September 15, 2008

Extension of Salmon Protection Reviewed


In 1999, a federal proposal to declare the Atlantic salmon in eight Down East rivers an endangered species sparked an outcry and prolonged challenge by the governor, the state's congressional delegation and several Maine industries.

What a difference nine years make.

Earlier this month, a proposal to extend the same federal protection to salmon in three much bigger rivers - the Penobscot, the Kennebec and the Androscoggin - got a far different response.

"We need to look at it very closely," said Patrick Keliher, director of sea-run fisheries and habitat for the Department of Marine Resources and Democratic Gov. John Baldacci's point man on Atlantic salmon.

The new listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act could affect powerful businesses, including hydropower dams and paper mills. And there may yet be a battle once the nearly 1,000-page proposal is digested and public hearings are scheduled. But the experience during the last nine years has clearly muted the harsh rhetoric and legal threats.

"Last time, everybody spent a lot of money on it, everybody spent a lot of time on lawsuits, and it didn't get them anywhere," Keliher said last week. "The sky did not fall."

The first listing proposal, like the new one, was not a big surprise. The state already had been lobbying against it, and then- Gov. Angus King, an independent, quickly criticized it as a threat to the Down East economy.

Top concerns included blueberry farms that relied on the rivers for irrigation and salmon farms, which were deemed a threat because of the hybrid strains of salmon swimming in, and sometimes escaping from, coastal pens.

Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both R-Maine, also fought the proposal and helped get Congress to pay for a National Academy of Sciences review of the genetic evidence.

The state filed a federal lawsuit arguing that the listing was based on flawed science and that the Maine fish were not a distinct species.

"You didn't have a lot of collaboration going on," said Andrew Goode, director of U.S. programs for the Atlantic Salmon Federation. "There was certainly a lot of scorched earth."

The first listing became official in 2000, despite the protests. The NAS eventually backed up the federal scientists. And the state's lawsuit never got traction in the courts. It was eventually dropped by Baldacci.

Just how much impact the initial listing had on Maine industry is still a matter of debate.

Blueberry farms no longer draw irrigation water out of salmon rivers during the summer when the fish need adequate flows to swim upstream. Instead, farmers have spent millions of dollars drilling wells and digging retention ponds for irrigation, according to David Bell, executive director of the Maine Wild Blueberry Commission.

The change is widely attributed to the federal endangered species listing. But, according to Bell, the farmers would have done it anyway.

"A lot of that activity started in the mid-1990s," when the state developed its own rescue plan, Bell said.

He said the federal listing had little direct impact on the blueberry industry, which has continued to grow. But he also said he still believes the intervention was unnecessary.

"We believe the best way to implement conservation is locally," he said.

The effect on the aquaculture industry is less clear.

Sebastian Belle, director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, said the listing had a devastating impact and continues to pose challenges.

The intervention coincided with a disease outbreak, a federal water pollution lawsuit, intense foreign competition and other challenges to the industry. But, according to Belle, the endangered species listing was a major contributor to the turmoil in the past decade.

"You had essentially an exodus of somewhere on the order of $70 (million) or $80 million in investment. Three major multinational corporations decided to leave the state," Belle said. The listing, he said, "was probably one of their principal reasons. ... Nobody knew what it was going to do to production costs. Nobody knew if we would see citizen lawsuits against individual companies."

Cooke Aquaculture of New Brunswick came in and continues to rebuild the state's salmon farm industry, Belle said. And, because of the endangered species listing, the company also continues developing its native strain of brood stock and working on a system to mark fish so they can be identified if they escape, he said.

"Millions and millions of dollars have been spent," he said.

Outside the industry, the endangered species listing gets less of the blame for the salmon farm shakeup.

"I won't deny they had problems associated with the Endangered Species Act," Keliher said. "However, they also had disease problems at the same time, and there were other factors ... that also hit the aquaculture industry."

The general impression that Down East businesses learned to live with an endangered species is one reason the state and businesses are tempering their response this time, he said.

"I think we've learned a lot since the first listing. I think everybody is kind of looking at the rule trying to figure out what are the impacts going to be," he said.

The latest proposal covers salmon habitat from the Penobscot to the Androscoggin, including rivers that have seen overall salmon runs dwindle from about 200,000 fish to about 2,000 this summer, the best season in more than a decade. It also covers some of the state's most industrialized rivers with multiple dams and discharges.

The strongest criticism of the proposal this month came from Snowe and Collins, who issued a joint statement saying the listing could interfere with plans to remove two dams and restore fish habitat on the Penobscot. Maine groups have raised $25 million to buy three dams and will soon apply for permits to take two out and install a fish passage at the third.

Even though the goal of the dam removal is to restore runs of salmon and other fish, a listing under the Endangered Species Act would require organizers to apply for special federal permits and work around the salmon migration season.

Despite the concerns of Snowe and Collins, leaders of that effort said the listing of salmon there won't significantly interfere with the plan and could even help if it opens up more financial resources. In fact, they had already planned for it.

"This was entirely expected," said Laura Rose Day, executive director of the Penobscot River Restoration Trust.

The ongoing efforts on the Penobscot, as well as dam removals and improved fish passage on the Kennebec, are a big reason for the measured response of industry.

"We're already taking the kind of actions the agencies want us to," said Scott Hall, manager of environmental services for PPL Maine, owner of eight dams on the Penobscot.

But the restrained reaction doesn't mean the state isn't prepared to fight if necessary, Keliher said. The Baldacci administration may push for listing salmon as threatened instead of endangered to give the state more flexibility. "We're going to weigh our options," he said.

For now, state and industry officials are wading through about 1,000 pages of details on the proposal and waiting for the government to schedule public hearings.

"That's when we'll know how big a reaction industry is going to have," said the Atlantic Salmon Federation's Goode. "I don't think you've seen a big reaction yet because I think it's still being digested."

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

[email protected]

Originally published by By JOHN RICHARDSON Staff Writer.

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