Salmon listing can mean cooperation, not conflict

Copyright © 2006 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc. Here's some advice for state and local officials contemplating that what's left of the Atlantic salmon populations in the Kennebec, Androscoggin and Penoboscot Rivers may be named to the Endangered Species list: Take a long, deep breath, count to 10, exhale and only then respond. That should help forestall the kind of reaction the state suffered through when an endangered species listing for salmon in eight other rivers was broached, in 1996. That's when the governor, aquaculture, forestry and blueberry industry advocates, Down East residents and our senators went ballistic, saying the sky was going to fall if the feds intruded upon Maine's right to manage our native salmon as we saw fit. Never mind that those fish populations were on the edge of extinction, and that the state's own recovery plan for salmon had no money and contained largely voluntary and useless protection measures. The state, joined by industry, fought the listing. In the several years since Maine lost the fight against the listing, the sky hasn't fallen. The dire predictions haven't come true. Yes, the salmon aquaculture industry has suffered enormously in the last half decade. But even their own representatives say that's largely because of international competition, practices that led to rampant disease and a punishing federal court decision not related to the ESA. The blueberry industry has adapted. Now they don't suck water out of salmon rivers to use for irrigation. The forest products industry has worked cooperatively with land and fish conservation groups, as well as with the state, to preserve land along the salmon rivers. Federal money has helped. And once those rivers are made more hospitable for salmon, they'll be better homes for other fish. What's good for salmon is good for trout, for alewives, for eels and all manner of wildlife who depend on those fish. It's also good for humans. Clean water is good for everyone. The story of cooperation Down East is what should happen along the three rivers if a listing happens, as is likely. State and local officials would be well advised to look also to the Penobscot River. That's the biggest river that's home to Atlantic salmon, and it's the focus of a hugely ambitious collaborative between all levels of government, fish and wildlife advocates, private industry and the Penobscot Indian Nation to restore more than 500 miles of historic salmon spawning habitat in the upper part of the river. The $25 million Penobscot River Restoration Project is proceeding apace, and provides a model of productive collaboration. Here on the Kennebec, we're already many years into a large restoration project that included the historic removal of the Edwards Dam and construction of migratory fish passage on other, upriver dams. So we're already undertaking many of the moves that would be required under an Endangered Species Act listing. There are challenges, to be sure, to municipalities and industries along these rivers that either withdraw large amounts of water or pollute them. But as we've seen from the experience in the state's first salmon listing, those challenges can largely be met.