‘Dammed’ if you don’t: How human infrastructure puts salmon population in a pinch

Atlantic Salmon Federation opening river arteries to restore fish populations on the East Coast

Talk of the Industrial Revolution generally means textiles, steam engines and steel.

For the Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF), it instead points to centuries of infrastructure causing harm to migratory fish species—harm that’s yet to be undone.

“While it did many things for our human species, the number of dams that settlers built in the 1700s and 1800s had a major impact on aquatic species that depend on open waterways,” says Andrew Goode, Vice President of U.S. Operations at Atlantic Salmon Federation.

“Of all the 12 species of migratory fish that are native to this area, only 1% of their historical abundance remains today.”

Though the organization is a single-species-driven organization dedicated to the Atlantic salmon, the ASF’s work in the Gulf of Maine and Canadian Maritimes benefits all species of migratory fish.

Atlantic salmon are unique in that they travel the furthest of all in their marine lifecycle, all the way up to Greenland. That’s a long way to return, only to find you can’t reach a critical spawn destination.

“Atlantic salmon just don’t produce in big numbers like their Pacific counterparts do,” says Goode. “They’re a tough fish to manage and very vulnerable.”

The current project of focus for the ASF is a partnership with the Nature Conservancy and the Midcoast Conservancy centering on the Head Tide Dam on the Sheepscot River, in the state of Maine. Removing part of the dam and opening historic waterways for fish to access is essential to the survival of the Atlantic salmon—without it the population would continue to dwindle.

This year, Enbridge gave $30,000 to the Atlantic Salmon Federation in support of the Head Tide Dam project on the Sheepscot River. The donation will assist in community engagement and project costs as part of our commitment to the communities near our operations and projects.

The organization is close to raising funds for its total price tag in the range of $600,000.

As far as human factors, infrastructure such as dams that has been woven so deeply into the fabric of a community can be a tough sell when it comes to removal.

Goode says this has been a time-consuming but far too important step to get wrong in the ASF’s process to make these essential changes to the watershed.

“People’s viewpoints are legitimate, and we have to take great care to ensure we properly engage and develop relationships with the communities on these waterways,” says Goode.

“It’s not always straightforward, but educating and building trust between both parties is an extremely rewarding part of the process.”

So rewarding, in fact, that the ASF recently won an overwhelmingly positive town vote to move forward with the Head Tide Dam project—a feat not achieved since efforts began by like-minded groups in the 1950s.

ASF’s strategy is to restore fish passage throughout river systems like the Sheepscot. The Head Tide project is one of three taking place in the watershed over three years. Goode says the ASF’s commitment to watershed restoration in the past 20 years has made tangible changes to the ecosystem and increased fish runs in many of Maine’s rivers.

“We’ve found if we can open up their habitat, the fish can do the rest themselves.”

(TOP PHOTO: The Head Tide Dam project on the Sheepscot River has opened an historic waterway for Atlantic salmon to access.)