The degree of the project’s success — the river’s surprising return — has bolstered hope that future efforts like it will only continue to improve the outlook for Atlantic salmon and other fish species. Though the Trust has since dissolved, work continues to remove dams further upstream along the Penobscot’s many tributaries, which would open up more cold-water spawning habitat to all the sea-run fish. But as the nearly 15-year effort of the Trust demonstrates, dam removals are arduous, persisting battles. A win is not to be taken for granted.
In contrast to the river herring, the salmon population’s recovery has been more modest, with around 1,500 returning to the Penobscot this year — the most since 2011 but still just a slight 10-year increase. “It’s a really hostile environment for Atlantic salmon in the North Atlantic right now,” says Rory Saunders, NOAA Fisheries’ Downeast coastal salmon recovery coordinator, referring to the challenges posed by climate change. “The Penobscot run in particular is almost entirely dependent on the hatchery at this point.”
At the hatchery this fall, 250 mature females prepared to spawn, their dappled bodies taut with eggs. The fish had migrated to the likes of Newfoundland and back, and now they swam lazily in their tank, a sign of late pregnancy. I stood in the tank observing the Fish and Wildlife techs as they scooped each female gently up in a net — taking hold of her tail and lifting her delicately, always supporting her head — for the inspection of a biologist.
The fish weren’t quite ready to spawn, but they were getting there, and learning this distinction took years of experience, of plucking expectant females from tanks and pinching their bellies, of discerning the difference between the feeling of a ziplock baggy full with water and one that’s bursting. These fish would need another week. Then the techs would do it all again—scoop, pluck, pinch.
Once the females spawned, the eggs would be fertilized and incubated, and eventually some would be placed in man-made salmon redds, tiny depressions made in the sand normally by the wiggle and swoop a female’s body, through a hole drilled in ice. This is the ritual—tender and technical—of saving the last wild Atlantic salmon on the planet.
“The Penobscot project is a tremendous first step, but it’s not a silver bullet. We need to continue to think about upstream habitat,” acknowledges Saunders. There are hopes to remove more dams along the Piscataquis River, a tributary to the Penobscot, which would allow for access to more good, cold water for the salmon, but this could take years.
Still, there is much to celebrate. “We went from 2,000 animals to five million animals in the span of 12 years. That’s as good-news-story as you see in ecology, as you see in natural resources,” says Saunders. The return of the salmon holds significance to the Penobscot Nation as well. “It’s not just the fish,” explains Kusnierz. “It’s restoring a huge part of the culture of the tribe. Those are their relatives that have long been gone and are here again. That’s what the vision of the tribe was in those negotiations. [It] was kind of the opposite of ‘build it, and they will come.’ It was ‘take it down and they’ll return.’”
In the tradition of the Penobscot Nation, Phillips has collaborated on the construction of two different birch bark canoes and in one instance, took the boat up the Penobscot toward Mount Katahdin, toward the headwaters. Phillips, along with other community members including one of his sons, was retracing the path of generations before him — up the river and toward the mountain, which never seemed to disappear from view despite the constant bend and curve in the water’s trajectory.
At one point, after a particularly tough paddle through an ancient waterway on the west side of the river, Phillips turned to his son. “I told him, Let’s stop, and we laid on the ground,” he recalls. The moment was one of providence: “We’re walking in the same footsteps as our ancestors have for thousands of years.” This was in 2002, prior to the removal of the dams, and the group had to maneuver the canoe around them on their journey. The restoration project was in its nascent stages then, and the hope to someday see the river healthy and unrestricted still seemed like a moon shot, even to Phillips.
“I’m just so happy that I lived long enough to see at least a portion of our river free-flowing, so that the sea-run fish can ascend the river and go to their ancestral spawning ground as they did before the dams went up,” says Phillips. “As my ancestors witnessed.”