It’s not a long season, there are plenty of restrictions and fishermen can’t keep their catch. But starting this morning, anglers will once more be angling for sea-run Atlantic salmon in Maine. The month-long, experimental season is limited to a short stretch of the Penobscot, the river that has the healthiest remaining American population of Salmo salar.
It’s fly-fishing only, with single barbless hooks. Any salmon caught must be released immediately and may not be removed from the water. The state may close the season at any time if it appears rising water temperature or fishing pressure are stressing fish.
Fishing is limited to about a dozen salmon pools, most of them concentrated just below the Veazie Dam. Salmon fishermen have played and continue to play a major role in developing public support for cleaner rivers and fish-friendly dams. With more than 1,000 wild salmon a year now returning to the Penobscot, the tightly restricted, experimental season is a good way to thank them for their work and to build support among other stakeholders on the river that has emerged as a key hope for the salmon’s future.
Seven years ago, salmon fishing was suspended after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added the the fish to the endangered species list. The federal agency is undertaking a review of its salmon recovery effort to see whether to add the upper reaches of the Penobscot and Kennebec rivers to the recovery area. Only the lower portions of these important rivers were covered by the listing. This makes sense. The individual tributaries of the Penobscot have more salmon habitat than the other eight rivers combined.
Earlier this summer, the Penobscot Nation, environmental groups and a hydropower company announced that an innovative deal to open up 500 miles of potential salmon spawning habitat was moving ahead.
It will be years before the Veazie and Great Works dams are ripped out and the Howland Dam bypassed with a fishway, but it’s a harbinger of better things to come.
A healthy Penobscot salmon run could provide a source population that might help repopulate other Maine streams.
While the future of the salmon hangs in the balance, the Penobscot’s run is strong enough for the state to offer this brief salmon season as a thank-you and good-will builder.
Restoring populations of this magnificent fish will be a long and expensive slog.
The salmon will need all the good will we can muster.