In mid-July, five adult Atlantic salmon were live-trapped at Waterville’s Lockwood Dam, the first of four Kennebec River dams blocking the upstream passage of salmon, alewives and other sea-run fish.
The salmon, ranging in weight from 10 to 20 pounds, were trucked upriver of Waterville’s dams and released in the Sandy River, a major tributary of the Kennebec River. Fish have not swum freely the 67 miles from the Atlantic to Waterville since the Edwards Dam was built in Augusta in 1837. This dam was removed in 1999.
In the lower Kennebec near Bath, I discovered an impressive sixth adult salmon, albeit a dead one, that measured 36 inches. An optimist would concede that a half-dozen salmon hardly represents good news for dangerously low populations.
If wild salmon — virtually extinct from most of New England’s rivers for 100 years — have taught humans a lesson, however, it is this: Never underestimate a species’ will to survive in the face of overwhelming odds.
Even during the Kennebec’s darkest years in the 1950s and ’60s, a few stray salmon struggled unsuccessfully to reach the river’s tributaries amid a gauntlet of dams and toxic municipal and industrial waste cesspools.
If Kennebec salmon had a fan club, Paul Christman would be its president. Christman is a soft-spoken but highly dedicated state Atlantic salmon biologist.
Like the fish he is helping, Christman works tirelessly out of view to turn the centuries-old tide of misfortune against salmon. In 2008, he begged and borrowed 36,000 salmon eggs from colleagues who were focused on restoring salmon to the fabled Penobscot and other high-profile Maine salmon rivers.
The five salmon live-trapped in Waterville this month likely are survivors from those eggs, returning as 4-year-olds after spending two years in the north Atlantic near Greenland and Iceland.
Christman has placed high hopes on the Sandy River salmon class of 2010. Of the 600,000 eggs he planted, he believes as many as 300 adult salmon could ascend the Kennebec in 2014.
Why the high hopes? The Sandy’s gravel bottom and cold, highly oxygenated water provides ideal habitat for salmon.
“One of the interesting things we are finding, is that the Sandy River probably has the greatest juvenile Atlantic salmon production in the United States,” Christmas says. “It’s very conducive to incubating eggs. What I would like people to understand is that this 71 percent [egg emergence survival rate] likely means that every female that spawns in the Sandy is producing many more juveniles than in any other river. The Sandy is our greatest hope for salmon restoration.”
This positive salmon news is surprising because the Kennebec watershed has long been in the shadows of the Penobscot, Narraguagus and other well-known Maine salmon rivers.
It’s premature to crown the Kennebec as the new queen of Maine’s salmon rivers; that title still belongs to the Penobscot River.
The eyes and hearts of the salmon conservation world, however, will be focused on the 2014 Kennebec adult salmon returns.
Salmon are teaching us an inspiring lesson in faith and resiliency. Our generation has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to correct the mistakes of prior generations.
My grandfather, who operated a small dairy farm near the Sandy River in Mercer, shared stories of the great salmon runs that occurred just a few hundred yards from the farmhouse.
We can provide passage to salmon and other sea-run fish around remaining Kennebec River dams, restoring this magnificent fish to the Kennebec watershed.
If abundant wild salmon runs were restored, the fish would symbolize something even more valuable: Hope for the natural world. What greater gift could we leave the next generation?
A wildlife biologist, Ron Joseph retired in 2010 after a 33-year career working for state and federal agencies. He is a Waterville native.