AUGUSTA (AP) – A catch-and-release season for Atlantic salmon on the Penobscot River is set to become an annual event.
The Maine Atlantic Salmon Commission voted Thursday to approve the monthlong season on the river between Bangor, Veazie and Eddington. The vote follows last fall’s experimental season in which nearly 250 anglers bought special licenses but only one salmon was hooked and landed.
The commission also directed its staff to evaluate the risks involved in scheduling a salmon season in the early spring when the fish are more plentiful and energetic. The last spring season was in 1999.
Officials cautioned, however, that salmon fishing at any time of year is contingent on the number of adult fish that return to the Penobscot during spring and summer spawning runs. The numbers thus far this year have been well below normal.
“The restoration program … comes first. It has to,” said Dick Ruhlin, chairman of the commission.
George LaPointe, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Fisheries, joined Ruhlin in voting to approve the annual fall season. The panel’s third member, Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Commissioner Roland “Danny” Martin, was not present Thursday.
Rules governing last year’s season will remain in force. Anglers must use artificial flies with the barbs snipped off or flattened to minimize damage to the fish, and any salmon that is landed must be released immediately without removing the fish from the water.
Officials can close the river to fishing at any time in order to protect the last significant run of Atlantic salmon in U.S. waters. A closure would be signaled by red flags flying in predetermined locations.
“The great thing about the regulatory system being put in place is we have the flexibility about whether to hold a fishery,” said Patrick Keliher, the commission’s executive director. “We could fly red flags for any reason.”
The fate of the fishery could depend on how many adult salmon start showing up at the Veazie fish trap on the Penobscot, where slightly fewer than 500 have been counted so far this spring and summer. That’s nearly 300 fewer than this time last year and significantly below average for recent years.
More alarming, biologists are 170 females short of their goal for supplying brood stock to federal hatcheries.
Joan Trial, the commissions lead biologist, said she is hearing similar reports from biologists elsewhere along the Atlantic coastline.
“Are they late or are they just not coming? I don’t know what to tell you,” Trial told the board. “We’ll know at the end of the year.”