Finally, Hope for Atlantic Salmon in Maine


Every summer, I drove north to go fly fishing for Atlantic salmon in the provinces of Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. During that drive, as I left southern Maine behind, I would pass over bridges that identified the rivers and streams below with names like “Salmon Brook.” Every time, I would look down to find a body of water empty of its namesake.

Growing up on the coast of Maine, the narrative of my youth was the narrative of a natural world in decline: cod and Atlantic salmon — two symbols of New England’s coastal economy — were endangered, if not gone, from their native waters. As an avid fly fisherman, and avid salmon fisherman, I have supported the cause to bring these iconic fish back to Maine before I had any idea what I was doing: my grandfather donated to the Saco River Salmon Club in my name beginning at about 10, while I helped my dad with his role as the auctioneer for the Maine Atlantic Salmon Federation dinner for years as a little kid. I kept my membership to both for years, but remember reading the reports of the number of returning Atlantic salmon to Maine’s rivers with dismay. At least one year, I remember the number estimated to have returned to the Saco to be under 20, if not in the single digits. (The exception being the 2011 season, whose returns have yet to be repeated.)

It is a tradition in Maine to eat a Maine-caught Atlantic salmon on the 4th of July. But I began to wonder: how many years before this is no longer a tradition, but a forgotten ritual of the past?

And so I have a confession: I largely lost hope. I accepted the narrative of my tough — of Maine as a state no longer capable of boasting strong populations of Atlantic salmon — as the inevitable narrative of my generation.

Two relatively new efforts have me thinking I was wrong.

The Downeast Salmon Federation (DSF) and the Downeast Fisheries Partnership (DFP) together have the potential to yield far more success than any previous efforts of which I’m aware. Last week, at the Greater Boston Trout Unlimited (GBTU) meeting held in Boston, I saw Dwayne Shaw, Executive Director of the DSF, and Anne Hayden of DFP, present their work to a larger than usual audience at McCormick and Schmick’s. I had seen Anne present before at the Miramichi Salmon Association (MSA) dinner earlier this year, and have been a supporter of DSF for a couple of years, but had never seen them together.

Following their presentations, here’s what I think makes their combined work so impressive.

They recognize Atlantic salmon are part of a larger system.
Many prior efforts to restore Atlantic salmon to New England rivers have focused, for a variety of reasons, exclusively on stocking. An oversimplified way of framing the thinking was, “If we put more fish in the river, more fish will have to come back.” These efforts, lacking either sufficient financial resources or the mindset to do so, didn’t consider salmon as deeply integrated into an significantly diminished ecosystem. DSF and DFP both consider the ecosystem as a whole: they are actively working on land conservation, on habitat restoration, economic issues, and — extremely important — an improved approach to ocean management called “ecosystem based fisheries management.”

They are making innovations in how they stock salmon.
In addition to the above, prior stocking efforts have failed in part because of the stocking methods alone. For instance, Atlantic salmon were often rearer in pens with local water (different from the water of their native rivers), in brightly colored pens (not the dark color of a river bottom), and then put into rivers in insufficient numbers, as though hoping for a miracle. DSF is stocking salmon based on a model developer by Peter Gray on the River Tyne. Consider his success there, where salmon had almost vanished. Thanks to Peter’s efforts, and the removal of harmful pollutants, the Tyne is once more the best salmon river in England and Wales where, in 2010, Northumberland anglers caught more than five thousand salmon.

Let’s pause for a second. From nothing to more than 5,000 salmon caught. That is success that DSF is trying to replicate, based on methods that we have been proven successful elsewhere.

Here’s a recent news video about DSF:

They care about kids.
That may seem glib, but I’m serious. I saw my first Atlantic salmon by the age of 5. I caught my first Atlantic salmon at 7 and a half. And I have been passionate about the future of this fish ever since. The DSF is running a number of great

They know the economics.
I can’t tell you the number of environmental organizations I’ve encountered that don’t seem to understand that economic and environmental initiatives not only can work together, but often must in order to ensure the sustained success of any initiative.

And they know the policy.
As an outgrowth of the importance of their holistic, system-wide view of Atlantic salmon, these organizations are advocating policy changes that will ensure salmon have greater success not only in their native rivers, but on their migratory routes as well. I confess that discussions of ecosystem- based fisheries management is not the world’s most exciting topic, but it is incredibly important. (When I worked at CLF, we worked on this issue quite a bit. Here’s a series of blog posts that cover the issue from CLF.) They are doing god’s work here, and I can only hope the regulatory bodies listen.

Together, these are some truly great efforts. I’ve been nothing but impressed. And, perhaps most importantly from the perspective of sustaining my involvement, I have more hope than I did before. We’ll have to be patient, and wait a few years before we can see any returns, but this is an effort that has more promise than any I’ve seen in Maine. Perhaps, in future years, being a Maine Atlantic salmon fisherman won’t be an contradiction, but a point of pride for many.

I rarely do this (in fact, I’ve never done it on this site), but if you’re so inclined I would strongly urge you to consider supporting the work of these organizations with a financial contribution (for DSF, click here and for DFP click here) or by volunteering your time. DSF has some great volunteer opportunities (but you won’t find them on the website).

Finally, here’s a map of the principal rivers being targeted by DSF. These rivers include the East Machias, the Pleasant River, the Dennys, and the Narragaugus, among others. (Note that Google Maps places the pin at the mouth of the river, often, so the pin is not precisely where the river restoration work is being done.)

I plant to remain involved in DSF, and perhaps even do some volunteering this year on site, so stay tuned for more photos, video, and more!


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5 thoughts on “Finally, Hope for Atlantic Salmon in Maine

  1. This is heartening, but I also have a bit of skepticism given the passage of time and the rapidly diminishing collective memory of fishing for Maine-based Atlantic Salmon. These rivers are marvels. I have spent time on the Narraguagus in Cherryfield, many moons ago, and it begs for salmon redds and fishing the Cable pool. However, the reality is no fishermen have cast a line across such waters for years and another generation is bereft. So, let’s hope that these more integrated efforts hold water and, yes, we should support them, but the human animal is a fickle thing when it comes to political will, much less solid fisheries science.

    • Barry: I hear you re. the declining baseline of people’s perceptions. If you go back and read the descriptions of early explorers of N America, like Hakluyt, you read descriptions of rivers so thick with fish you could walk across their backs to the other side. Exaggeration, no doubt, but if you’ve witnessed some rivers in Alaska during the fall run you get a sense of what it was like. Can we get there again on the East coast? I don’t know. But I’m hopeful, and not ready to give up hope. Should we see a seasons like 2011 every year years, where some can cast a line across these waters, I think we’ll stand a much better chance of maintaing both collective interest and a shared long-term memory of what once was. Your son is already hooked, I know, which is a great thing. Hope we get to fish together soon. Best, Ben

  2. My heart has been broken about the state of affairs of N.E. Salmon rivers for years. Thanks for offering a ray of hope. Following my high school graduation (1969) I took a “pilgrimage” from Massachusetts up to the Narraguagus to cast a fly at the cable pool. No fish, but it was magical. Since then, I’ve caught exactly one Atlantic Salmon on the S.W. Branch of the Mirimichi – another magical moment. I have been in Alaska now for over 30 years, but the return of this noble fish to Maine and maybe even other parts of its historical New England range would bring great joy to my heart.

  3. Pingback: Photos: Stocking Salmon in Downeast Maine - New England On The FlyNew England On The Fly

  4. Pingback: Downeast Salmon Federation Stocking Photos - New England On The FlyNew England On The Fly

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