Conserving Atlantic Salmon

Dec. 31, 2018
Salmon swimming in a Downeast Maine river Lauren Owens Lambert

Learn about the imperiled salmon at the heart of NEFF’s Downeast Woods and Wildlife Project

Writing by Will Brune, photography by Lauren Owens Lambert

As the summer 2018 issue of Into the Woods reported, New England Forestry Foundation is currently working to protect more than 3,200 acres of Downeast Maine forestland that provide critical cold-water habitat to Atlantic Salmon along the Dennys River. Learn more about the species’ conservation history in Maine and its dependence on healthy forests in this piece from Will Brune, a serious and sustainable fishing aficionado as well as NEFF’s Director of Land Protection.

Conservation History

As described in Ed Baum’s book, Atlantic Salmon: A National Treasure, the first rod and reel catch of an Atlantic Salmon was on the Dennys River in 1832. For the next 160 years, Downeast Maine’s picturesque rivers—such as the Narraguagus, Pleasant, Machias, East Machias and Dennys—provided easy access for fisherman eager to catch salmon of 10 pounds or more.

The salmon in these small coastal rivers only numbered 300-1,500 adults per season, but they were an important part of the local social fabric and certainly were an indicator of a healthy forested watershed. The good times and tight lines continued until the early 1990s, when the runs collapsed due to declining marine survival—the number of salmon that survive their time at sea to return inland and spawn—and other inland issues that degraded crucial river, stream and forest habitat. Today, the region’s few returning salmon are close to extinction.

One hundred years of experience and many mistakes have proven that restoring Atlantic Salmon will not be as simple as restoring Bald Eagles. A single Maine Atlantic Salmon utilizes habitat that stretches from far inland Maine to the coast of Greenland in a period of just four years (see below for more information about salmon life cycles). Of Maine’s 12 species of migratory fish, only the American Eel can claim to have as long a journey—and they’re not doing so well either.

Maine’s salmon are still hanging on, however. The largely forested landscape of Downeast Maine still supports dozens of coolwater tributaries to rivers like the Dennys, Machias and Narraguagus, where salmon spawning redds—or nests—are still counted in the fall by fisheries technicians. Organizations like the Downeast Salmon Federation are working to bring salmon numbers up, and NEFF is joining in by helping to protect and restore forest habitat along the Dennys River.

Over time, experts have come to realize that where there are healthy salmon populations, there are healthy forests. Certainly, work to protect the forested salmon watersheds is paying dividends for smelt, shad, and river herring, and with an improvement in marine survival for salmon and continued restoration of inland habitat, conservationists are hopeful their abundance will return to Downeast Maine as well.

Healthy forests provide filtered, clean, cool water to rivers as well as nutrients in the form of leaves and wood of various sizes. In return, the resident and sea-run fish that come in droves in the spring bring fresh nutrients far inland for the benefit of all wildlife along river corridors. 

In short, healthy forests and intact watersheds are key to protecting salmon and the health of the Downeast watersheds. Only a continued, proactive approach to forest and salmon protection can halt the decline of salmon and all the benefits this species provides.

Life Cycle of Downeast Salmon

Wild adult Atlantic Salmon begin entering freshwater in the spring, with their numbers usually peaking in June, though in some of the smaller Downeast rivers, the salmon wait for the fall rains before migrating upstream to spawn in early November. They prefer small cobble substrate usually found in the cooler waters high up in the watersheds. The eggs hatch the following April as fry and then grow to the parr and smolt stage over the next several years before they head out to the Gulf of Maine and eventually to Greenland before returning to their natal river to complete their life cycle.

Endangered Species Listing

In 2000, NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Gulf of Maine distinct population segment of Atlantic Salmon as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The two agencies are jointly responsible for the recovery of this population of Atlantic Salmon. The Maine Department of Marine Resources also manages the species.