Widespread protestations have been heard from Maine about the federal designation of Atlantic salmon as an endangered species and the inclusion of the Androscoggin, Penobscot and Kennebec river watersheds as areas where it is now protected.

While there is broad support for restoring Atlantic salmon to sustainable levels, there is an equally broad consensus that a strict, unyielding federal mandate is the wrong vehicle to do so.

We agree. While federal attention on the Atlantic salmon and the Androscoggin is pleasant and overdue, yanking the control of replenishing this symbolic species away from Maine-based groups was unwarranted. Washington should be ready to assist in-state efforts, not overtake them, especially by levying what’s essentially an unfunded mandate upon a vast territory.

It’s little coincidence that Maine’s top elected officials, in issuing statements critical of the designation, said if the federal governments wishes to pursue this course, it should also appropriate the requisite funding and regulatory authority to assure compliance. Either pay or please get out of the way. This is ultimately sensible; the studies, science and infrastructure needed to restore salmon won’t pay for themselves. 

There is also the question of success. While sustainability is the oft-stated goal, the term itself is vague. A truly sustainable Atlantic salmon population hasn’t been seen in Maine rivers for perhaps 200 years. What is the 21st-century equivalent? 

Otherwise, mashing the throttle on Atlantic salmon restoration is only a feel-good story, which may — by uniting river advocates, government and industry — against a common foe force tentative partnerships to solidify. Yet this scenario could, as well, threaten efforts by alienating stakeholders and removing local considerations from the overall management of these watersheds.

This is important for the Androscoggin, which has a unique position as both a burgeoning recreational and proven industrial resource. The communities of its watershed need a preservation of that equanimity and collaboration — tilting too much toward either favor may cause more harm than good.

This is where the federal designation’s 50,000-foot view of the salmon restoration timeline is unhelpful, especially considering the designation was not just prompted by science alone, but by litigation. This is a shallow precedent. We must do what works, not what settles a lawsuit.

And by all accounts, what’s been occurring in Maine is working. Though fish numbers are small — some 2,300 wild salmon returned to spawn in Maine rivers in 2008 – they are growing. Even the mere 20-30 salmon that appeared at the fish ladder on the Androscoggin in Brunswick last year were hailed as a victory, albeit a tiny one. These numbers must grow, but not at the expense of current restoration efforts or future needs for Maine’s rivers.

Maine is on the precipice of a second industrial river revolution, with its copious potential for hydropower. These three rivers will likely never be the pristine wilderness watersheds of yore; but they will certainly be used smarter, with less harm to the overall ecosystem, for the most benefit going forward. We’re not going back to the old days of pollution, or the older days when the rivers were swollen with salmon.

Groups that have been working for Maine’s rivers understand this scenario well. It’s uncertain that Washington does.

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