Penobscot River spring salmon season off-limits for now

HOLDEN, Maine - Sports fishermen who have been pushing for a spring season on Atlantic salmon in the Penobscot River may have quite a while to wait.

The Penobscot Indian Nation is not likely to support a spring fishing season as long as it might impact the fragile fish population or the nation's aboriginal fishing rights, said John Banks, the nation's executive director of Natural Resources.

Patrick Keliher, the executive director of the state's Atlantic Salmon Commission told Indian Country Today that a spring season is only a distant possibility.

''The talks of a spring fishery are in the very early phases,'' Keliher said.

Concerns about the endangered Atlantic salmon were raised recently because sports fishermen are urging the ASC to open the spring season.

The commission held an experimental month-long fall fishing season in 2006 for the first time in six years to see if a tightly regulated catch-and-release fishery could happen without harming the fish. The season was a success; only one salmon was caught, although about 250 licenses were issued.

But at a public hearing June 13 to discuss another fall fishing season, most of the talk centered on the possibility of a spring opening.

''At the conclusion of the public hearing for a fall fishery, we did hold a scoping session [open microphone] to let the public vent about the ASC's recent unwillingness to open a spring fishery for 2007. There is currently much public pressure for ASC to open the Penobscot to a spring fishery,'' Keliher said.

The Penobscot Indian Nation has not taken an official position yet, Banks said.

''Both personally and as the director of Natural Resources, I would be very concerned about the impact of a spring season because the salmon population is very fragile. There's only about 1,000 fish coming back. We're tying to restore the fisheries of the reservation and I just don't think they should be allowed a spring fishing season at this point,'' Banks said.

The Atlantic salmon is an anadromous fish. It spawns in the fresh water of the Penobscot River (and other North Atlantic rivers), transforms into a sea-going creature that swims to the coast of West Greenland and then returns after a year or two to its birthplace to spawn.

As part of the state's restoration efforts, 600 fish are removed annually from the river and held at Craig Brook National Fish Hatchery where they are spawned in the fall, Keliher said.

The Atlantic salmon is central to the traditions and culture of the Penobscots, a riverine tribe that has lived in the 8,570-square-mile Penobscot River watershed for 10,000 years.

Historically, Atlantic salmon runs were estimated at between 40,000 and 60,000 fish. The tribe hopes restoration will see the return of 20,000 to 40,000 fish, Banks said.

Recognizing how fragile the current population is, tribal members have refrained from fishing for several years.

''There are a few people who get spearing permits and we did net a few fish back in the 1980s, but that was mostly for ceremonial purposes rather than subsistence; although we did consume one of them at a tribal function,'' Banks said.

When viewed from a tribal perspective, it would be hard to justify or support a recreational fishery, although, Banks said, it's important to maintain the angler's support, because they too endorse conservation and river restoration efforts.

''But protecting the fishery has to be the priority rather than protecting the anglers' ability to fish,'' Banks said.

Banks expressed concern that ''the state is not properly consulting with us on a government to government basis. I guess they just expect us to go to the public hearing and express our concerns, but they should be consulting with us on a more formal basis, because spring fishing could definitely have an impact on our tribal members' ability to exercise our fishing rights.''

But Keliher said no changes would occur before a focused risk assessment study was conducted and no decision would be made without consultation.

''The ACS would not move forward with a proposed spring fishery without first discussing plans with John Banks and then the Maine Indian Tribal State Commission,'' Keliher said.

The tribe, ASC and conservation groups are involved in an agreement to purchase and dismantle two hydroelectric dams below the nation's Indian Island land. This project is expected to improve the Atlantic salmon's access to 1,000 miles of spawning habitat.