June 4, 2020

How luck might run out for West Grand Lake’s superior landlocked salmon

By Randy Spencer and published in the Bangor Daily News:

Moose. Lobster. Blueberries. Potatoes. They’re all emblematic of Maine and our way of life.

Promotions of Maine often show another icon, too, usually airborne, a colorful fly dangling from its mandible — our landlocked salmon.

There were only four original sites where landlocked salmon were native in Maine — Sebago Lake, Sebec Lake, the Union River system, and West Grand Lake. The West Grand Lake strain has been deemed so pure that for decades, brood stock from these bloodlines has supplied 75 percent of the salmon stocked in Maine lakes. The economic ripple effect for Maine has been the gift that keeps on giving.

Scientists from Cornell and UNH have come here to study the spawning sites of West Grand Lake salmon to try, unsuccessfully so far, to replicate them in their home states. Whatever delicate balance exists, it continues to produce a valued Maine natural resource — the result not just of good luck, but of smart science.

Now, that luck might be about to run out, and at least four biologists have come out of retirement to work as volunteers to try to head off a fisheries disaster.

A startling recommendation made by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would open the fishway at the outlet of 14,360-acre West Grand Lake and let in three invasive species: sea run and landlocked alewives (technically the same species), as well as largemouth bass established in lakes downstream.

If a private citizen were to do what FERC is recommending, it would result in steep fines and possibly jail time. Maine laws guard against the introduction of invasive species into Maine lakes with good reason. From baitfish to aquatic plants to exotic species, the record shows dire consequences can and do happen from such introductions.

The re-licensing of the West Grand Lake dam with FERC is due to be completed by this summer. “Normally, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW) provides important comments in a timely manner on FERC licensing. After a deadline extension, MDIFW prepared those comments and sent them to the Governor’s office in December for approval, but for some reason FERC never received any comments from Maine on this highly important matter,” says Rick Jordan, retired senior fisheries biologist for Region C with 31 years experience.

He and two other former Region C senior fisheries biologists, Ron Brokaw and Denny McNeish, have mobilized, along with former Director of Fisheries Peter Bourque to try to prevent the impending crisis.

Lacking input from Maine’s biologists, FERC is recommending that the West Grand fishway “be operated 365 days a year to pass any and all fish upstream and into the lake,” according to Jordan. Up to now, the gates were operated by MDIFW in a manner that permitted salmon, but not other unwanted species, to return to the lake. This method protects the lake from invasive species while preserving its genetically superior population of salmon. This, in turn, preserves the salmon stocking program for the rest of the state.

FERC did consider input from both U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the National Marine Fisheries Service. In a glitch that has left Jordan, Brokaw, McNeish and Bourque thunderstruck, submissions from the Maine scientists who have managed the fishery fell through the cracks of a bureaucratic labyrinth that has seemingly let in only the pro points of view with regard to the exotic species invasion.

Maine scientists fear that such an abrupt biological blitz will set in motion the devolution of landlocked salmon in Maine. “All alewives carry an enzyme that causes early mortality syndrome in landlocked salmon,” says Jordan. “These syndromes can lead to poorer vision, less prey capture, poor growth, reproductive failure, and a less immune fish, sometimes resulting in death of adults or juveniles.”

Jordan says alewives are capable of out-competing smelts for zooplankton, while larger alewives feed on smelts themselves, the preferred forage of landlocked salmon.

If the source of 75 percent of Maine’s stocked salmon is jeopardized by the lack of egg availability expected from this move, there may be a point on the horizon when landlocked salmon in Maine, like Atlantic salmon before them, would need to be listed as endangered. Fishery crashes of that magnitude have happened, but this team of biologists question the wisdom of bringing one about deliberately.

As for the glitch on why they haven’t been heard, they aren’t spending time assessing guilt or assigning blame. Instead, they’re working to sound a clarion call to all who care about Maine’s landlocked salmon. “If we lose this battle, the results in West Grand Lake will be irreversible,” Jordan added.

Jordan and his colleagues are asking concerned citizens to contact IFW Commissioner Chandler Woodcock, Gov. Paul LePage, Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, and U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Bruce Poliquin. On a final note, he said, “The West Grand Dam should not be relicensed in the absence of vital comments and actions recommended by the State of Maine.”

Randy Spencer is a working Master Maine guide, columnist, and the award-winning author of two books on the Grand Lake Stream region. Visit www.randyspencer.com.

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