The Penobscot River Restoration Project is a public-private partnership to restore self-sustaining runs of endangered Atlantic salmon and sturgeon, American shad, river herring, and seven other species of fish.
“This is a fairly large brown bullhead, which also goes by the regional name of hornpout, and it’s a popular fish for people to catch at night on a baited hook and worm, and it’s a member of the catfish family,” says Brandon Kulik, a fisheries biologist who’s been hired by the Penobscot River Restoration Project to count fish.
“There’s a rhyme and a reason to where we sample on the river,” he says. “We cover not only the areas in the vicinity of where the dams are going to be either removed or altered for fish passage, but we sample up into all the tributaries and upriver above Millinocket and into rivers like the Madawamkeg because that’s where these species, when they’re restored, are going to spread to.”
On this day, Kulik is “electrofishing” in Greenbush, about 15 miles north of Orono. His boat sends an electric current that temporarily stuns fish within a 30-foot radius, allowing him and his crew to scoop the fish out of the water. They weigh and measure the fish before returning them to the river.
Kulik says the Penobscot is home to a surprisingly diverse array of fish species. “The 100-mile mainstem, which comes down from around Millinocket to the ocean, transitions from the headwaters, which ecologically are very much like a Canadian ecosystem, it’s forested, high mountains, it’s full of trout and salmon, and then the lower end of the system, a mere hundred miles away around Bangor, it’s tidal-freshwater, and the fish mix you see in there has a lot more in common with what you would see in the ecosystem of Chesapeake Bay. So in a very short distance this river goes from essentially ecologically Canada to Virginia.”>/p>
“What we’re trying to do is really describe the community that’s in the river now, so when the dams are out and the project is restored we have a better comparison,” says Josh Royte of the Nature Conservancy, one of seven organizations that have joined forces and formed the Penobscot River Restoration Trust. Their goal is to restore fish populations while still maintaining hydropower generation on the river.
“We can quantify it for other projects, not only in Maine but other projects around the world,” Royte says. “We have a global organization and we’re working with, not only rivers throughout the Northeast, but we’re working with other projects in other countries in Columbia and China and Africa, where they’re also restoring migratory fish runs.”
The removal of dams and installation of fish bypasses and so-called “fish elevators” will begin next year. Cheryl Daigle, spokesperson for the Penobscot River Restoration Trust, says the trust will purchase three dams, remove the two closest to the sea and construct a fish bypass at the third.
“Through restoring the Penobscot River it’s going to bring back opportunities for all types of activities on the river,” Daigle says. It’s not just a forage base for other fish and wildlife, it’s restoring these sea-run fish will provide a number of recreational opportunities, wildflife viewing opportunities and all of the economic potential that arises from a healthy river system.”
The dam removal efforts are being funded in part by a $6 million grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and the project is expected to employ nearly 155 people over the next two years.