This photo shows some rapids on the Penobscot River. American Rivers has listed the Penobscot, along with the Kennebec and Union, as being among "America's Most Endangered Rivers for 2022." Credit: Courtesy of Tim Palmer

Three Maine rivers that are historical habitat for Atlantic salmon have been named to a list of America’s most endangered rivers.

The Kennebec, Penobscot and Union rivers are on the list, which was curated by the nonprofit conservation organization American Rivers.

The challenges faced by Atlantic salmon, which have been protected under the federal Endangered Species Act since 2000, in getting past hydroelectric power plants were instrumental in the rating. Maine is home to the only native Atlantic salmon populations in the U.S.

American Rivers cites dams owned by worldwide energy giant Brookfield Renewable as the major hindrance in restoring those populations.

“The future of Atlantic salmon now hangs in the balance. If we do not address the harmful impacts of these dams, we will lose these iconic fish forever,” said American Rivers’ Jessie Thomas-Blate.

The Maine rivers were among 13 nationwide singled out as endangered by American Rivers. The others include the Colorado, Snake, Mobile, Coosa, Mississippi, Lower Kern, San Pedro, Los Angeles and Tar Creek rivers.

American Rivers said its labeling of the rivers as endangered means that they are at a critical point, where decisions in the coming months will determine their fates.

The Penobscot River previously appeared on the most endangered rivers list from 1989-96 due to dams. It is the first time the Kennebec and the Union rivers have been mentioned.

A Brookfield Renewable spokesperson responded to the listing by pointing out other natural factors that likely have expedited the decline of Atlantic salmon.

“Scientific studies confirm the greatest challenge to Atlantic salmon recovery in Maine is significant marine mortality resulting from changes brought about by climate change, and not the existence of hydroelectric dams, most of which have been present for the past century,” said David Heidrich, the northeast manager of stakeholder relations for the company.

“The Penobscot, Union and the Kennebec River assets have existing fish passage facilities allowing salmon to pass both upriver and downriver of Brookfield Renewable’s facilities,” Heidrich said.

Last year, 503 salmon returned to the Penobscot River, marking the lowest number in five years.

American Rivers’ determinations were based on nominations made by local groups in various states. In Maine, those included the Atlantic Salmon Federation, the Downeast Salmon Federation and Maine Rivers.

“We’ve demonstrated successful conservation hatchery techniques that can restore wild salmon once rivers are fixed. Brookfield literally stands in the way of that work,” said Dwayne Shaw, Executive Director of the Downeast Salmon Federation.

The group and its partners have asked state and federal agencies to use their authority under the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and Federal Power Act to restore river health and connectivity in Maine. Their aim is to provide safe fish passage on those rivers by removing obsolete and harmful dams to improve the survivability of the fish.

“Brookfield Renewable has committed to install a suite of permanent and highly effective fish passage measures at its lower Kennebec and Union River assets, to be implemented following the conclusion of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission review processes,” Heidrich said. “On the Kennebec River alone, these planned improvements represent more than $40 million in fish passage infrastructure.”

Pete Warner

Pete graduated from Bangor High School in 1980 and earned a B.S. in Journalism (Advertising) from the University of Maine in 1986. He grew up fishing at his family's camp on Sebago Lake but didn't take...