, and during that time, NOAA will use their authority under the ESA to establish performance (survival) standards at these facilities. In addition, NOAA will exercise its authority for fish passage under the Federal Power Act to ensure effective fish passage for all diadromous fish, particularly river herring and American shad that are integral to supporting fully functioning ecosystems upon which salmon depend.

“We realize there’s this balancing act,” Kircheis said. “Dams are an energy source. I turn on my lights every day. I value that. So it’s a little bit of give and take. We need to work with hydroelectric facilities to come up with reasonable alternatives.”

Following the fish

The oldest salmon hatchery in the country, Craig Brook National Fish Hatchery was established in 1889 in Orland to raise and stock juvenile Atlantic salmon for Maine waters. Today, this hatchery and its sister hatchery at Green Lake in Ellsworth are likely the only reason Atlantic salmon still exist in Maine.

“The goal here for our program — and I’m going to include Green Lake [National Fish Hatchery] in this — is to prevent the extinction of this species,” Denise Buckley, a hatchery biologist at Craig Brook, said. “It’s to ensure that these individual populations are able to maintain their genetic diversity and eventually work toward recovery, meaning they have self-perpetuating populations that need very little if any input from a hatchery program.”

The Craig Brook hatchery produces millions of eggs each year from seven distinct strains of sea-run Atlantic salmon that originate from seven Maine rivers: the Penobscot, Dennys, East Machias, Machias, Narraguagus, Pleasant, Sheepscot rivers. These fish are breed in separate tanks because they are genetically different, so much so that they have slightly different physical characteristics that make them more suited for their natal rivers.

Each year, the two hatcheries release eggs and young salmon into the rivers and streams of Maine with the hope they’ll survive and one day thrive. Listed as an endangered species, these fish are off limits for fishermen while in U.S. waters. But when they mature and migrate out to sea, they lose that protection.

All of Maine’s Atlantic salmon migrate to same place, the sea south of Greenland, where they spend the winter feeding on small fish called capelin. There, fishing Atlantic salmon is a part of the economy and culture.

“We can’t go to them and say, ‘Hey, you have to stop fishing or we’re going to arrest you,” Kircheis said. “All we can do is negotiate, and we can get the countries that share our interests on board with us.”

These international negotiations are another component of the Species in the Spotlight Atlantic Salmon Action Plan.

In addition, NOAA plans to work with partners in the U.S. and internationally to better understand how changing marine conditions because of climate change are affecting Atlantic salmon in an effort to improve their survival rate while at sea.

The spotlight expands

It’s not just about the salmon, Kircheis said. Other species that are native to Maine rivers and streams are in trouble. But by trying to save salmon, they’ll be opening and improving habitat for other species as well, he explained.

For example, after two dams the recent removal of two dams on the Penobscot River, stocking efforts have help reestablish runs of thousands of river herring and hundreds of American shad.

“By putting that one species in the spotlight and doing anything you can do to benefit them — anything that helps freshwater habitat for example — it’s going to help myriad other species,” Buckley said. “That can only be a good thing.”

Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...