A recent decision by fishery regulators in the Danish territory of Greenland is raising concerns for conservationists here in Maine. They're worried that Greenland's newly-established commercial fishing quota could have a devastating impact on efforts to restore endangered Atlantic salmon to Maine rivers.
The Atlantic Salmon is described by anglers as "the king of all game fish."
"When I caught that first Atlantic salmon, I gave up everything else," says 87-year-old Claude Westfall of Orono. Westfall smiles as he recalls that day on the Penobscot River more than 60 years ago, soon after he moved here from West Virginia.
"You can fish for trout, you can fish for togue, you can fish for landlockeds and so forth, but they, in no way, match with Atlantic salmon on your line," Westfall says. "You get one on there and you got fast water, you have got quite a fight."
For 80 years, the first Maine salmon taken from the Penobscot every year was sent to the White House. Westfall would be the last angler to take part in the tradition, which ended in 1992. By that time, returning salmon populations in New England were in dramatic decline.
Nowadays, the Penobscot has the largest population of wild Atlantic salmon in the U.S., but still not many - last year's count was less than 400. But there are signs of progress.
Here at the site of the old Veazie Dam heavy construction machinery is preparing the ground for a recreation area, where anglers and boaters can access the now freely flowing river. The removal of the Veazie Dam in 2013, and the Great Works Dam the year before, combined with a new fish lift at Milford a few miles upriver, are enabling more sea-run fish to swim up the Penobscot.
Laura Rose Day is executive director of the Penobscot River Restoration Project, which has a led a $64 million effort over the last 11 years to bring Atlantic salmon, and other sea-run fish, back to the Penobscot in greater numbers. So far this year, more Atlantic Salmon have passed through the fish lift than were counted in all of 2014.
But it's a fraction of the number needed to ensure survival of the species, she says, and efforts need to be made beyond the mouth of the river. "Success in restoring this river requires a lot of different parties to play important roles," Day says, "and controlling the take of fish in the ocean is extremely important."
And that's why Laura Rose Day and other conservationists are worried by commercial fishing activity taking place nearly 2,000 miles away in the Arctic waters off Greenland, which is resisting pressure from the U.S., Canada and the European Union to limit its salmon harvest to "sustainable" levels.
At a recent summit organized by the the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization - or NASCO - Greenland awarded itself an annual salmon quota of 45 metric tons for the next three years, more than twice as much as what might have been considered acceptable.
Daniel Morris, the U.S. representative at the NASCO summit, believes the salmon quota should be zero, and he's worried about what the effect will be on vulnerable Atlantic salmon populations here in the U.S.
"There will be U.S. origin fish," Morris says, "and our salmon stocks are in such a precarious state that if we lose 10, 20, 50, 100 fish to the West Greenland fishery, it's a big deal."
Sue Scott, of the Atlantic Salmon Federation, describes her reaction the news: "Disappointment, of course, simply because of the devastating impact, especially on the southern populations in the United States and Canada," she says.
Maine's Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher has cited scientific estimates that the Greenland fishery is likely to take as many as 100 U.S.-origin salmon every year - most of which return to Maine.
Despite such concerns, many still regard this as a step in the right direction by Greenland, whose fishery was largely unregulated before this year.
"The fact is that we're reducing the fishery a lot," says Katrine Kaergard, who is with Greenland's ministry of fisheries. Kaergard says the new quota of 45 tons is considerably less than the previous harvest, which was officially 57 tons, although most observers think the true figure is closer to 90 tons.
To reduce the quota below 45 tons, says Kaergard, would have devastating economic consequences for many of Greenland's 60 or so fishing communities dotted around the huge, sparsely-populated island. "Just to make sure that all settlements in Greenland have the possibility to fish salmon and to sustain their livelihood," Kaergard says.
In fact, the 45-ton limit is regarded as pitifully low by the Greenland fishermen, who have called for an annual quota of 1,500 tons. They blame environmental pollution, rather than their fishing activity, as the reason for poor wild salmon numbers in American rivers.
Learn more about the history of Atlantic salmon in Maine from the Maine Atlantic Salmon Museum.