November 19, 2019

Kennebec River: Unfinished Business

The single most important and far-reaching environmental, economic and sociological issue in the Kennebec River Valley is the current status of the program to restore native sea-run fish to a portion of the waters that they inhabited 500 years ago. The first European explorers who sailed through the Gulf of Maine were amazed by the wildlife which inhabited its fertile waters and the great rivers which flow into it. Early explorers such as Sebastian Cabot, Jacques Cartier, John Smith and Samuel de Champlain reported an abundance of whales and marine mammals and schools of valuable fish that dwarfed the resources of the European side of the Atlantic.


The Kennebec River and its tributaries hosted enormous runs of fish whose life cycle includes living part of their lives in fresh water and part in the ocean. Species include Atlantic salmon, American shad, alewives, blueback herring, striped bass, Atlantic and short-nosed sturgeon and American eel.


It didn’t take the Europeans long to exploit those resources. The settlers promptly set about “improving’’ the environment which they found. They cleared forests, drained wetlands, dammed streams to build water-powered mills, dumped their mill wastes into the nearest body of flowing water, and harvested anadromous fish such as shad and alewives for use as fertilizer for their crops. They harvested Atlantic salmon, sturgeon and striped bass for commercial export as if there were no tomorrow.


It took a while for these activities to have an observable impact. But in time the effect on formerly abundant resources became obvious. The result was first to diminish and then to destroy the resources that had so impressed the early explorers. The first casualties were the whales, followed by the loss of the once-great runs of Atlantic salmon and alewives. By the turn of the 19th century, a scant 200 years after initial contact, the existence of these resources had become only a fast-fading memory.


The triple whammy of water pollution, over-harvesting and the construction of impassable dams was the death knell for the formerly vast runs of fish that had  occupied the Kennebec River.


None of this went unnoticed. Historical records are filled with pleas to government from citizens who fully understood the destruction which was going on, and what it was doing to the resources upon which they relied in order to survive, and what the implications were for the future. By and large, these pleas went unheeded, because for every such citizen, there was another who stood to gain in the short term from the exploitation of natural resources, and those were the people with political power.


Things got very bad before they began to get better. After the Second World War  the new era began. The United States had become the greatest economic power that the world had ever seen. At the same time the costs in terms of destruction of native wildlife, destruction of habitat, fouling the once-sweet waters of rivers, lakes and the  sea itself, fouling the air which all must breathe, and adding poisons to the environment became so bad that something needed to be done. The tide began to turn with the adoption of laws and regulations to reverse the harm and chart a path to a more wholesome environment for the benefit of human beings and wildlife alike.


For almost 50 years state and federal agencies have been working to restore native anadromous fish to their former habitat in the Kennebec. Milestones were removal of the Edwards Dam in Augusta in 1999 and the Fort Halifax Dam in Winslow in 2008. A great deal has been accomplished in the last two decades, but there are still many problems to be resolved.


The 2013 river herring run on the Kennebec River and its major tributary, the Sebasticook, exceeded 2,000,000 of these small native fish that passed through the fishway at Benton Falls, headed for their historic spawning grounds in Unity Pond, Sebasticook Lake and other lakes in the East Branch of the Sebasticook River watershed. Add to this the number of fish taken for lobster bait, and those which have ascended other tributaries such as Seven Mile Stream, and it seems probable that almost 3,000,000 river herring swam from the Gulf of Maine into the Kennebec River system to complete their reproductive cycle after spending four years at sea.


This is by far the largest run of river herring on the entire Eastern Seaboard. The role of the alewife is to be eaten. They are critical as a forage base for almost every species of creature which preys on fish, ranging from otters to eagles, from striped bass through cod and haddock to tuna and mighty whales. It is no accident that there has been excellent sport fishing for striped bass in the Kennebec and lower Sebasticook Rivers this year – the bass simply followed the alewives, a favorite prey species.


Considering that less than two decades ago there were no alewives in the Sebasticook River, it becomes clear that this is an unparalleled success story. We can be grateful to the dedicated scientists and managers at the Maine Department of Marine Resources for their unflagging zeal during half a century in working to make it happen.


