There are eight rivers in Maine that are federally recognized as having distinct populations of Atlantic salmon, from the Sheepscot River in the Midcoast, to the Denny’s Down East River.
But once salmon spawned even further north in Aroostook County, and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians is trying to bring them back by restoring not just a river, but an entire watershed.
The Meduxnekeag River flows east from its headwaters into a lake in southern Aroostook County, passing through woodland and farmland, and the town of Houlton, then turning north through the tribal lands of the Houlton Band of the Maliseet Indians.
Looking downstream from a bridge spanning the river just north of the tribal lands, Sharri Venno, the tribe’s environmental planner, notes that there are no obvious boulders or fallen obstacles, and the channel is wide and shallow. He says it wasn’t always like that. The river has changed dramatically over the past 150 years, due to logging operations.
“They removed a lot of structure, a lot of complexity,” says Venno. “So the river no longer behaves as it normally would. It flows much faster, it is much shallower, it is much wider than it would otherwise be. If all that structure had stayed in place, it would be a different river.”
The loss of structure, says Venno, is one reason the river is no longer the optimal habitat for salmon. But John Burrows of the Atlantic Salmon Federation says there’s an even bigger barrier: a dam built in 1968.
“The Mactaquac Dam, and it’s a huge hydroelectric dam, is the first dam on St. John, just upstream from Fredericton,” says Burrows. “And this is the biggest problem preventing the recovery of Atlantic salmon, as well as the restoration of a variety of other native fish species in the middle and upper St. John systems.
Burrows says a capture and trucking operation allows a handful of salmon to pass the dam, and some have even successfully spawned recently on a tributary of the Meduxnekeag just across the border in Canada. But as long as the dam remains, it will be a huge obstacle to salmon restoration in northern Maine
“Historically, we would have had tens of thousands of adult salmon returning to the St. John’s tributaries in northern Maine,” says Burrows. “At this point, we might have a small handful of adults coming back there every year. So that’s a fraction of a percent of what we had historically.”
But that hasn’t stopped the Maliseets from returning Meduxnekeag to a more natural state that is better suited to salmon and other native species.
Looking upstream from the bridge, Sharri Venno points to a section that has been painstakingly restored, with help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the state of Maine, and other partners. The placement of the boulders, she says, changed the flow of the river.
“You see dozens of boulders scattered around the river channel. Create guns, recreate pools as the water flows downstream, create surfaces for insects, amphibians, reptiles and birds, “says Venno.” And create roughness in the channel, which slows down storm flows. “
Venno says this section of the river is now better oxygenated and cooler, which is increasingly important as temperatures warm with climate change.
The tribe also worked with its partners to improve habitat on the river’s tributaries. They recently removed a ruined culvert on Moose Brook, a key tributary, and replaced it with a bridge, allowing fish to swim freely upstream and downstream. The cooler waters of the tributaries serve as a refuge for the river’s native brook trout.
In time, the tribe hopes all these efforts will make the habitat suitable for Atlantic salmon. Clarissa Sabattis is the leader of the Houlton gang of Maliseet Indians. She says that her people gave her their name to the river and she uses a word Maliseet to describe their relationship with the river.
“Meduxneke-we-ag,” says Sabattis. “This really speaks to us, to this position and to the fact that we are the people of this area.”
Chief Sabattis says salmon, like eagles, are sacred to the tribe.
“Traditionally, salmon crossed this watershed, and that’s not something we see anymore,” says Sabattis. “And it’s really important for us to restore that natural habitat so that we can hopefully bring them back home.”
In nearly a decade, the tribe and its partners have restored nearly four miles on the main river branch near the tribal lands and two miles on the north branch of the river. But looking at the river, Venno recognizes how much work remains on the 426-square-mile watershed of the river in Maine.
“We need to restore the entire watershed to achieve the goals we have to restore salmon to our stretch of reserved waters,” says Venno. “We have to repair the entire watershed. This is the only way to do it.”
This story is a New England News Collaborative production. It was originally published by Maine Public.