Blog entries / Endangered Species / Fisheries / Habitat restoration

Freeing Maine’s Penobscot River

Alewife

Success! Josh Royte of The Nature Conservancy holds up a juvenile alewife at a project improving fish access. Credit: USFWS

The Penobscot River, New England’s second largest river system, once flowed freely for more than 100 miles from Maine’s North Woods to the sea. Over two centuries, more than 100 dams were built that crippled its course, obstructing migratory paths of sea-run fish like the endangered Atlantic salmon, shad, eels and alewives and diminishing the water’s health and food for wildlife upstream.

The river has long been a cultural focus for central Maine, from the Penobscot Indian Nation’s birch bark canoes to the angling tradition of the three salmon clubs along the river.

Those groups, as well as a broad suite of government agencies, organizations and individuals, have come together to return the river to a more natural state, one that can help recover the imperiled Atlantic salmon and other wildlife.

The centerpiece project removes two big dams and bypasses a third, while increasing energy and improving fish passage at six dams that will remain in operation. The work will significantly improve access to 1,000 miles of river habitat, and with equally important fish passage projects on tributaries throughout the watershed, there’s a lot happening. Here’s a snapshot of our work:

  • A fishway installed last year on Pushaw Lake will provide access for alewives, a type of herring, to 5,104 acres of spawning habitat. Why care about alewives? Not only do they provide for commercial harvest, but they are used by freshwater mussels, attract sport fish and feed birds.
  • A historic logging dam was preserved while adding a rock and pool fishway to move American eels and alewives. This is even a plus to Atlantic salmon, whose young are sheltered within vast numbers of migrating alewives.
Check out other stories of endangered plant and animal conservation in the Northeast – We’re sharing them throughout the year!
  • Partners removed a remnant log drive dam on Mattamiscontis Lake, and a series of rock weir step pools  will allow alewives to migrate and rest while maintaining the current lake level.
  • Four road crossings were improved for salmon and Eastern brook trout in the East Branch Penobscot River watershed. Pat Sirois of Maine’s Sustainable Forestry Initiative noted that “these simple, low-cost bridge designs using local businesses and local materials have resulted in significant increases in flood resilience, stream flow for aquatic organism passage and ecosystem restoration.”
  • Don’t stop, read more!

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