The removal of the Edwards Dam and the Fort Halifax Dam at the mouth of the Sebasticook laid the foundation for the present run. Yet there remains more to be done. The potential is for an alewife run more than double the size of this year’s run. There are opportunities for alewives to access other lakes in the Kennebec River Watershed that have been obvious for years, but languished because of impassable dams.


There are three impassable dams on Cobbossee Stream and six more on the outlet to China Lake, which enters the Sebasticook just above its confluence with the Kennebec. Preliminary exploratory efforts are currently underway to address passage at these barriers.


On the Sebasticook East Branch, alewives could ascend all the way to Wassookeag Lake in Dexter, but remain blocked by an impassable dam in Corinna. Access to the large lakes of the West Branch (Great Moose, Mainstream Pond, Big Indian Lake, Little Indian Pond and Ripley Pond) is blocked by two dams in Pittsfield and one in Hartland with no fish passage.


Success builds on success. Restoration of alewives in the Kennebec River could have a tremendous positive environmental, economic and sociological impact resonating from improved recreational fisheries of the headwater lakes to restoration of historic commercial fisheries in the Gulf of Maine. Those fisheries have collapsed, but  could once again prosper with a strong base of forage fish for cod and haddock.


For other species of river herring, such as American shad, the figures are much lower, and the prognosis is troubling. Shad appear in numbers in the Kennebec River in Waterville and Winslow, where they support a recreational fishery. However, only a few get further upstream. Shad are notoriously shy of fishways, and refuse to enter the fish passage facility at the Lockwood Dam on the Kennebec Main Stem. Only a few have passed through the Benton Falls Dam on the Sebasticook River. Because the numbers of shad are a critical ‘trigger’ element in the time tables for installation of upstream and downstream passage at dams further upriver, this presents a major problem which must be addressed by the dam owners and fishery agencies.


The pre-European run of Atlantic salmon in the Kennebec River has been estimated at 70,000 fish. Early in the settlement of Maine, a net fishery for Atlantic salmon was established in the lower Kennebec. Thousands of fish were netted daily during the runs. Shiploads were exported to Europe. Even before the end of the 18th century observers expressed concern at declining harvests. By the time Maine became an independent state in 1820, the Atlantic salmon which had so impressed the first explorers were almost gone from the Kennebec.


The final nail was driven into the coffin when the Edwards Dam was built in Augusta in 1837. The charter provided that there should be passage for migratory fish, but after the first fishway was destroyed in a freshet, it was not replaced and the obligation was ignored. By the middle of the 19th century, the only Atlantic salmon in the Kennebec River system were a tiny relict population in minor tributaries below the Edwards Dam. A vast resource had been destroyed by greed and indifference, and insult was added to injury as even its memory faded away to nothing.


The removal of the Edwards Dam in 1999 poses an opportunity to bring back Atlantic salmon in the Kennebec River., There is the potential for restoring a self-sustaining breeding population, albeit greatly diminished from the runs which existed 500 years ago.


The two major tributaries of the Kennebec with high quality cold-water spawning and rearing habitat for Atlantic salmon are the Sandy River entering at Madison, and the Carrabassett River entering at North Anson. Both rise in the hills in the northwestern corner of the Kennebec River Basin. They are capable of supporting a self-sustaining population of Atlantic salmon. The Maine Department of Marine Resources has a program to restore them in those waters.


However, four hydro-electric dams on the main stem of the Kennebec River below the mouth of the Sandy River pose a major problem.. These are the Lockwood Dam, the Hydro-Kennebec Dam, the Shawmut Dam and the Weston Dam. There are two more dams, Anson and Abnaki, in Madison on the main stem below the mouth of the Carrabassett River.


Only the Lockwood Dam has even interim upstream fish passage, and none have properly engineered downstream fish passage. There are major concerns about the effectiveness of the recently-installed upstream fish passage at Lockwood.


The Maine Department of Marine Resources has developed an ingenious method of planting fertilized Atlantic salmon eggs (obtained from hatchery fish) in the river gravel in a manner which closely mimics the ‘redds’ (nests) created by adult spawning females. In addition, the Department has captured returning adult Atlantic salmon that were born in the Sandy River, succeeded in migrating downstream past all four dams to the Atlantic Ocean, grew to maturity and returned to the capture site at Lockwood. They were transported more than 50 miles by truck back to the Sandy River, and released in the expectation that ‘boy will meet girl’ and nature will take its course.

