(The Center Square) – Maine is getting federal funding to help restore habitats for Atlantic salmon, an endangered fish at the center of a fight between environmentalists and the lumber industry over a dam removal project.
U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King said the $900,000 in grants from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will be distributed to nonprofit groups working on projects aimed at restoring fish habitat along state rivers.
"Atlantic salmon are a critical part of our state’s marine ecosystem, but they are endangered and at risk of extinction," the lawmakers said in a statement. "These fish help to ensure the health of our rivers and oceans that Mainers and wildlife depend on. We welcome this funding, which will help to conserve and restore wild Atlantic salmon and their ecosystems across the state."
The nonprofit project SHARE is receiving $303,225 to replace undersized culverts at 13 sites, connecting habitat for Atlantic salmon across multiple watersheds. The Nature Conservancy is getting $250,000 to remove the Guilford Dam to reconnect habitat for Atlantic salmon in the Piscataquis River watershed, the lawmakers said.
The Atlantic Salmon Federation received $213,854 in funding for five projects that aim to restore access to salmon spawning habitats in the Kennebec River watershed.
Meanwhile, the Downeast Salmon Federation received $131,000 to study fish restoration projects at the Cherryfield Ice Control Dam on the Narraguagus River and the Gardner Lake Dam on the East Machias River, the lawmakers said.
Environmental groups say the Atlantic salmon – which is protected under the federal Endangered Species Act – is threatened by dam operations which prevent the fish from migrating safely from the ocean to spawning and rearing areas in the upper Kennebec River watershed.
A coalition of environmental groups, including the Conservation Law Foundation of Maine, have called for the removal of four dams on the Kennebec River between Waterville and Skowhegan.
In some cases, the disputes over removing dams have pitted the state's lumber industry against environmentalists.
Gov. Janet Mills' administration has come under scrutiny for denying an environmental permit to the operators of a Kennebec River dam that powers a local saw mill, saying the move will cost thousands of jobs. In its decision to deny the permit, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection cited concerns over the impact on Atlantic salmon along the river.
Republicans have criticized the refusal to recertify the century-old hydroelectric dam, saying it will result in the closure of SAPPI Fine Papers' flagship mill in Skowhegan, which employs 735 workers.
Mills has fired back at those claims, writing in an "open letter to Sappi employees" published by local newspapers that the state has no intention of removing the dam or closing the sawmill.
While the funding targets Atlantic salmon habitat restoration, the lawmakers say the projects will also be beneficial to other native species such as river herring, sea lamprey, American shad and American eel.