Fans of the federally endangered Atlantic salmon are anxiously watching this year’s spring run, hoping the numbers of returning fish mirror last year’s.

In the next three weeks, it will be clear whether last year was a fluke or the start of a trend. While the numbers of adult salmon counted so far at the Veazie Dam in Bangor, the state’s busiest fish-counting station for salmon, are up from last year, the final count is not yet in.

“It is sort of a guessing game,” said Oliver Cox, director of the Sea-Run Habitat and Fisheries Division at Maine’s Department of Marine Resources.

Overall, salmon runs doubled last year, with 3,097 showing up at counting stations in Maine rivers, the eighth-biggest run since counting started in 1978 and the highest since 1986. The total for the U.S. Atlantic Coast reached 4,167, up 152 percent.

Restoration efforts date back 150 years. Despite millions of private and public dollars spent on the effort, overall results have been dismal.

Once, more than a half-million fish would return to Atlantic coastal rivers to spawn each year, but by the mid-1800s the fish had been largely wiped out in southern New England due to dams, chemical contamination and other factors. Atlantic salmon fishing has been banned in the United States.

Maine retained a remnant population into the 1980s, but salmon runs here dropped dramatically in the 1990s, from 6,000-10,000 annually down to 1,500-3,000 annually.

Almost all of last year’s surge occurred on the Penobscot River, said Peter Lamothe, manager of the Maine salmon restoration efforts for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Returns also increased in Canada where the recreational salmon fishery generates millions of dollars and employs thousands of people.

“It is a good sign,” Lamothe said.

Fish are counted visually or by trapping at dams and fishways on the Sebasticook, Kennebec, St. Croix, Narraguagas, Union, Penobscot, Androscoggin, Aroostook and Saco rivers.

At the Veazie Dam, the fish are trapped and measured. Biologists also take a genetic sample, and a scale sample is taken to determine the age of the fish.

Although last year’s surge suggests higher survival for salmon in the ocean, no one knows why the fish fared better. Scientists have been studying ocean currents, temperatures, predation and other factors to better understand what affects Atlantic salmon populations.

Cox and other biologists say early returns this year have been encouraging. In Maine, 193 salmon had been trapped at the Veazie Dam as of Friday morning. River flows have been low, which results in higher numbers of returning fish, said Cox.

In recent years the numbers have peaked on June 22. After that, the numbers drop back down as the rivers warm up.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

[email protected]