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Wild and Free.

Maine Fights to Restore Atlantic Salmon Runs

The farm-raised fish, all 14,000 of them in the DE Salmon pen near West Quoddy Head in Maine, swim in endless counter-clockwise circles, a headlong rush to nowhere that will only end when they are filleted and shrink-wrapped as a bright pink delicacy for the tables of North America.

Although it's not generally known, commercial fishing of wild Atlantic salmon has almost ended, and it's strictly forbidden in the rivers of Maine--rich salmon spawning grounds since time immemorial. The $9.95 salmon special at the local fish house is almost certainly from a farm," the product of a flourishing and increasingly controversial aquaculture industry. Maine's Kennebec, Penobscot and other once-wild rivers have been tamed with dams over the decades, slowly strangling what little salmon habitat remains. The last commercial salmon fishing on the Penobscot was in 1946; only 20 fish were caught. But even if there were many fish left, PCBs, dioxin and mercury contamination have left them unsafe to eat, according to the Maine Toxics Action Coalition.

In Maine's ailing agricultural economy, fish farming stands out as a viable and profitable undertaking, one especially wellsuited to the Down East bays, whose dramatic 28-foot tides serve to flush out waste and food scraps from the farmers' pens.

Standing on a barge alongside one of the six cages he operates in the bay, DE's Jeff Stevens says the salmon, a genetic mix of wild American and domestic European breeds, are born in a hatchery in Bristol New Hampshire, fed on protein-rich fish pellets, and grow to 10 pounds in just 18 months before being wholesaled to New England markets.

Maine boasted 24 operators in 1992, but only 11 survive today. For Stevens and others, fish farming is a constant struggle against disease, predatory seals, fluctuating salmon prices, foreign competition and uncertain weather, like the 1996 hurricane that flipped a pen over and released its entire contents into the bay.

Incidents like that are what worry David Carle of the Conservation Action Project, the tenacious force behind a so-far unsuccessful attempt to get Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection for the Atlantic salmon. "We don't want to see any more pressure on the wild fish," Carle says, "and more can be done to prevent penned fish from escaping." Carle would like to see all farmed fish tagged at the hatchery, a practice the industry decries as prohibitively expensive. Carle also charges that the aquaculture industry has been "a big obstacle" to ESA listing for salmon, out of concern that federal protection would place strict controls on such farming operations.

"We don't want to lose our fish any more than Carle wants to see them in the wild," counters Joe McGonigle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association. "The issue is keeping them in the pen." He adds that fish farmers have strengthened their cages, anchored them against 100-mph hurricanes, and even resorted to wind-powered underwater acoustics to scare away determined seals. (A single seal has been known to kill 10,000 fish in one night.)

It's an open question how much wild salmon behavior remains in the fourth-generation, genetically-diluted hatchery fish swimming in circles in DE's pens. But escaped and sexually-mature captive salmon have been found in Maine rivers, a prospect very disturbing to environmentalists, who worry that interbreeding will be the final blow to severely threatened wild salmon stocks.

The Pleasant River, 15 miles south of the DE fish pens, saw only one adult salmon return to spawn last year. To help nature along, Project Share runs an Atlantic salmon restoration project on the river in Columbia Falls. The project raises genetically-selected fry for restocking five Down East Maine rivers, in a former hydroelectric facility that doubles as a salmon education center for school kids. Salmon stocking in Maine's rivers began in 1871, and 100 million have been released through operations like Project Share. It's a feel-good enterprise, with kids getting to learn about the natural wonder of salmon development, from fry to parr to smolt to adult, and participating in gala release events. But despite all the captive breeding, wild salmon are more threatened than ever. Catch-and-release fishermen, working 14 state rivers, hauled in only 220 Atlantic salmon through July of this year, and only 1,256 were caught in fish-trapping weirs at Maine dams.

According to Ed Baum of the Atlantic Salmon Authority, the commercial catch has declined 85 percent in recent years. Fluctuations in water temperature, whether through El Nino or global warming, have hurt salmon survival, too, while herbicides and pesticides from Maine's wild blueberry crop leach into the rivers, which are also being drained for irrigation.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) acceded to Governor Angus King and a strong industry lobbying effort in denying Carle's 1993 listing petition. In its ruling, federal agents said the petition was invalid because Maine, in effect, has no native run of salmon--the few fish showing up in the weirs were born in hatcheries. The USFWS has a point. Only the Penobscot River has anything approaching a healthy salmon run, with 1,000 fish returning from the Atlantic each year.

In lieu of listing, the state of Maine has developed its own Atlantic Salmon Conservation Plan, which David Carle calls hopelessly inadequate. "There's no enforcement; it's all voluntary," he says. "It's also a very confusing plan, with three separate agencies having fish management responsibilities. The result is that there are more wolves in Minnesota than there are salmon in New England. And there are five dams for every fish."

With the assistance of Defenders of Wildlife (the Washington, D.C.-based group behind the Yellowstone wolf reintroductions), the Conservation Action Project is filing a federal lawsuit challenging the effectiveness of the state plan. But it may all be too little, too late for the wild Atlantic salmon which, like its Coho relative in the west, remain under near-irreversible pressure from pollution, overfishing, aquaculture and dams. But the salmon, known for their tenacity in surmounting obstacles to reach upriver spawning grounds, still have a fighting chance, and a lot of friends in Maine. CONTACT: The Kennebec Coalition, PO Box 53, Hallowell, ME 04347/(207) 724-3576; Natural Resources Council of Maine, 3 Wade Street, Augusta, ME 04330/(207)622-3101.
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Title Annotation:Atlantic Salmon farming in Maine
Author:Motavalli, Jim
Geographic Code:1U1ME
Date:Nov 1, 1998
Previous Article:PATCHES OF GREEN.

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