FEN moves forward with other groups on Salmon Suit.

Atlantic Salmon Federation and Trout Unlimited File Second Suit To Protect United States' Last Wild Atlantic Salmon

Suit Asks US For Immediate Listing Under Endangered Species Act

One coalition of environmental organizations and individuals, including Forest Ecology Network, Defenders of Wildlife, Conservation Action Project, and Coastal Waters Project, has already filed suit to force the federal government to immediately protect Maine's wild Atlantic Salmon under the Endangered Species Act. In mid-August, two more organizations, the Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF) and Trout Unlimited (TU), two of North America's leading salmon conservation groups, filed a second lawsuit in Washington, D.C. to list the Atlantic Salmon under the Endangered Species Act.

For both ASF and TU, the lawsuit represents a last resort attempt to save the United States' remaining wild Atlantic salmon runs from extinction. "This crisis has reached emergency levels," said Charles Gauvin, President and CEO of Trout Unlimited. "Last year, approximately 100 wild salmon returned to the seven rivers that are currently the focus of Maine's restoration effort."

Atlantic Salmon move up a river in eastern Canada.

"The price of further delay is extinction, " said Bill Taylor, President of ASF. "Despite increased conservation efforts by the State of Maine, the number of wild salmon returning to their home rivers has dropped another 80% this decade. If this trend is not stopped, these runs will soon be gone forever."

Responding to sharp declines in Maine's remaining wild salmon populations, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service declared Atlantic Salmon a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act more than eight years ago. In lieu of a protection under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service accepted the State of Maine's Conservation Plan in 1997. For the past several years, both ASF and TU, along with their respective Maine Councils, have worked to implement and improve the Plan. ASF and TU members have fought for protective water withdrawal regulations, helped to build citizen watershed councils, and introduced legislation to strengthen the Maine Atlantic Salmon Authority. Despite its good aspects, the Maine Plan contains fundamental flaws that will only be remedied by adding the weight and resources that the Endangered Species Act would bring to bear. "The Plan remains a good blueprint for the recovery of Atlantic salmon," said ASF President Bill Taylor. "However, state funding has been woefully inadequate and implementation has been slow."

The failure to install weirs in the rivers as called for in the Plan. These weirs are needed to gather scientific information and will also be used to keep aquaculture escapees out of the rivers. To date the federal government has led the efforts and provided funding for the weirs. The failure by the Plan to require the aquaculture industry to report escapees, to site pens away from wild salmon rivers or to force the industry to stop using non-native, strains of Atlantic salmon. The failure of the Plan to protect all of Maine's remaining wild Atlantic salmon populations, including two tributaries to the Kennebec River and several tributaries in the lower Penobscot River thought to contain some of the most unique wild salmon populations in North America. The strictly voluntary nature of the Plan and its failure to assume responsibility or place responsibility on other parties to ensure Atlantic salmon and their habitat are protected.

Historically, an estimated 500,000 wild Atlantic salmon spawned in New England rivers each year. In 1998, an estimated 60-120 wild salmon returned to spawn in the seven Maine rivers that are the focus of the Maine Conservation Plan. That represents a decline of 99.9 percent. The increased rate of decline in the 1990s has been unexpected and alarming. Sean McCormick, a local angler and individual plaintiff in the suit, has witnessed the decline up close. "In the 1980's, you could see dozens of fish in one pool on the Sheepscot River; today you'd be thrilled to see one," said Mr. McCormick.

To Native American and colonial settlers, the importance of Atlantic salmon as a food source rivaled that of the cod in coastal communities from Connecticut to Maine. Over the past 200 years, dams, industrial pollution and overfishing combined to eliminate salmon from most New England Rivers, leaving just a few remnant populations in Maine. In the last two decades, a new and complex set of problems have brought these last wild runs to the very brink of extinction.

A salmon farm in Passamaquoddy Bay off Lubec, one of the many threats facing wild Atlantic Salmon.

By any reasonable interpretation of the law, Atlantic salmon should be listed under the Endangered Species Act. Indeed, on August 10, a biologist for Maine's Atlantic Salmon Commission declared publicly that "we have a number of populations that are getting pretty damn close to extinction." Yet the state of Maine remains vehemently opposed to a listing and clings to the position that there are no wild salmon remaining in its rivers. "With that fallacy tainting its restoration effort, it's not surprising that the state regards the Plan as a gratuity rather than a legal obligation," said Gauvin. The state's approach to salmon conservation is particularly troubling given the cooperative participation and funding that the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service have demonstrated. In recent years, the federal government has outspent the State of Maine by a ratio of 4:1 to protect Maine's remaining wild salmon runs. Protection under the Endangered Species Act would serve to complement and strengthen ongoing efforts conducted under Maine's Conservation Plan -- not replace it.

The economic catastrophe predicted by industry and politicians if Atlantic Salmon are protected under the Endangered Species Act has never been supported by factual evidence. Since 1973, Maine people and businesses have lived harmoniously alongside endangered species, including the Bald Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Piping Plover and Shortnose Sturgeon. As Bill Townsend, a well known Maine lawyer, conservationist and individual plaintiff in the case stated, "ESA listed sturgeon and eagles haven't shut down Bath Iron Works or the paper mills on the Kennebec. Why should ESA listed salmon shut down Washington County?" There is no reason to expect economic hardship from providing Maine's remaining wild Atlantic Salmon with the type of protection now afforded to Maine's other protected wildlife species.

The state of Maine must implement its salmon plan more aggressively and work with the federal government if Atlantic Salmon are to be saved from extinction. In the Pacific Northwest, the listing of several depleted salmon stocks has resulted in a proposal for $100 million in federal funding going to the four states involved in the restoration effort. Those states are taking meaningful steps towards recovery instead of erecting roadblocks to recovery.

283 Water Street, 3rd floor, P.O. Box 2118, Augusta, Maine 04338
Phone: 207-623-7140
email: fen@powerlink.net

Contact webmaster at meenviro@nemaine.com with problems or suggestions regarding these pages.