There are shadows looming over this activity. Funding for the Department of Marine Resources has suffered in the budget wars. There is also the potential that fertilized eggs will cease to be available for planting.


Atlantic salmon in the Kennebec River were designated as an Endangered Species in 2008. This has placed another layer of regulatory process over the restoration program, because the dam owner, Brookfield White Pine Energy LLC, is obligated to take measures to minimize the risk to Atlantic salmon caused by the existence of its dams, and to develop a Species Protection Plan which will ensure the survival of Atlantic salmon by minimizing ‘incidental take’ of Atlantic salmon, whether by mis-adventure in migrating upstream, or by injury or death from passage through turbines or over steep dam faces or rocks while migrating downstream as juveniles.


There are four actions which should be undertaken in the next decade which could realize the potential of the Kennebec River and its tributaries, the Sebasticook, Sandy and Carrabasset Rivers, once more to serve as the host for species of fish which spend a portion of their lives in fresh water and a portion in the ocean, including Atlantic salmon, American shad, alewives and blueback herring.


1. River herring: Fishery agencies should use the authority which they have under federal and state law to require the installation of fish passage at the currently impassable dams on Cobbossee Stream, China Lake Outlet and the West Branch of the Sebasticook River. This would provide access to many lakes and ponds which at one time afforded substantial spawning habitat for alewives. The consequence would be to realize a run of alewives in the Kennebec River and its tributaries which could amount to as many as 6,000,000 of these forage fish annually, with benefits to the entire Gulf of Maine eco-system.


2. Dam Removal to Benefit Atlantic salmon. As part of the current effort to gain the greatest possible protection for endangered Atlantic salmon, at least two of the existing dams on the main stem of the Kennebec River should be removed. This would create a system in which Atlantic salmon migrating downstream from the Sandy River as juveniles or migrating upstream as adults would need only to get past two dams. Those migrating downstream or upstream from the Carrabassett River would only need to pass through four dams. Candidates for dam removal are the Lockwood Dam and the Shawmut Dam. This would leave only the Hydro-Kennebec Dam in Waterville and the Weston Dam in Skowhegan, still formidable barriers, below the Sandy River and the Anson-Abnaki Dams in Madison below the Carrabassett River.


3. Brood Stock Program. A brood stock program should be established for the Atlantic salmon “Salmon Habitat Recovery Unit” (SHRU) which includes the Kennebec River, the Androscoggin River, the Sheepscot River and other smaller coastal rivers. The existing federal hatcheries at Green Lake and Craig Brook are currently operating at capacity. Their output is needed for the Downeast Rivers of Washington County and the Penobscot River.


Hatcheries are not a substitute for natural reproduction, but the low numbers of Atlantic salmon in the Kennebec River deserve a ‘kick-start’. There are many locations at which a brood stock program could be established at a relatively low cost. Construction and operation of the hatchery should be funded by the owners of the dams whose existence makes a hatchery necessary.


4.Funding for Anadromous Fish Restoration. The water of Maine’s rivers is a public asset. For more than two centuries, dam owners have made use of this public resource for private benefit, with detrimental effects on the environment, but with little compensation to the public for the loss to fisheries which their activities have caused.

It is long past time that the dam owners should shoulder the responsibility for undoing the harm to the public interest which their dams create. The dam owners should pay a royalty to government which would be held in a dedicated fund to support the efforts of the fishery agencies to restore anadromous fish to at least a portion of the habitat which existed at the time of first European settlement in New England 500 years ago.


If these measures are put in place, then there is hope for the future: A once-great river system which has been destroyed as a functioning eco-system by centuries of greed and neglect can once more take its rightful place in the ecologically, economically and sociologically vibrant community that the State of Maine should be.


Clinton B. “Bill” Townsend has practiced law in Skowhegan, Maine for more than 50 years. He is a past president and current board member of Maine Rivers, and served as a United States Commissioner to the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization.