Matthew Dickerson: Of salmon, sturgeon and glimmers of hope

Release of a wild Atlantic salmon transported from the dam in Waterville, Maine, to a pool on Sandy River, a tributary of the Kennebec River. Photo credit/Joshua Duplechian/Trout Unlimited

One of several Atlantic sturgeon seen by the shadows of excited onlookers standing on the bridge over Cobbosseecontee Stream in the town of Gardiner, Maine.
Photo credit/Joshua Duplechian/Trout Unlimited

Late on a Wednesday afternoon, four huge Atlantic salmon finned in the current at the tail end of a long, deep pool on a small Maine river. The fish were more than a hundred river miles from the ocean, far into their spawning migration. For several minutes I stood on shore and watched, both thrilled and mesmerized. Though many years earlier I had observed spawning salmon leaping up a waterfall in Newfoundland, this was the first time I had looked in person at wild Atlantic salmon in a New England water.

My memories jumped to a day chaperoning a middle school field trip with one of my sons — a trip I wrote about for the Addison Independent a little over 13 years ago. The class had spent the winter raising Atlantic salmon from eggs to alevins. We took the alevins over the mountain to Hancock to release them in headwaters of the White River. I watched with delight as each kid carefully carried a cup of three to five juvenile salmon down to the shore to release them into the stream, where they quickly disappeared into the relative safety of the river-bottom gravel. The hope — or dream — was that over one to three years those salmon would mature from alevin to fry to parr to smolt and then swim down the White River to the Connecticut River and from there down to Long Island Sound. After another two (or more) years in the Atlantic Ocean, their spawning and homing instincts would bring them back to the White River where they would start a generation of wild fish.

Despite a multi-decade effort at salmon recovery in the Connecticut, the dream never came to reality. Although some of those fish returned to the White River each year, it was never more than a tiny fraction of what they historic runs had been centuries earlier. The odds against them were too great. According to one report, there are more than 3,000 dams on the Connecticut River watershed, including 65 that are considered “major dams.” Seven of those span the main stem of the Connecticut downstream of the White River. That’s seven major barriers out-migrating smolts must get past just to reach ocean. And getting past the physical barriers is not the only challenge; as the impoundments slow the flow of the water, turning the river into a series of long shallow lakes, the water temperature increases significantly, which increases the mortality rate of the smolts. Even as the warmer water makes it more urgent for the salmon to reach the ocean quickly, those same impoundments slow the journey of the fish; instead of swimming downstream carried by a swift current, the fish must travel long bodies of still water. Salmon that miraculously survived that journey and mature to adulthood in the Atlantic they had to return past those same barriers in the reverse order to spawn.

Aerial view of the Weston Dam in Skowhegan, Maine: One of four remaining dams on the Kennebec River blocking upriver spawning migration of Atlantic salmon and also adding mortality risk to their return migration to the ocean as well as the out-migrations of their offspring from freshwater to saltwater.
Photo credit/Joshua Duplechian/Trout Unlimited

In 2011, the year of Tropical Storm Irene, after more than four decades of efforts, only 107 returning adult salmon reached the dam in Holyoke, Mass. Most were removed from the river to provide eggs for the program. Only 10 were released upriver (with radio tags) to continue their spawning migration up the White River. When Irene did extensive damage to the national fish hatchery later that year, the project was abandoned. 

The situation on Maine’s Kennebec River is more hopeful. In 1999, the Edwards Dam in Augusta that had blocked fish migration since its construction in 1837 was decommissioned and taken down, opening up 17 more miles of habitat on the main stem of the river as well as several important tributaries including the Sebasticook. Numerous anadromous fish species — like herring, alewives, shad, striped bass and sturgeon, which spawn in fresh water but spend their adult lives at sea — have been returning in encouraging numbers. 

Unfortunately, the anadromous salmon need different spawning habitat with faster, colder streams. Four more dams on the Kennebec still block migrating Atlantic salmon from reaching that historic habitat in the headwaters of Sandy River (a tributary of the Kennebec). In 2010, a salmon restoration project led by biologist Paul Christman of the Department of Marine Resources started planting several hundred thousand eggs in Sandy River. Four years later, 20 adults returned. These fish were captured in a fish trap at the base of Lockwood Dam in Waterville (the lowermost of these four dams) and trucked upriver to the Sandy so they could spawn as naturally as possible. A year later, the number rose to 29. Then 39 the next year, and 40 the year after. Just eight years later, they had set a new record for returning fish, surpassing 80 returning adults — more than four times the count of that first return.

On Friday, I rode with Paul and Gretchen (one of the program’s seasonal technicians) from Lockwood Dam to a piece of private land far up the Sandy River watershed. We were hauling a trailer with a large tank holding salmon No. 96 and No. 97 of the 2023 season, which we released into the same pool that I had been to on Wednesday. The program had already set a new record for returning fish, and more were still likely to arrive. The results were encouraging, showing the promise this river holds for recovery of Atlantic salmon. 

Unfortunately, the truck-and-carry approach — while a good start and a proof of viability of the watershed — is almost certainly not going to restore the river to the numbers it really needs for a healthy and sustainable return of Atlantic salmon to the Gulf of Maine. Not unlike the current dam-removal project on California’s Klamath River (to restore migrating Pacific salmon) or the earlier remove of the Edwards Dam on the Kennebec, the removal of the remaining four Kennebec River dams downstream of the confluence of Sandy River may be the best or only hope for a real recovery. Trout Unlimited’s Mark Taylor, who also rode along on the salmon-hauling expedition, has described the removal of those other four dams as “the only viable way to save Atlantic salmon in the Kennebec River.”

THE 96TH AND 97th adult salmon trapped at the base of a dam on the Kennebec River in Waterville, Maine, are shown during their transport — via truck — upstream to the Sandy River where they will be allowed to spawn and perpetuate the natural lifecycle for this species of fish.
Photo by Matthew Dickerson

Of course, removing those sources of hydroelectric and replacing them with more burning of fossil fuels is not part of a global environmental solution. Climate change is the single greatest environmental threat in the world today. Salmon need to survive the ocean also before they can return to spawn, and a continued warming Gulf of Maine will not help. But according to Taylor, all four dams on the Kennebec combined account for only 45 megawatts of power. “Increases in capacity of other forms of renewable energy, including Maine’s booming solar segment, have mostly rendered moot the benefits of the four lower Kennebec dams to the state’s power grid.”

Shortly after we drove away from the pool where the two recently released salmon were holding before heading farther upriver to spawn, we received a phone call from conservationist and Trout Unlimited volunteer Steve Brooke. Downriver on the Kennebec, a pod of seven- to nine-foot-long Atlantic sturgeon had been spotted in Cobbosseecontee Stream, another tributary of the Kennebec. Although the name of this stream comes from a Wabanaki word something like “place where sturgeon are found,” Brooke tells me that nobody alive had seen sturgeon in that river before. The removal of the Edwards Dam was having its impact. Without any stocking or transportation efforts, sturgeon were once again spreading back out into their historic habitat on the Kennebec.

As I looked down into the water at those gigantic prehistoric-looking fish, I imagined more dams coming down and runs of Atlantic salmon also being restored.

Three salmon holding in a clear cold pool on Sandy River before finishing the last stage of their spawning journey.
Photo credit/Joshua Duplechian/Trout Unlimited

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