by Rachel Ohm, Waterville Sentinel
FARMINGTON — Residents on Wednesday night got a brief overview of the history of Atlantic salmon in Maine and how the removal of a local dam could fit into recovery of the endangered species.
Catherine Schmitt, communications director for Maine Sea Grant, and Paul Christman, a marine scientist with the Maine Department of Marine Resources, each gave presentations to a crowd of about 40 people gathered at the Farmington Community Center. The public meeting is one of three scheduled before a November referendum asking residents whether they want to remove Walton’s Mill Pond Dam on Temple Stream, financed by the Atlantic Salmon Federation.
The Carrabassett River and the Sandy River historically have been important habitats for Atlantic salmon, Schmitt said, and the fish were used by native Wabanaki people and European settlers.
Fishing salmon along the Kennebec River and elsewhere in Maine was an important commercial and sporting venture until the early 1900s, when fish populations began to dwindle because of mills and dams, which prevented fish from moving upstream, and logging drives and development, which contributed to water pollution.
Schmitt said restoration efforts on the Kennebec started in the 1930s and ’40s, and the habitat is still there for Atlantic salmon.
The ideal habitat for Atlantic salmon is relatively fast-moving water that’s fairly cold and has a hard, gravel bottom, according to Christman, who talked about the life cycle of salmon and what it will take to restore salmon in the Kennebec River watershed.
Since 2002, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have listed Atlantic salmon as an endangered species. The federal listing requires the establishment of recovery criteria and designation of critical habitat for Atlantic salmon, Christman said.
Temple Stream in Farmington, where Walton’s Mill Pond Dam is, is part of that critical habitat.
In March 2016, the town was contacted by NOAA, which voiced concern that the dam is harming critical habitat for Atlantic salmon. The letter stated that once a population is designated endangered, it is unlawful for any public or private entity, or any individual, to harm the species.
The Atlantic Salmon Federation is offering to remove the dam and make upgrades to the neighboring Walton’s Mill Pond Park for $1.2 million, with no funding from the town.
If voters reject the offer, the town’s other option for complying with federal law would be to spend an estimated $750,000, probably of taxpayer money, to build a fish passageway and leave the dam in place.
The remaining public meetings are Oct. 10 and 24 at 6 p.m. at the Farmington Community Center.
The Oct. 10 meeting will focus on the ecology of dam removal and effects on other fish and wildlife species, while the subject on Oct. 24 will be other dam removal projects in Maine and what effects the Farmington removal could have on the community, recreation and tourism.