Maine Voices: Lessons of controversial salmon hearings more relevant today
Despite dire predictions, listing salmon as endangered hasn't hurt the blueberry or forest-products industries.
By RON JOSEPH
CAMDEN — In early 2000, when the remaining U.S. populations of Atlantic salmon were proposed for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, then-Gov. Angus King, then-Sen. Olympia Snowe, Sen. Susan Collins and industry lobbyists engaged in a coordinated fear-mongering parade in front of cameras and microphones.
As of Aug. 23, several hundred wild adult Atlantic salmon have ascended Maine rivers to spawn in November. Maine is the only U.S. state with wild Atlantic salmon.
At three emotionally charged public hearings, politicians warned that listing the salmon as endangered would ruin Maine's aquaculture, blueberry and forest-products industries.
Thirteen years later, it's clear that those politicians behaved like Chicken Little. Salmon were added to the Endangered Species Act on Nov. 13, 2000. None of the doomsday predictions have materialized.
Maine's blueberry industry is thriving, salmon have not crippled the state's forestry industry and salmon aquaculture limps along, although its struggles can hardly be blamed on wild salmon. Conversely, diseases resulting from the unnatural concentration of millions of farmed salmon are a serious threat to wild salmon.
King, now a U.S. senator, made clear his opposition to the salmon listing: "There is no question that the species Atlantic salmon is neither endangered or threatened."
Fabricating impacts to salmon aquaculture, King claimed that protecting wild salmon under the Endangered Species Act "will kill the industry dead. D-E-A-D, dead."
He was right that the aquaculture industry nearly died, but not for the reasons he predicted. The cause was much more literal: In 2002, infectious salmon anemia spread throughout Maine's salmon farms. More than 1 million farmed salmon were killed to prevent transmission of the deadly disorder.
Snowe testified that listing salmon as endangered "is nothing less than economic decapitation of a significant portion of this state."
Collins testified, "I am completely opposed to the services' proposal to list the salmon" because "the state of Maine already has a plan to conserve and restore salmon."
Collins neglected to explain that the state's plan was voluntary and lacked implementation money. Nor did she mention that under the plan, Cherryfield Foods was granted permission in 1999 to dewater the dangerously low Pleasant River, an important salmon river.
King hailed the state plan as a "voluntary public-private partnership to restore salmon." Ed Baum, state government's pre-eminent salmon biologist for three decades before retiring in 2000, disagrees. "It was a business and industry plan, not a salmon restoration plan," Baum said. "Maine salmon are distinctive, and yet no one at the state level in Augusta was interested in the facts."
Less than a month after salmon were officially listed as endangered in 2000, Maine filed and lost a lawsuit against the federal government.
Undeterred by the costly court loss, King pressed forward to prove that federal biologists' salmon genetic work was "junk science." He hired University of Maine geneticist Irv Kornfield to debunk the federal government's science.
Armed with his own, bona fide junk science, the governor and his industry friends challenged the federal government's salmon data and lost again when the prestigious National Academy of Sciences scrutinized the scientific conflict and concluded that Maine's salmon were indeed genetically distinct, not "mongrels," as King claimed.
Only when John Baldacci became governor did Maine end its expensive, unwinnable suit against the federal government.
Although Maine's wild Atlantic salmon population has plummeted from tens of thousands of returning adult fish to several hundred today, salmon remain conspicuously absent from the state's endangered species list for political reasons.
The salmon vs. jobs allegations never panned out as an either-or choice, proving that King, Snowe and Collins were dead wrong, W-R-O-N-G.
Their behavior stands in stark contrast to the late Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie, father of the modern-day environmental movement. Muskie was the principal author of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. Unlike King, Collins and Snowe, Muskie was a courageous, visionary leader who ignored industry's claims that strong environmental regulations would devastate Maine's economy.
In 1997, when Angus King was governor, his top salmon biologist, Ed Baum, wrote a book, "Maine Atlantic Salmon: A National Treasure." Reading the harsh public hearing testimony of King, Collins and Snowe, you'd think Maine's salmon were merely business impediments.
In the 13 years since salmon received Endangered Species Act protection, several million dollars have flowed into Washington County to help protect and restore habitat for salmon and many other species. Wild salmon have taught us an enduring lesson: Natural resource conservation is not an enemy of business; rather, it is a cornerstone of Maine's economy.
Ron Joseph is a resident of Camden and a retired Maine wildlife biologist.
– Special to the Press Herald