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We are the Penobscot RiverRestoring a namesake river, Atlantic salmon, and the circle of life
by Laury Zicari
Photo Credit: USFWS
"This river is the backbone of who we are as a Nation," said Jerry Pardilla, former Penobscot Indian National Tribal Governor. "Our name is derived from the description of the land in this region. We are the people of that place."
From the Penobscot Indian Nation's birch bark canoes to the angling tradition of the three salmon clubs along the river, the Penobscot River has long been a cultural focus for central Maine.
The river once flowed freely for more than 100 miles (160 kilometers), from the North Woods to the sea. However, over the last two centuries, more than 100 dams were built, crippling the river's course, obstructing migratory paths of the federally endangered Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) and other sea-run fish, and diminishing water quality and food for wildlife upstream.
Scientists are keenly aware that rivers are inextricably linked to the health of their watersheds, and strengthened by many interdependent relationships. Sea lamprey reshuffle stream beds and enhance Atlantic salmon spawning habitat, while the ocean-derived nutrients from sea-run fish like shad and eels help sustain salmon fry and parr, and vast numbers of alewife provide cover for young salmon migrating downstream that may be preyed on by eagles or osprey.
The health of the Penobscot – and the species living in and along its waters – depends on the work of federal and state agencies, tribes, organizations, and private citizens. Many organizations in Maine have made significant contributions to the conservation of the river. Through the Penobscot River Restoration Project, the Penobscot Indian Nation, Maine Department of Transportation, Maine Forest Service, Main Audubon, Trout Unlimited, and others are focused on dam and barrier removal to restore fish passage on the main-stem river and re-open 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) of habitat. In addition, a plan developed by Maine DMR and Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife is guiding equally important efforts to restore high-quality habitat beyond the main stem to benefit the Atlantic salmon and other fishes.
Photo Credit: USFWS
"The Penobscot project will restore important fish species that historically occurred in this river," said Gordon Russell, former field supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Maine Field Office in Orono. "It's more than just salmon—eleven migratory species altogether. Also, the project will provide food – river herring, alewives, blueback herring, and American eels – for striped bass, bald eagles, and other predators."
The partnering organizations, with support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are identifying problems, such as barriers to migration, and working to remove or lessen the impact of those barriers.
"We simply cannot have salmon without healthy rivers," writes author Jim Lichatowich of Salmon Without Rivers. "But it's not just the salmon that need healthy rivers. We do too."
Lichatowich's point echoes Pardilla's: All things – the people, the water, the wildlife – are connected. Efforts to restore this namesake to the way it was in a former time will help secure the natural and cultural heritage of a place, the Atlantic salmon, and the life of the river.
Laury Zicari, Field Superivor in the Service's Maine Ecological Services Field Office, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 207-866-3344, ext. 111.
Editor's note: Learn more about the Penobscot River Restoration Project.
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