The United States has numerous official symbols. The American bald eagle is our national bird, the North American bison our national mammal, the rose our national flower and the oak our national tree. One thing we don’t have is a national fish.
The most recent attempt to create a national fish was in 2015, when New Jersey Rep. Tom MacArthur introduced the Striped Bass American Heritage Act. The initiative apparently didn’t get far, as the website promoting it has been inactive for over five years.
While striped bass and other fish are worthy of consideration, one species stands above all others in its scientific class in regard to majesty, power, strength and endurance — the Atlantic salmon.
Atlantic salmon once ranged from Long Island Sound in New York to the Canadian border in Maine. They were found in interior New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire, and as far inland in Maine as Baxter State Park.
They were an important seasonal food for Indigenous people of the Northeast for thousands of years. Early European settlers took advantage of this bounty as well. Even today, Atlantic salmon are a coveted food.
Recreational anglers refer to Atlantic salmon as the “King of Fish” due to their unmatched fighting prowess and acrobatic leaps. These popular gamefish have graced the pages of myriad sporting articles and books, dating back generations.
The Penobscot Salmon Club in Brewer, established in 1887, is said to have been America’s first fishing club. The Veazie Salmon Club, Eddington Salmon Club and the now-defunct Dennys River Sportsman’s Club followed suit.
For four generations, the first Atlantic salmon caught from the Penobscot River each season was sent to the president of the United States. Known as the “Presidential Salmon,” the first went to Pres. William Howard Taft in 1912. The last went to President George H. Bush, a part-time Maine resident and avid sportsman, in 1992. No other species of fish has been so honored.
In 2000, the Gulf of Maine Distinct Population Segment of Atlantic salmon was listed as “endangered” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, along with state agencies, Native American tribes and nonprofits are working hard to save the nation’s Atlantic salmon.
A generation ago, the American bald eagle was in danger of extinction throughout most of its range. By the late 1880s, North American bison numbers were said to have been in the hundreds. Conservation efforts brought these iconic species back from the brink of extinction.
In 2021, U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King issued a joint statement in regard to a $900,000 grant from NOAA to aid Atlantic salmon efforts.
“Atlantic salmon are a critical part of our state’s marine ecosystem, but they are endangered and at risk of extinction. … These fish help to ensure the health of our rivers and oceans that Mainers and wildlife depend on. We welcome this [NOAA] funding, which will help to conserve and restore wild Atlantic salmon and their ecosystems across the state.”
Native Fish Coalition agrees with Collins and King. It recently wrote to members of the Maine congressional delegation asking for their help in regard to making Atlantic salmon, Salmo salar, our official national fish. With their help, this iconic and historically important fish could get the recognition and support it deserves and needs.
With the help of Collins and King, and U.S. Reps. Chelie Pingree and Jared Golden, Maine’s Atlantic salmon could become a symbol of America.
Collins’ staff, in a promising follow-up Zoom meeting on the subject, was noncommittal. And based on King’s statement regarding Atlantic salmon and their importance to Maine, the Native Fish Coalition hopes he will respond as well.
As for Golden and Pingree, their districts are home to the critically important Penobscot River and Kennebec River, respectively.
The coalition believes that like the eagle and bison, Atlantic salmon should, and can, be saved. When it comes to saving something, symbolism is a powerful tool. And when it comes to symbolism, nothing is more powerful than a national symbol designation. Given the same level of attention, Atlantic salmon could experience a similar success story as our national bird and national mammal.
Designating the Atlantic salmon as our national fish would be good for the species and good for Maine. If we don’t do this, someone else will, as it’s unlikely we will go without a national fish forever.
If there is a more worthy candidate for national fish designation than Atlantic salmon, the Native Fish Coalition is not aware of it.