After years of debate, and a series of often contentious public hearings, the Maine Atlantic Salmon Commission has imposed a statewide ban on all recreational fishing for sea-run Atlantic salmon.
The ban went into effect Tuesday and applies to all 16 salmon rivers in Maine, not just the eight rivers that support the wild salmon runs that are the focus of a proposed endangered species listing by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.
The statewide angling ban replaces the catch-and-release fishery — the practice of removing a fish from the hook and immediately returning it to the river — that Maine imposed on Atlantic salmon angling in 1997.
That restriction was an attempt to stop the decade-long decline in the number of salmon returning to Maine rivers, but it wasn’t enough, according to Fred Kircheis, the interim director of the Maine Atlantic Salmon Commission.
Catch-and-release angling is not a mortality-free activity, Kircheis told the salmon commission during the Dec. 22 meeting where he presented his proposal to close the fishery. Depending on conditions, fish mortality from catch and release can be as high as 30 percent, Kircheis said.
Although 30 percent may be high for Maine, given conditions and the generally high caliber of Maine salmon anglers, even a 5 to 10 percent mortality should be avoided, he said. Maine anglers caught and released 216 fish in 1999, 200 of them in the Penobscot River.
Maine Atlantic Salmon commissioners Lee Perry, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and George LaPointe, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, accepted Kircheis’s Dec. 22 proposal.
“This was a very difficult decision because I very much admire Atlantic salmon anglers,” Kircheis said Tuesday. “They are really dedicated to the sport fishery, and I’m not suggesting they are at fault for the decline. Closing the recreational fishery is just one of many fronts where we are working to restore Atlantic salmon.”
Kircheis said 112 people attended the public hearings on his proposal Nov. 17 in Bangor and Nov. 18 in Machias. Of those, 27 spoke against the ban, four spoke in favor and two speakers were neither for nor against.
Written comments ran 22 in favor and 10 opposed with one person neither for nor against, he said.
Responses from salmon clubs and other organizations involved in salmon conservation were divided. The Eddington, Veazie and Sheepscot River salmon clubs and the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine were against the angling ban.
In favor of the proposal were the Penobscot Fly Fishers, the Pleasant River Fish and Game Club, the Sheepscot Valley Conservation Association, the Maine Council of Trout Unlimited and the Sunkhaze Stream Chapter of Trout Unlimited, Kircheis said.
The Atlantic Salmon Federation was in favor of closing angling on just those rivers where Atlantic salmon are being proposed for listing as an endangered species and Project SHARE, Salmon Habitat and River Enhancement, was in favor of closing all angling on just the five Washington County salmon rivers, which are their chartered area of concern, he said.
Kircheis said he recommends the ban as a temporary measure and will propose suspending the rule when the number of returning adult salmon increase to the point that the population can support a recreational fishery.
Kircheis developed his proposal to ban salmon angling on all Maine rivers before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service proposed an endangered species listing for Atlantic salmon in eight Maine rivers.
Those rivers are the Dennys, East Machias, Machias and Narraguagus in Washington County; Cove Brook, a tributary of the Penobscot River; the Sheepscot River in Lincoln County; and the Ducktrap River in Waldo County.
The federal fish agencies believe the eight rivers support the last self-sustaining runs of wild Atlantic salmon in the United States.
In an October status report on those fish, the federal agencies said the best available scientific data indicate that a catch-and-release fishery poses a threat to those remaining wild fish.
The federal proposal is out for a 90-day public comment period, with public hearings to be scheduled in Machias and Ellsworth at the end of January or beginning of February.
Originally scheduled for mid-January, the public hearings have been postponed to allow members of Maine’s congressional delegation to attend the hearing and voice their opposition to the federal proposal. Maine’s congressional delegation opposes an endangered species listing for the fish, as does Gov. Angus King.