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Restoring Atlantic Salmon and Reviving Tribal Connections in the Penobscot River Watershed

August 24, 2023

NOAA and its partners aim to connect Atlantic salmon to cold water spawning grounds and revive the once-vital human connections to the river.

Atlantic salmon. Atlantic salmon. (Photo: Atlantic Salmon Federation)

For the last 20 years, NOAA Fisheries and its partners have strived to restore endangered Atlantic salmon to Maine’s Penobscot River, a NOAA Habitat Focus Area. The Penobscot River watershed, and several other waterways in Maine, support the last remaining wild Atlantic salmon in the United States. Through the removal of dams and other barriers, access to high-quality habitat in the Penobscot River is improving.

Now, our long-term partners—the Atlantic Salmon Federation and the Penobscot Nation—received more than $10.5 million dollars in funding from NOAA under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act. They are working to:

  • Connect Atlantic salmon and other sea-run fish with the cold, clean streams and lakes off of the mainstem Penobscot River, where juvenile fish can thrive
  • Revive the once vital human connections to the river
Chuck Loring, Jr., with a striped bass on the lower Penobscot.
Chuck Loring, Jr., with a striped bass on the lower Penobscot. (Photo: Joe "Hugga" Dana/Penobscot Nation)

A Loss of Fisheries and Culture

The Penobscot River once brought millions of migratory fish from the Gulf of Maine to distant spawning grounds in the lakes and small streams of the Appalachian Mountains. “The watershed once saw up to 100,000 Atlantic salmon, tens of millions of river herring, and 3 to 5 million American shad,” says Matthew Bernier, a NOAA engineer who reviews project designs for Penobscot restoration efforts.

It was also the lifeline of the Penobscot people who have lived alongside the river for thousands of years. “The river was our highway and our food source,” says Chuck Loring, Jr., Director of Natural Resources for the Penobscot Nation. “Fish was a third of our diet and we also used alewife [a type of river herring] to fertilize our gardens.”

Two hundred years ago, a wave of industrialization permanently altered the Penobscot watershed. More than 100 dams were built and pollution entered the water, causing fish populations to crash. The Penobscot Nation last harvested Atlantic salmon in 1988 for ceremonial purposes.

“We have to be careful about eating other types of fish because of the level of contamination,” says Loring. “Now we eat more processed food and there is a high occurrence of diabetes in the community.” Loss of ancestral traditions has had major psychological effects on the Nation as well. “I think in losing pieces of our culture, we’ve also lost pieces of ourselves,” says Loring.

Dan McCaw, Fisheries Biologist for the Penobscot Nation, collecting salmon eggs from the Craig Brook National Fish Hatchery to stock the Mattamiscontis watershed.
Dan McCaw, Fisheries Biologist for the Penobscot Nation, collecting salmon eggs from the Craig Brook National Fish Hatchery to stock the Mattamiscontis watershed. (Photo: Chuck Loring, Jr./Penobscot Nation)

Restoration Success

In 2009, NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Gulf of Maine distinct population segment of Atlantic salmon as endangered. The 2020 Recovery Plan (PDF, 90 pages) outlines a path to achieve the long-term goal to recover and delist the species. So far, restoration efforts supported by NOAA and led by our partners have resulted in the removal of 17 dams and dozens of other barriers in the Penobscot watershed. This year, the Maine Department of Marine Resources reported a count of 1,520 Atlantic salmon on Penobscot. This is the highest number reported in more than decade!

The work to bring back Atlantic salmon has also allowed the population of river herring to soar, benefiting the health of the entire ecosystem.  “In 20 years, we’ve gone from a population of essentially zero river herring upstream of the old Veazie Dam to more than 6 million migrating through the restored section of river on their migration to lakes and ponds where they spawn,” says John Burrows, Executive Director of U.S. Operations for the Atlantic Salmon Federation.

“River herring are a keystone species for the Gulf of Maine,” Burrows explains. “Virtually everything out there will eat a river herring, from otters and osprey 200 miles up the river to whales and ground fish like cod and haddock in the Gulf of Maine.” Critically, masses of river herring help prevent juvenile salmon from being picked off by predators like bald eagles, striped bass, seals, and other species.

Connecting Salmon to Cold Water Spawning Grounds

New projects funded by NOAA under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act will connect Atlantic salmon, river herring, and nine other sea-run fish species to ideal spawning and rearing grounds deeper in the watershed. “Atlantic salmon evolved as cold-water fish,” says Dan McCaw, Fisheries Biologist for the Penobscot Nation. “They need these small streams with heavily forested canopy to protect them from solar radiation. Once temperatures get above 70˚F, they start to shut down.”

