The federal government ruled Monday that the nation’s last wild Atlantic salmon can coexist with hydroelectric dams on the Maine River, dealing a blow to environmentalists who have long pushed to remove the dams.
Salmon, once abundant in the US, are now making a comeback in just a few Maine rivers. One is the Kennebec River dammed by Brookfield Renewable Energy Partners. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Monday that the dams are unlikely to threaten the continued existence of salmon if conservation measures are taken.
Conservation measures along Brookfield’s four Kennebec dams are designed to improve fish passages and will require an investment of more than $100 million from Brookfield, NOAA said. The dam improvements will allow salmon to swim up the Kennebec from the Atlantic to freshwater inland habitats for the first time since the dams were built in the 19th century, the agency said.
The agency reviewed the dams because Brookfield wants to relicense one of them and change licenses for three others, NOAA spokeswoman Alison Ferreira said. NOAA said in a statement that it will “oversee an extensive monitoring program to ensure that the dams meet expectations for improved fish passage in the Kennebec River.”
NOAA’s opinion “is an important milestone in ensuring that these facilities can continue to support Maine’s clean energy future and traditional industries along the lower Kennebec River,” said David Heidrich, a Brookfield spokesman.
Environmental groups, however, said the dams threaten salmon extinction and NOAA’s decision is short-sighted. They also said the dams threaten other vulnerable fish species, such as sturgeon.
Dams’ negative impact on salmon is a violation of the Endangered Species Act, the Kennebec Coalition, an alliance of several environmental groups supporting dam removal, said in a statement. They argue that in addition to blocking access to key spawning habitats, dams also create dangerous conditions for this fish.
“Removing these dams provides the best chance to prevent the extinction of Atlantic salmon while continuing to restore a vibrant, healthy Kennebec River,” the statement said.
According to NOAA, Atlantic salmon populations in the U.S. have fallen into the hundreds due to factors such as overfishing and habitat loss. They have been listed under the Endangered Species Act for more than two decades.
Conservationists and Native American tribes have argued for years that Brookfield failed in its duty to protect the remaining salmon.