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Are salmon being abandoned in Maine – A response to a poorly written article

By Greg LaBonte

When I read a magazine, I expect a level of integrity, journalism, and education. I thought fly fisherman magazine had those things and wow was I wrong. One of the poorest articles I’ve ever read in any subject matter was published on Nov 30th by Fly Fisherman Magazine written by author Brian Irwin. A disgraceful piece, which I intend to explore and can be found here.

            Brian Irwin lived in central Maine, 18 years ago and claims to have white water canoed the Sandy River and Kennebec. He starts off his article discussing how the Kennebec was once the most prolific Atlantic Salmon nurseries in the US. Like, in the 1500’s? When was this? The lack of supporting evidence is a reoccurring theme throughout the piece. Throughout this article, the author takes aim at skewing your perception. A one-sided exploratory mission.

            Brian goes on to talk about Brookfield and how they own and operate the four “offending” dams (again, a mission to subconsciously skew your perception) on the Kennebec (Lockwood, Kennebec, Shawmut, and Weston).

            The second paragraph starts off with a lie, a quote from Nick Bennett that fits Brian’s narrative, “There is no downstream spawning habitat south of the Waterville dams…” That’s just simply a lie. There exists areas that salmon would be able to spawn, they are not ideal, maybe not even preferred, but to flat out say there are absolutely no side streams that salmon could spawn in under any circumstance is preposterous. Again, skewing reality. The Sandy River would greatly expand spawnable habitat, but Bennett speaks in theoretical terms, and theoretically there are areas where salmon could spawn below Waterville. Remind you we are 2 paragraphs in.

Brian goes on to say in 2020 only 51 salmon made it beyond Lockwood Dam in Waterville. Remember this number, 51. How many salmon actually made it to Lockwood Dam? Brian did no investigative work to uncover this answer. Brian goes on to humorously insult Brookfield’s solution to the dam problem, which is to capture the salmon, load them in tanks and transport them above the dams. I’m not sure how Brian finds humor in this situation, seriously, where is the humor? Also, Brian offers no better solution. I’d love to hear his emergency solution to transport salmon, I’m sure it wouldn’t be funny at all. Again, he offers no such solution.

            Brian points out their [Brookfield] operating permit mandate functional fish passage, which they failed to do. Brookfield should be punished to the maximum extent possible for this infraction, something both Brian and I agree on. They purposefully ignored their agreed upon responsibilities. Whatever the law allows for a punishment, they should be dealt with swiftly.

            Brian goes on to discuss the ecological implications dams can have on Maine’s local fisheries, not just salmon. If you’re looking for a story to focus on, this is one that has a chance. Brian points out that after the Edwards dam was taken out (lowest dam on Kennebec) a success story followed for river herring, and thus “dam removal works.” Another attempt at skewing the story. Any novice fisheries major knows ecological applications do not always cross species. Let’s look at the Penobscot. Dam removal occurred a decade ago, the Penobscot restored, how have the salmon responded? They haven’t. The answer to Atlantic salmon restoration does not solely lie with dam removal. It’s clear Brian and fly fisherman magazine are not up to date on the most recent Atlantic salmon literature. In fact, they don’t mention any recent literature on Atlantic Salmon recovery. A strange take when writing an article on the recovery of Atlantic Salmon and dam removal.

            Brian goes on to talk about local opposition to the dam removal. He mentions, Skowhegan, Madison, the towns whose livelihoods are dependent on the dams. Brian says that it’s the tax revenue loss and employment loss and that’s it. Downplaying the loss of 735 jobs. Maine jobs.  Come and talk to some of the Maine folks who depend on the jobs created by the dams to feed their children. To widdle the argument down to tax revenue loss and employment is disrespectful to the Maine people, it’s more than that, more than just words. 

Brian comes back to the issue of fish passage and states, “It’s well known that fish passages rarely contribute significantly to the restoration of migratory fish,” wrong again. Trying to put blanket statements out there to push your agenda is wrong, I hope people can read through it. Brian doesn’t even attempt to break passage down into upstream and downstream migration. There exists loads of literature out there showing downstream migration through fish passage (particularly spillways or bypass) for many diadromous species (salmon included) frequently exceed 95%. The Alden Research Laboratory has done great work modeling downstream passage through/over/under dams. Upstream passage has varied dramatically though. The most progress here is being done out West. A great study just came out (link here) working with pacific salmon. Monitoring fish passage over 15 years and 8 dams monitored, found upstream survival rates could reach 69%. However, they point out (the whole story) that there are some confounding issues surrounding estimates and effectiveness. The authors are trying to tell the whole story, not push some agenda, admitting their biases. So, to say it is well known that fish passage rarely contributes significantly to the restoration of migratory fish, where is your data? Is this an opinion? Have there been times when fish passage has hindered fish restoration, yes, has there been times when it’s helped, yes. Again, picking and choosing, half-truths, that’s the story Brian is telling.

