By Dana Little July 2016
NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) has recently identified eight species of wildlife as being most at risk for extinction. The Atlantic Salmon of the Gulf of Maine is on that list. Fisheries biologists agree that one of the most effective ways to restore salmon to their native habitat is the removal of dams or with the use of fish ladders to bypass dams. The US Fish and Wildlife Service describes the Little Androscoggin River as providing “the best opportunities for Atlantic Salmon spawning and rearing”.
A salmon spends the first half of its life, one to four years, in freshwater rivers and streams and then migrates to the ocean to mature and fatten up. After one to four years in the ocean salmon return to their waters of origin to lay their eggs. Scientists have discovered that they use their keen sense of smell to find their birthplace; only 5% of fish travel up the wrong river.
Salmon once swam abundantly in the waters of the Androscoggin River all the way up to Rumford Falls. Because Taylor Pond drains into Taylor Brook, which feeds into the Little Androscoggin River and from there into the Androscoggin River, at one time salmon likely travelled through our pond and spawned in local brooks. A 1673 a commercial fishing operation at Pejepscot Falls in Brunswick preserved 40 barrels of salmon and would have taken more fish but they had no more salt in which to preserve them for export. In 1793 an Abenaki Native American, Perepole, described the Androscoggin River. In reference to the falls in Rumford, he claimed “the Indians used to catch the most salmon at the foot of them falls”.
By the early 1800s, mill dams illegally constructed on the Androscoggin River destroyed the great fish runs. The last Atlantic Salmon on the river was seen in 1816 at Great Falls in Lewiston. Despite petitions to restore the fish runs, the Maine Legislature refused to enforce existing laws requiring fish passage around the Androscoggin’s dams. In the early 1900s large pulp and paper mills were built upriver and dumped large amounts of pollutants into the water. In addition, towns along the river dumped raw sewage, contaminating the water. By the 1960s the Androscoggin was one of the most polluted American rivers. Today, pollution has been markedly reduced and water quality in the Androscoggin is capable of supporting a healthy salmon population. However, the dams continue to block fish passage.
Under the Endangered Species Act the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USF&WS) develops a recovery plan for each species in danger of extinction. This March the USF&WS submitted a draft recovery plan for the subpopulation of Atlantic Salmon unique to the Gulf of Maine. The estimated total cost for this plan is a third of a billion dollars with expenses spread out over the next 75 years. No money has been raised for this plan; funding occurs through smaller federal grants aimed at more achievable objectives such as fish passage around certain dams.The recovery plan itself is an overall description of goals, methods and ways to measure outcomes.
For a salmon to travel from the ocean to Taylor Pond it would need to ascend the Androscoggin Dam in Brunswick, the Pejepscot and Worumbo Dams on the Androscoggin River, the Lower and Upper Barker Mill Dams on the Little Androscoggin River, and finally the dam at Dag’s Bait Shop and Kendall’s dam on Taylor Brook. Although the fish ladders at the Androscoggin, Pejepscot and Worumbo dams have existed for years, salmon have not been observed above the Brunswick dam. The alewife, a smaller fish, has also been unable to significantly traverse these barriers. Annually, the Department of Marine Resources catches alewives at the Androscoggin Dam and distributes them to many ponds that drain into the Androscoggin River, including about 3,800 fish to Taylor Pond.
Sean McDermott of NOAA, based in Gloucester, MA, recently contacted Taylor Pond Association for help in obtaining a grant to study the creation of a fish passage for alewives around the Lower Barker Mill Dam on the Little Androscoggin River. The process to relicense this dam began in 2014 and will be completed in 2019. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) requires any dam to minimize harm to the environment. Because of intense competition for limited funds, Sean’s grant was not funded, making the free passage of salmon and other fish from the ocean to Taylor Pond for now a dream, not a reality. Under the Endangered Species Act we may still see funding to restore this unique subspecies of Atlantic Salmon to the Taylor Pond watershed. The Department of Marine Resources (DMR) continues to work to allow fish to freely travel the Androscoggin River. Dan Kircheis of the DMR believes that “There is a lot of potential to the Androscoggin” [for salmon]. The fact that a few salmon continue to show up year after year at the Brunswick fish ladder demonstrates their resilience and the possibility that someday they may once again be seen in Taylor Pond.