Projects managed by the Atlantic Salmon Federation and the Penobscot Nation will further improve access to 450 miles of stream habitat and more than 13,000 acres of lakes and ponds. These improvements will support spawning Atlantic salmon, river herring, and American shad.  Both groups will also survey and design solutions for future fish passage projects.

Construction of the Baskahegan fishway.
Baskahegan fishway construction (Photo: Atlantic Salmon Federation)

Atlantic Salmon Federation Projects

Much of the Federation’s work is occurring in the watershed of the Piscataquis River, the first major tributary to branch off the Penobscot. “This area is the top priority watershed for salmon restoration because it has the highest quality cold water habitat,” says Bernier. “As we have an increasingly warmer world, places like this will be the refuges where salmon will still exist.”

In partnership with The Nature Conservancy in Maine, the Federation plans to remove the Guilford Dam. It’s also making plans for future fish passage improvements at the downstream Moosehead Manufacturing Dam. The Appalachian Mountain Club, another project partner, is improving fish passage at 26 road-stream crossings through culvert replacements in the Pleasant River Headwaters Forest. This will allow salmon to traverse remote streams on densely forested lands that are permanently conserved.

On the eastern side of Penobscot watershed, the Atlantic Salmon Federation is currently constructing a fishway on Baskahegan Stream. It’s also developing plans to provide fish passage into Eskutassis Pond. This work will benefit alewife, a type of river herring that coevolved with Atlantic salmon. The Baskahegan project will provide access to nearly 9,000 acres of alewife spawning habitat in Baskahegan Lake and the Crooked Brook Flowage. It has the potential to produce more than 2 million alewives swimming to the upper reaches of the watershed.

Sunset over the East Branch of the Penobscot River.
Sunset over the East Branch of the Penobscot River. (Photo: Chuck Loring, Jr./Penobscot Nation)

Penobscot Nation Projects

The Penobscot Nation is also carrying out fish passage projects on the Birch and Mattamiscontis streams to benefit river herring. Opening up the Mattamiscontis Stream will connect river herring to lakes with the potential to support almost 800,000 fish.

NOAA and the Penobscot Nation have partnered together for many years. This new round of funding will allow the tribe to expand its ability to manage current and future projects and to hire a technician. The Penobscot Nation will also bring on a project manager who will reach out to the tribal community to ensure their input is considered throughout the restoration process.

“I think it's very important to develop two-eyed seeing—looking at the world through both the Western scientific lens and the tribal lens,” says McCaw. “The tribal people stewarded these rivers for 12,000 years and had some of the most robust fish runs in the world. They managed forests very conservatively. There’s a huge benefit of bringing in traditional ecological knowledge and weaving it with modern science in a very respectful way.”

The Penobscot Nation is partnering with the Matagamon Lake Association, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Maine Sea Grant, and the University of Maine to study challenges facing Atlantic salmon on the East Branch of the Penobscot and its headwaters at the Grand Lake Matagamon. The most northerly portion of the Penobscot watershed, this area could provide excellent habitat for Atlantic salmon. With funding from NOAA, scientists and engineers are studying solutions to overcome fish passage problems at the Matagamon Lake Dam and flow issues on the heavily modified East Branch. “We're hoping that by year two or three of this project we’ll have the information we need to look for more funding to do some really big restoration projects in the coming 5 to 10 years,” says McCaw.

A Commitment to Future Generations of Fish and People

Much work remains to bring Atlantic salmon back from the edge of extinction. However, NOAA is continuing to support habitat restoration projects that reopen migratory pathways and restore access to healthy habitat for fish. 

“The tribe takes a seven-generation approach to conservation,” says Loring. “That’s our motivation to work hard now. I might not be able to see the results, but my descendants might.”

“Most of my life you walked by the river and saw rocks,” says McCaw. “But now I’ve seen little kids with their hands in the water chasing alewives … thousands and thousands of them. It’s a mind blowing and wonderful thing.”


Partners for Penobscot restoration include:

  • Penobscot Nation
  • American Rivers
  • Atlantic Salmon Federation
  • Maine Audubon
  • Natural Resources Council of Maine
  • The Nature Conservancy
  • Trout Unlimited
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  • State of Maine