The Maine Woods

A Publication of the Forest Ecology Network

 Volume Four     Number One                           Late Winter 2000

 Atlantic Salmon, extinction by politics?

by David Carle

"It will be the determination of society whether these efforts result in trying to conserve these stocks or simply document their extinction."
John Kocik, NMFS Research Fishery Biologist

Atlantic Salmon have joined the Alabama Sturgeon and the Bull Trout as one of the most imperiled freshwater fish species in the United States. Where once more than 500,000 salmon returned to the rivers of New England, this year less than 1,500 returns were observed. Despite a population that is less than 0.3% of historic numbers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS, collectively "the Services") continue to avoid giving the species ESA protection.

Salmon fishing on a river in New Brunswick.


State Conservation Plan - A 400 page Novel

On October 1, 1993, several parties petitioned the Services to list anadromous Atlantic Salmon throughout their historic range as endangered under the ESA. After reviewing the petition, the Services concluded wild Atlantic Salmon populations in seven Maine rivers
were threatened with possible extinction. As a result, in September 1995, the Services proposed to list the populations of Atlantic Salmon in the Sheepscot, Ducktrap, Narraguagus, Pleasant, Machias, East Machias, and Dennys rivers as "threatened" under the ESA. The proposed rule was opened to comment and the Services invited the State of Maine to submit a conservation plan under a special rule to supplement federal protective regulations under the Act. The State of Maine submitted a "Conservation Plan" for just those seven rivers to the Services in March 1997, proposing that if the plan was adopted, a listing was not necessary.

The 400+ page "Atlantic Salmon Conservation Plan for Seven Maine Rivers" (State Plan) was the product of an industry-dominated, governor-appointed task force. The record shows that the goal of the State Plan is to derail protecting Atlantic Salmon under the ESA,
claiming that the primary problem facing Atlantic Salmon is "low marine survival" and "forces beyond the control of the State of Maine." The Plan outlines a "voluntary" program for industry and State agencies that may or may not be implemented in the future. The Services promptly accepted the State Plan and withdrew the proposal to list the species as threatened under the ESA.

A case of schizophrenia

1998 saw the creation of a conservation coalition that includes Defenders of Wildlife, Conservation Action Project, Forest Ecology Network, Biodiversity Legal Foundation, and others. On January 27, 1999 the coalition, represented by Howard Crystal of Meyer & Glitzenstein, filed a lawsuit challenging the Services' decision not to protect the critically imperiled Atlantic Salmon. In an apparent response to the lawsuit, on November 17, 1999 the Services published a notice in the Federal Register proposing Atlantic Salmon populations in eight Maine rivers be listed as "endangered." At the same time, the Services filed a brief claiming that the salmon were not threatened with possible extinction, at least not in 1997, when they accepted the State Plan in lieu of listing. Two years later the services proposed the species as "endangered?" Go figure.

The cause of the decline of Atlantic Salmon remains hidden, yet some answers are emerging. A study on the Narraguagus River in Maine has uncovered a 70 to 90 percent over-wintering mortality of young salmon. This compares with an expected 40-50 percent
over-wintering mortality rate. The salmon are not surviving in the river to make it out to the marine environment. Another study has linked chemicals found in various pesticides to genetic mutations in salmon. A number of the rivers that support salmon flow through
industrial blueberry operations and timber industry land where there is extensive use of these chemicals. While activists have raised all of these issues, the scientific community is beginning to confirm the concerns.

Politics versus the Law

As a result of the "discovery" aspect of the lawsuit, we have learned that the failure of the Services to list Atlantic Salmon is laced with political blackmail. Back in February, 1995 then Senator William Cohen (R, ME, now Secretary Of Defense) wrote to Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and Secretary of Commerce the late Ron Brown, about his concerns with protecting Atlantic Salmon under the ESA. Cohen concluded his letter by stating, "The disposition of this petition will greatly affect my views regarding changes to the Endangered Species Act that might be warranted."

According to one document in the administrative record from a NMFS official: "Babbitt took this [Cohen's letter] very seriously and has requested that the Federal Register notice be redrafted to state that the petitioned action is not warranted. . . The Regional office [NMFS] is in a very awkward position, we are being asked by FWS's RO [Regional Office] to edit a FR [Federal Register] notice that we don't agree with . . ."

In another memo from a NMFS fishery biologist: ". . . the Region's petition findings may be dramatically altered from a proposed rule to a petition denial. . . It is my opinion that the
proposed changes compromise the intent of the Act and the integrity of the science. . . It was the consensus of the BRT [Biological Review Team], after months of work, that several Atlantic Salmon stocks are in immediate danger of extinction."

Internet theater

On December 2, 1999, Governor Angus King ventured onto the internet to give a speech about the recent proposal to list Atlantic Salmon as endangered. According to the governor, "most of the problems affecting Maine salmon lie outside our [Maine] borders," and giving
ESA protection to Atlantic Salmon "amounts to a partial takeover by the federal government of Washington, Penobscot and the other counties involved." For whatever reason, the governor apparently ignored the finding of studies conducted by State of Maine biologists
done on the Narraguagus River that found that 70-90 percent of all young salmon are not surviving overwintering. The salmon are not making it to the ocean! Contrary to the governor's wisdom, the problem appears to be within the borders of Maine.

The Governor erroneously claimed that "most of the life cycle of the salmon takes place - and is subject to risks - far from our shores." The average life of an Atlantic Salmon is five years, three in the rivers, two in the ocean. But hey, why should facts get in the way of theater?

The Governor also stated that he has "begun discussions with the Attorney General to see that our legal options are fully pursued and fully protected." While the State of Maine is an intervenor in the present litigation to get the species protected, three of the governor's
so-called allies - the Maine Pulp and Paper Association, Maine Forest Products Council, and Maine Aquaculture Association - all dropped their request to intervene. The Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine is the only business intervenor still left in the case.

Extinction v. the next election

While many proposals to list species under the ESA appear to have been influenced by "politics," there is clear evidence that Secretary Babbitt allowed factors other than science to influence a decision that could lead to the possible extinction of wild Atlantic Salmon. While this is a violation of the law, it also has serious ethical questions. Secretary Babbitt should be held to answer for his actions or he should resign.

And the governor of Maine appears to be attempting to create controversy by ignoring the facts or the truth. After almost six years in office, Mr. King has little to show for a legacy. At his present rate, his legacy will be the extirpation of wild Atlantic Salmon from Maine.

Giving a species protection under the ESA is an action of last resort. The ESA is a safety net; all other actions have failed to stop the slide to extinction. Putting politics ahead of the extinction of a species puts our own future into jeopardy.

David Carle is the executive director of the Conservation Action Project, 15 Tanguay Ave., Box #2, Nashua, NH 03036  phone: (603) 882-6520

Other Articles About Atlantic Salmon in This Issue
Quisling Rivalry
Atlantic Salmon Hearings 
Testimony at Salmon Hearings
Will We Ever Learn: Report of the Commission to study the Atlantic Salmon (1947)
A Fish Tale of Two States

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