Atlantic salmon recovery plan for Maine rivers contains a lot of ‘ifs’

Conservationists on Wednesday said the final recovery plan for Atlantic salmon in Maine rivers didn’t contain many surprises. State and nongovernment agencies had already seen previous drafts of the plan, after all, and were much more involved in its formation than anglers (and newspaper columnists).

For those of us who weren’t in the rooms where various conversations have taken place over the past 10 years — ever since the salmon in the Penobscot River joined other Maine waters on the federal “endangered” list — the plan was much more shocking.

Most stunning, to me, was this passage near the end of the report’s summary section.

The Services [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service] project a 75-year timeframe to achieve delisting of the [Gulf of Maine distinct population segment] of Atlantic salmon.

That’s 75 years for salmon in Maine waters to be totally removed from Endangered Species Act protection.

If everything goes according to plan.

If enough funding can be found.

If people in 25 or 50 years even care enough about this magnificent fish to keep funding efforts to restore it.

Those are some pretty big “ifs.”

[Maine’s Atlantic salmon likely to be on ‘endangered’ list for another 75 years]

There are many anglers in my generation — I’m 54 now — who had the chance to dabble with Atlantic salmon fishing in the Penobscot River before it was shut down in 1999. I was not among them, unfortunately, though I did try my hand in 2006, 2007 and 2008, when one-month experimental seasons were staged.

But in 2009, Penobscot fish were included in the ESA listing, and fishing was shut down.

Over the ensuing years a couple things have happened. Federal agencies have worked on their plan, and the aging salmon club members who fueled local conservation efforts have died off, one by one.

According to one longtime Veazie Salmon Club member, five of that club’s stalwarts died in a single month not too long ago.

Now, with a 75-year timeline stretching ahead of us — along with all of the “ifs,” of course — a big question looms.

Will any of us who have ever wet a line for Atlantic salmon in the past live long enough to do so again?

Those involved with the process say some recreational fishing could return as soon as the ESA listing is downgraded from “endangered” to “threatened.” A project that may take advantage of aquaculture technology may help jumpstart that effort and introduce larger hatchery fish into the river.

But if we have to wait for a fully self-sustaining run of wild fish, which would signal full recovery, according to plan, we will be waiting until 2094.

I’m among the most optimistic guys I know, but my social calendar does not stretch that far into the future.

Many disgruntled anglers, who have poured thousands of dollars into conservation efforts that started well before they were born, will tell you that the whole listing process is a sham.

The Penobscot doesn’t belong on the list at all, they will say. To consider the fishery “wild” and “pure” after more than 100 years of various stocking regimes from assorted non-Penobscot rivers, makes no sense.

There’s no reason we shouldn’t be fishing now, others will tell you. Catch-and-release. Barbless hooks. Don’t lift a fish from the water. It would do no harm, and would pay off in one huge dividend. Anglers would become engaged with their river again, and the fish would take center stage, rather than exist solely as a talking point when anglers start to “remember when.”

So, as we face an uncertain future on this magnificent river, I’m asking BDN readers — former Atlantic salmon anglers in particular — one question: What do you think of the plan?

You can reach me at with your responses, which I expect will provide the bulk of a future story or column.

If you haven’t take a look at the recovery plan yet, you can find it here.

I look forward to hearing from you.

John Holyoke can be reached at or 207-990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke