July 23, 2013
VEAZIE, Maine (AP) — Eighty-five-year-old Claude Westfall points to a photograph on the wall of the Veazie Salmon Club. In the 1992 photo, a smiling Westfall presents then-President George H. W. Bush with his prize: the first salmon pulled from the Penobscot River in the Bangor area that year.
For nearly 80 years, the first salmon of the season was delivered by train, and later plane, to the White House. But Bush would be the last to receive the famous fish.
The number of salmon on the Penobscot River dwindled, halting fishing on Maine’s largest river and the presidential salmon tradition.
But environmentalists say removing the Veazie Dam — which will begin Monday — could be a monumental step toward restoring the salmon population and resurrecting a rich history of angling on the Penobscot River.
Just 20 years ago, the Veazie Salmon Club’s headquarters, a small cabin on the shore of the Penobscot, was packed with anglers waiting hours for a spot at one of the prized fishing pools. Bangor-area campgrounds were filled with people who flocked to the area during salmon fishing season.
‘‘The salmon’s presence on this Penobscot River made the Bangor area unique in the whole United States,’’ said Westfall, one of the remaining members of the once-vibrant fishing club and a retired professor at the University of Maine.
But increasingly scarce numbers of salmon halted salmon fishing in 1999. A few catch-and-release seasons followed. In 2009, the federal government listed the Penobscot River Atlantic salmon as endangered, warning that the species was in danger of extinction, ending all salmon fishing on the Penobscot.
Environmentalists attribute salmon’s slow decline to a variety of factors, including pollution and global warming. But one of the salmon’s biggest enemies has been hydropower dams, they say. The fish can die in the dam’s turbines as they attempt to swim upriver from the Atlantic Ocean to reach their spawning grounds.
On Monday, the 830-foot-long dam connecting Veazie and Eddington will start to come down, reconnecting that stretch of river with the Gulf of Maine for the first time in almost 200 years. The dam’s removal is part of the Penobscot River Restoration Project, a $62 million undertaking that included the destruction of the Great Works Dam last year. The entire project will open up miles of spawning habitat for the salmon and other sea-run fish, which organizers say will restore once-abundant marine life to the Penobscot.
The Veazie Dam follows 26 other dams that have been removed in Maine, including the Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River in 1999, according to American Rivers, a Washington-based advocacy group. As of January, the last 100 years has seen more than 1,000 dam removals nationwide, the group said.
When salmon fishing was booming in the 1980s, the Veazie Salmon Club had more than 350 members and a waiting list of about 200 more, said 74-year-old Gayland Hachey, one of the club’s founding members and an owner of a rod and fly shop in Veazie.
Members would have to wait two or three hours just to get a spot in one of the fishing pools, said 82-year-old Ken ‘‘Snapper’’ Cashman, of Waterville, who used to spend a few weeks in Veazie every year during salmon fishing season.
‘‘That was the only fair way for everyone,’’ he said.
When salmon fishing ended, membership at Veazie and other nearby fishing clubs plummeted. Today, members are mostly men in their 70s and 80s who gather at the clubhouse for cribbage games because they can no longer fish.
Many of the remaining Penobscot salmon were raised in a hatchery, but the removal of the Veazie Dam will help create a self-sustaining run of salmon that could one day reopen salmon fishing on the Penobscot, environmentalists say.
‘‘This offers the best chance in the long term,’’ said Andrew Goode, vice president of the Atlantic Salmon Federation’s U.S. programs. ‘‘Without this project, as far as we are concerned, there is no chance of getting back the recreational fishery.’’
Only 624 salmon were counted at the Veazie Dam last year. With the completion of the restoration project, expected by 2015, environmentalists hope to see 10,000 to 12,000 salmon returning every year to spawn.
American shad, alewives, blueback herring, rainbow smelt, stipend bass and several other sea-run fish are also expected to rebound, which the organizers say will help the salmon population grow.
‘‘While a lot of good work has gone on to conserve salmon, there has always been a big piece of the picture that was missing and that is focusing on salmon, along with all of the other species, and the important roles that they play,’’ said Laura Rose Day, executive director of the Penobscot River Restoration Trust.
Salmon will be protected from things like birds of prey if they are surrounded by all these other species of fish in the river, she said.
It could take several decades before the species is taken off the endangered species list, Goode said. Other species, like shad and striped bass, are likely to rebound more quickly over the next decade, he said.
That means that many members of the Veazie Salmon Club might not fish for salmon on the Penobscot River again in their lifetimes. But many of them are hopeful that one day their grandchildren or great-grandchildren will have the experience.
‘‘Fishing is over for him and I,’’ Hachey said about Westfall and himself as he fought back tears at the clubhouse. ‘‘No question about that.’’
‘‘I figure right now I probably will never fish again,’’ Cashman said. ‘‘But I hope that some younger people get the opportunity.’’