By: Soichiro Tanaka
As fall comes to an end, most Atlantic salmon are done with their spawning season. During spawning season in the fall, female Atlantic salmon dig or compete for a redd. A redd is the nest in which salmon eggs are incubated. Redds are typically made in freshwater holes or trenches that have water flow and shelter to protect their delicate eggs. Unlike most Pacific salmon species, Atlantic salmon are not terminal spawners, and they often migrate back to the sea, leaving the eggs until they hatch in Spring.
Atlantic salmon used to be prevalent in most of the rivers in the Northeast. However, their population has declined significantly due to many stressors including dam creation, pollution, and overfishing. The population of Atlantic salmon has fallen by more than half since 1986 despite some conservation efforts to rebuild their populations. Atlantic salmon are now only native to a few rivers in Maine, one of which being the Kennebec River.
Kennebec River, the third longest river in Maine
A virtual webinar about Atlantic salmon on the Kenebec was hosted on April 28, 2021, by the Natural Resources Council of Maine. Within the Kennebec River system, the Sandy River is said to be the richest salmon spawning habitat. The river has four dams in operation by Brookfield, often blocking salmon’s access to their spawning grounds. The speakers hosting the webinar argued that the four dams prevent the salmon population's recovery by limiting their access to one of the best salmon spawning habitats in Maine. To make matters worse, none of the dams have an effective fish passage allowing the salmon to get through. The only way salmon have been able to make it past the dams is through human intervention. One of the methods is a trap and transfer program in place below the Lockwood Dam where salmon are transported by truck to spawning grounds after being held in a holding tank. Without complete access to their spawning grounds, salmon recovery in the Kennebec would nearly be impossible.
The Shawmut Dam, one of the four dams in the river, has been under relicensing since 2021, and the speakers argued for the removal of the dam. They believed that the hydroelectric capacity of the dams is very small and could be offset by solar panels expected to be placed in the state. Despite all these claims, NOAA disappointed environmental activists by releasing an analysis in March of 2023 claiming that the dams won’t negatively affect the endangered salmon population. Brookfield proposed to create a fish passage in response to the concerns for the salmon population. However, the company's failure to provide effective fish passages in their dams in the past worries activists about the future decline of the Atlantic salmon in North America.
The decline of Atlantic salmon represents a loss of biodiversity as well as damage to the river system fundamental to Native American traditions in the Northeast. In the webinar, Mali Obomsawin discussed the importance of the waterways for the Wabanaki Confederacy and the historic assaults on their rights since the 17th century. Since the Wabanaki Confederacy depended heavily on the rivers for transportation and food sovereignty, the construction of dams and pollution limited their access to their traditional lifestyles and diet. Despite traditionally having had techniques for sustainable farming and hunting, the Wabanaki people lost full control of the rivers, which disrupted the ecosystem’s biodiversity.
The decline of Atlantic salmon in the Northeast is a result of decades of overfishing, pollution, and modification of the environment for short-term profits. With recovery efforts underway in the Sandy River and the lower Kennebec, salmon populations could still recover and provide the region with the same level of biodiversity. Steps to recovery start with learning and educating others about endangered species, saving energy, and supporting local policymakers who believe in conservation, as they have the power to stop assaults on our planet.
Idaho Fish and Game. (2023, August 8). What is a redd? Salmon keep cleaning out a 'nest' for spawning.
Natural Resources Council of Maine. (2021, April 28). Saving Atlantic Salmon on the Kennebec (Pre-recorded Webinar)
[Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KJjZV7H3W_Q
Natural Resources Council of Maine. (2023, March 23). NOAA Ignores Science Showing Extinction Threat for Atlantic
North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization. (n.d.). The State of Wild North Atlantic Salmon.
Papayoung. (2013). Kennebec River Map-fr [Photograph]. Wikimedia Commons.
Richards, H. (n.d.). Life Cycle of Atlantic Salmon. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. https://www.fws.gov/story/life-cycle-
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