River Restoration Threatens Brookies
By Suzanne AuClair

First out of the gate, the wild brook trout fishing has been excellent in the Moosehead Lake region this season. Nothing can match the sheer beauty of our shimmering, speckled native.

Second out of the gate, hold onto your hat, because the threat of the introduction of invasive species is riding the wave of a great big tsunami rolling up out of the ocean, ready to hit our inland waterways, as the feds and state kiss a deal that could allow northern pike passage into prime trout and salmon country. It is the stuff legend is made of. What the government is doing also happens to be illegal, no different in result than a “bucket biologist” taking matters into his own hands and dumping non-native fish into prime waters. The consequence is the same.

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The concerns by inland people have been set aside as state and federal agencies continue to sign off on a movement by the Penobscot River Restoration Trust to tear down the dams that for a century have harnessed the water that flows down the Penobscot River. It sounds very good. Restore the natural flow of the river and the great runs of sea fish will come back up to their old inland waters. But in this day and age it ignores modern-day problems that never existed before the dams were built.

Those in favor of the plan believe that tearing down the dams will help restore the movement of Atlantic salmon, alewives, eels, and a number of other fish that, at the turn of the last century, used to run up the river from the sea by the thousands every year. Those runs disappeared decades ago.

Experts admit the mass extirpations are due to a number of causes, only one of which was the dams. Times change. Ironically, today some of those very dams are keeping out some of the new invasive species that have been introduced points south of here and that otherwise would find their way to this rich, still wild native habitat for brook trout, salmon, and lake trout.

Today, there is an important effort to try and restore what was once a great marine fishery as sea fishermen struggle in that once thriving industry. Toward that end, the Penobscot project has garnered the backing of some big environmental groups, including The Nature Conservancy and the Natural Resources Council of Maine. When those groups signed on, they may or may not have been aware of the prize species of the inland waterways that are of equal importance to Maine.

It seems that myopia has set in. The government is as willing as some non-profit organizations to usher yet another still healthy, legendary fishery to the brink of collapse by sanctioning the introduction of northern pike further north. When asked about it, several resource managers from the government, at both the state and federal levels, said they thought that the “benefits outweigh the risks.”

Our brook trout are some of the last of the wild ones found in the United States, yet in June the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved the removal of the dams in Veazie, Great Works near Old Town, and approved placing a fish bypass channel around the Howland Dam.

One of the champions for protecting our great inland fisheries is Paul Johnson. Johnson recently retired from 35 years of work as the state’s lead fisheries biologist for the Moosehead Lake Region, which includes the Piscataquis River drainage.

In his public comments to the government he wrote that resident fisheries, Atlantic salmon parr and smolts will all be adversely affected by pike. He also noted that Maine’s plans and policies for managing invasive species are to first prevent problems. But then, if any come up, to limit their extent and reduce their effects. In this instance, the government is willing to turn a cheek and boot directly to plan “B”.

Most importantly, the state acknowledges in its own policies that “prevention carries a price tag, but it is the only possible way to avoid incurring much higher costs associated with the environment, economic, and social disruptions that follow infestations of aquatic invasive organisms.”

Just as the collapse of the sea fisheries comes with its own set of environmental, economic, and social problems, so it would be for the future of this inland fisheries. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

Johnson wrote that “it would be ludicrous for the state on the one hand to continually bemoan illegal introductions of invasive species...and on the other hand officially sanction the introduction of an invasive species to a watershed where they do not now occur, and from which they can be excluded.”

He suggests preventing upstream invasion by building a trap and sort facility at Howland, similar to the one built for the same reasons on the Kennebec River in Waterville at Lockwood Dam.

In his quiet wisdom my husband, Roger AuClair, also a retired Maine fisheries biologist for the Moosehead Lake Region, has thought it made a great deal of sense to simply leave things in place at the Howland Dam until such time as the sea-run fish are found knocking on that door. He thought it would solve a lot of immediate problems: pike won’t be able to invade upstream; the government will be in accord of its own policies and the law; and, in the end, he mused it could takes years, if not decades, for the sea-runs to even make it up that far, if at all, so it gives project managers a lot more time to figure things out.

But, if in the meantime the government allows an opening for pike, it allows yet another of our great native fisheries to fall.

Suzanne AuClair is an avid outdoorswoman. She lives in Rockwood and has been writing about the Moosehead Lake Region for the past 15 years. She is an award- winning member of the New England Outdoor Writers Assn.

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