By Dusti Faucher
Great news was recently announced for the Saco River. Florida Power and Light has agreed to install fish passage on four of its dams on that river, continuing the efforts to rebuild depleted stocks of sea-run fish, including Atlantic salmon.
Yet just a few miles up the coast on the Presumpscot River, the attitude of Sappi, Inc. ‚ the owner of multiple Presumpscot dams ‚ is strikingly different from FPL’s.
On the Presumpscot, Sappi has fought for years to stop installation of any fishways aimed at restoring the Presumpscot’s once-enormous fishery of salmon, shad and river herring, preferring instead to spend its money on lawyers fighting these efforts.
Why should the Presumpscot be treated differently than the Saco? While FPL’s decision to install fish passage on the Saco achieves the balance between environmental protection and the financial bottom line, Sappi apparently does not accept that achieving such balance is one of its corporate responsibilities.
Instead, Sappi believes it is entitled to continue to use the publicly owned waters of the Presumpscot as its own exclusive energy source without bearing any of the costs associated with that use.
Friends of the Presumpscot River and our partner, American Rivers, have worked to change this situation for more than seven years. Working with state and federal agencies, we have successfully obtained, and then defended, legal orders requiring Sappi to install fish passage.
Now, all that is necessary is for Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to order Sappi to install fishways at the first dam on the river, Cumberland Mills, located at its mill in Westbrook. Because this dam produces no electricity, only IF&W has to authority to issue this order.
Fish passage there will trigger installation of upstream fishways. Within two years of a fishway at Cumberland Mills, new state and federal licenses require Sappi to build a fishway at the next upriver dam.
When these fishways are in place, the Maine Department of Marine Resources estimates that as many as 56,000 American shad, 187,000 river herring and possibly 450 salmon could repopulate this river. Now, shad, herring and an occasional salmon are stopped completely at the Cumberland Mills dam, only 7 miles from the ocean.
In October, FOPR and American Rivers formally requested IF&W to initiate hearings to decide on fishway installation at Cumberland Mills. A decision on our request, which will only start the hearing process, is expected shortly.
When we made our formal request, we again asked Sappi for voluntary cooperation.
In response, Sappi publicly asserted that it is unable to afford the installation of fish passage, since its Westbrook mill is trying to compete in an unfriendly global market and any money spent to help the Presumpscot fishery would be taken away from mill improvements.
What Sappi neglected to add is the fact that this huge multinational corporation and its predecessor, over the last hundred years, have spent almost nothing to restore the fishery that the mill operations destroyed in the first place.
In contrast, FPL has rightfully seen installation of fish passage at its dams on both the Saco and the Kennebec as an appropriate expense for generating environmentally responsible hydropower.
Sappi’s approach inhibits the important task of rebuilding the nursery and food stocks for near-shore groundfish in Casco Bay that are so vital to Maine’s economy.
What happens in our rivers directly impacts what takes place offhsore. As we bring back native sea-run fish to coastal rivers, we recharge our estuaries and oceans.
Isn’t it time for Sappi to act responsibly and install fishways?
Dusti Faucher of South Windham is president of Friends of the Presumpscot River.