In this Oct. 11, 2008 file photo, an Atlantic salmon leaps out of the water at a Cooke Aquaculture farm pen near Eastport. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Four conservation groups that have been fighting to restore Atlantic salmon on the Kennebec River have dropped their lawsuit against Brookfield Renewable Energy Partners, which owns the four hydroelectric dams on the lower part of the river.

The Atlantic Salmon Federation, Conservation Law Foundation, Maine Rivers and Natural Resources Council of Maine had made the legal challenge, saying Brookfield is breaking federal law by killing and harming the endangered salmon without an incidental take permit from the federal government.

However, a recent decision by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association determined that Atlantic salmon can coexist with hydroelectric dams on the Kennebec with fish passages in place. Brookfield operates four dams on the river that prevent the fish from reaching traditional spawning grounds in the Sandy River.

“We have withdrawn our lawsuit against Brookfield for violating the Endangered Species Act at its four lower Kennebec dams to focus on the FERC [Federal Energy Regulatory Commission] process that is currently underway,” the groups said in a joint statement.

The groups said they instead will focus their efforts on the relicensing and license amendment process that will determine how Brookfield will proceed with its dams in regard to dealing with Atlantic salmon.

In its ruling, NOAA said the continued existence of Atlantic salmon in the Kennebec would not be jeopardized by the dams, provided that conservation measures are taken. Currently, the few salmon that make it into the fishway at Lockwood Dam, the most downstream of the Brookfield hydro projects, must be stored in a tank and then transported to the Sandy River by staff from the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

Of the other three dams, the Hydro Kennebec has a fish passage that was installed as part of a $15 million project, but Brookfield said is has not been able to use it because of procedural delays involved in the process of trying to install similar infrastructure at the Shawmut and Weston dams.

Brookfield expressed its pleasure with the termination of the lawsuit by the conservation and environmental groups.

“The stipulation is the only sensible action to take in light of the biological opinion recently issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service,” said Brookfield Renewable U.S. Spokesperson David Heidrich. “The biological opinion confirmed that the four hydroelectric projects could continue to operate without jeopardizing the survival and recovery of Atlantic salmon and Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon. The biological opinion also reflects Brookfield’s extensive commitments to continue and enhance safe and effective fish passage on the Kennebec River.”

The conservation groups continue to argue that the dams are pushing Atlantic salmon to the brink of extinction.

Maine has the last remaining wild population of Atlantic salmon in the United States.

“We cannot miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to restore the health of one of Maine’s great rivers, bring back millions of sea-run fish and improve the health of an entire ecosystem relied on by fishermen, wildlife and so many more,” the groups said in continuing their push to make the Kennebec dams passable by Atlantic salmon and other species.

The organizations said they will employ all means available to encourage the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to require substantive fish passages at the four lower Kennebec dams.

“We can accept nothing less than a solution that will save Atlantic salmon from extinction and restore other sea-run fish that cannot reach their spawning habitat,” the groups said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said there were not fishways at three of the four Brookfield dams on the lower Kennebec.

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...