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Celebrating Habitat Month

June 22, 2015
View of the now free flowing Penobscot River looking downstream toward the former site of the Veazie dam.


Sam Rauch measures the length of the salmon at the Milford dam, where he helped to insert a PIT tag into the salmon.
 

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We’re celebrating Habitat Month here in Fisheries, and last week I got to see some of our ongoing habitat conservation efforts firsthand when I traveled to the Penobscot River watershed in Maine. I’d like to share some of the highlights including the visible, positive impact our efforts are having.

To start the journey, Buck Sutter, the Director of the Office of Habitat Conservation, and I had a jam-packed day and a half. Our first site visit was to Sedgeunkedunk Stream, led by staff from the NOAA Restoration Center and the Protected Resources Division. They showed us a project that restored access to river herring spawning habitat through dam removal and the installation of a rock ramp. We learned that, from the mid-1800s until the 1990s, the first Atlantic salmon caught each year from the Penobscot was sent to the President of the United States—an interesting bit of American history.

Prior to the construction of the first dams in the 1830s, the Penobscot River held Maine’s largest populations of Atlantic salmon, with annual runs believed to have been upwards of 100,000. Since that time, populations have dropped to less than a thousand returning adults. Salmon in the Penobscot River were listed as endangered in 2009.

We then spent a couple of hours on a NOAA survey vessel, where Northeast Fisheries Science Center  staff showed us hydroacoustic techniques they’re using to learn about changes in fish biomass in the lower Penobscot River. Thanks to dam removals and other conservation efforts, they’ve seen increases in river herring in the system—from 10,000 to more than 500,000.  NEFSC staff also put an acoustic receiver in the water, and we were able to pick up the tags of several Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon.

The next day, we heard presentations on NOAA activities in the Penobscot River watershed, focusing on Atlantic salmon recovery efforts and the positive results we are now seeing as a result of dam removals and fish passage improvements at hydropower dams throughout Maine. It was great to see the coordination across so many NOAA offices, and how well we are integrating our efforts. 

We then met with members of the Penobscot Indian Nation, who view the Penobscot River and Atlantic salmon as not just ecological resources, but as a cultural resource as well. We affirmed our commitment to restoring the Penobscot through our Habitat Focus Area efforts under the Habitat Blueprint, and our focus on Atlantic salmon as a Spotlight Species.

At the Milford hydroelectric facility, we were joined by staff from the Maine Congressional delegation, as well as the commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources. A fish lift has been installed at the facility, and we got to see it in action—plus up-close views of wild Atlantic salmon, river herring, American shad and sea lamprey.

We also met with partners at the site of the former Veazie Dam, including the Penobscot River Restoration Trust, The Nature Conservancy, and Atlantic Salmon Federation.  You may recall that the Veazie Dam was removed in 2013, and it’s amazing to see the changes in the river in just a few short years.

NOAA has invested more than $22 million in habitat restoration efforts in the watershed over the last five years, and it is gratifying to see that our work is having an impact in support of our mission of sustainable fisheries management and conserving and restoring protected species.  As they say in Habitat circles … habitat is where it’s at.

 

Sam Rauch, Deputy Assistant Administrator for Regulatory Programs