            Brian then continues to rag on FERC and Brookfield, who rightfully deserve the ragging. FERC is responsible for upholding the integrity of agreements with dam construction and compliance with Endangered Species Act (ESA). FERC has not done a great job, I 100% agree here. I am not sure how you can take down FERC, that’s beyond my understanding. I wish I could go back a couple hundred years and restructure FERC or inform the powers that be. Brian offers no solution for restructuring FERC.

            Brian, who is clearly not aware of Governor Janet Mills’ comments, lays it out as if Janet is in support of dam removal. Which, initially she was, but Janet did a flippy flop and shifted around August of this year. Mills stated “dam removal is not needed for fish to pass through it successfully”, saying,  “a natural fish passage solution could help restore endangered Atlantic salmon.” I mean Brian, hello? Did you miss this or are you just not fully informed on the entire issue and decided to write an article about it. The DMR “backed by Governor Janet Mills”, those are Brian’s words. Not only has Brian misrepresented Mills’ stance, he’s dragging DMR into the mud too!  

            Brian moves on to address the DMR and National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS) comments, which have told Brookfield for years that Lockwood doesn’t pass salmon or shad effectively. This is spot on! Brian left his opinion out of this section and the facts are clear. Brookfield should be held responsible for their lack of action, they’ve had fair warning. But here, the reader can draw their own conclusion, Brian presented the facts and let the reader decide.

            Unfortunately, the next paragraph, we get a blasphemous opinion from Brian, who is woefully underprepared and uneducated on the subject. “Only removal of these four dams will give Atlantic salmon a fighting chance to recover. Even if this did work, it would take decades for Kennebec River salmon to recover.” Yikes. There’s a lot to unpack there, but if you’re a fish biologist familiar with the Atlantic Salmon story, you just cringed. I’m going to dismantle this statement, I don’t really care how long it takes.

            Atlantic salmon face a slew of issues. As my mentor, Rory Saunders one of the OG Atlantic Salmon biologists in the state once said to me, the story of Atlantic Salmon is death by a thousand cuts. Again, Brian speaks in absolutes, “Only” the removal, nothing else. Was that the case for the Penobscot too? Atlantic salmon face a multitude of issues, particularly out at sea. We now know the cascading trophic effects global warming is having on our oceanic food chain is disastrous for Atlantic salmon survival. Who cares if you have a wide open river and all the spawning grounds available if Adult salmon can’t make it back to the river to spawn. Does Brian even know there are pike in the Kennebec below Waterville? We’ll get to this later.

            Think about how many eggs, parr, grilse we dump into the river, ocean every year, yet our return numbers remain the same. Are the dams keeping fish from returning? No, once we get salmon to return, the dams become an issue, but we can’t even do that. Brian leaves himself a copout though, it would take decades to recover.

            Again, not true, thanks to the life history of salmon. If we were to figure it out, fix ocean acidification, rising temperatures, restructure food webs, it would take probably a few, maybe 5-10 years to see a large trend in the right direction. Salmon reproduce every year in a mass event and it only takes a few years to reach maturity. If you have 3 or 4 cohorts with successful year classes, you’ve turned the Atlantic salmon picture around in a mere 7-10 years. Stick by your guns, don’t cop out.

            Brian returns to Mills, confusing the focused reader even more, “It appears that in a tangle of legal red tape, the embattled theater where the DMR, Brookfield, and Mills fought continues to smolder….” So which side is Mills on now or is she an independent battler?

            And of course, we end on the funniest note of all, a quote from Bennett, suggesting central Maine could become an inspiring conservation center. Have we not already become this in the past 20 years? Edwards dam, Penobscot river, massive ecological success stories. Bennett acts as if Maine has done nothing, diminishing the work of hundreds of biologists, ecologists, and conservationists. Maine can continue to shine as a mecca for conservation, not begin. I know the conservationist, the biologists underpaid and overworked, putting their life into every project to make sure Maine stays beautiful. Do not diminish or forget these people. A common theme Brian, who once lived here two decades ago so is somehow privileged on all things Maine, has forgotten in this article, Maine people, Maine ecosystems, anything Maine really.

            What really gets me though is Brian fails to mention pike once in this entire article. Brian excludes any fisheries takes from this article, as he likely has next to no expertise in the subject. Pike are plentiful in the Kennebec and Sebasticook river, right below the Lockwood dam. Let’s say you remove the Lockwood, Kennebec, Shawmut, and Weston dam, what happens to those pike?

            Well, we’ve seen it before in Maine, on the Andro, the pike move. They migrate into every watershed possible. So if you take these dams out, I hope you’re okay with turning another ¼ of the state into a pike fishery. Let’s let pike run rampant and ruin the new spawning ground that’s going to become available to Atlantic salmon. I wonder if Pike like eating salmon parr? Brian seems to want to find out!

            The lack of thought that went into this article is frightening. This misinformative style is reflected and expected of our media now. I hope that Fly Fisherman Magazine will do some vetting next time they decide to publish an article. Maine people know the story, outsiders looking in trying to dictate a narrative is dangerous and damaging to the native Maine species and people. All I ask is the whole truth be placed out there. If the people want to decide one way or another, that’s on them, don’t try and decide for them.

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