Creating a self-sustaining population of Atlantic salmon in the Saco River will improve the quality of the river, help restore the river’s natural ecosystem and also attract recreational fishermen to the area, supporters of a new fish passage agreement said at a press conference held at Saco City Hall last week.

The agreement, lauded by the Saco River Salmon Club, the Maine Atlantic Salmon Commission and the Atlantic Salmon Federation, will allow the free passage of Atlantic salmon – as well as American shad, river herring and American eel – up the Saco River to native spawning grounds.

“Fish passage has been an issue since the 1600s, when English settlers first placed nets across the Saco River to catch salmon and which prevented the migration of fish upstream,” Saco Mayor Mark Johnston said at the press conference.

“Fish passage up the river is an important part of the equation in keeping the river healthy,” Johnston added. “This is an exciting and historic day. We have reached an agreement that all stakeholders can take part in.”

The agreement, officially signed earlier this year, is between two power companies – FPL Energy Maine Hydro, LLC and Saco River Hydro, LLC – as well as five state and federal environmental protection agencies and the three salmon clubs.

The agreement requires constuction of fish lifts or ladders at five dams along the Saco River from Bar Mills to Fryeburg by 2025. Four of the dams are owned and operated by FPL Energy. The Swans Falls Dam in Fryeburg is owned and operated by Saco River Hydro.

Under the agreement, FPL Energy must build fish lifts or ladders at all four of its upstream dams – Bar Mills, West Buxton, Bonny Eagle and Hiram within the next 18 years. There are already fish lifts at FPL Energy’s dams at Cataract Falls in Saco and at the Skelton dam located on the Dayton and Buxton town line.

“This agreement…will provide important resources for the conservation of Atlantic salmon, American shad, American eel and river herring and will allow these populations much greater access to their historic spawning and rearing habitat,” John Burrows, Maine coordinator for the Atlantic Salmon Federation, said at last week’s press conference.

To help increase the population of Atlantic salmon in the river, each year the Saco River Salmon Club raises more than 875,000 salmon fry and releases the young into the river, according to Mark Woodruff, vice president of the club. The hatchery, run by the Saco River Salmon Club, is located at the Marblehead Boat Landing in Biddeford.

The mission of the club, Woodruff said, is to restore a self-sustaining population of Atlantic salmon to the Saco River, which didn’t seem possible just 20 years ago, when the river was polluted by industrial and municipal waste.

“With the Saco River agreement the focus changes from fish passage at six individual projects to the broader picture of fish restoration in the watershed. We’re proud to be part of a strong collaboration among state, federal and local agencies . . . all working toward a resolution that benefits important fisheries in Maine and New Hampshire,” Marvin Moriarty, the northeast regional director of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, said at the press conference.

According to Frank Dunlap, senior environmental specialist at FPL Energy, it will take about two years for each fish passage project to be completed. He said the company needs one year for planning and design and one year for construction.

Final approval of each fish passage project will be up to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, but Dunlap said FPL Energy would consult with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fishery Service, the Maine Department of Marine Resources and the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife on the design and construction for the passages at each of the dams.

In addition to allowing for the free flow of fish upriver, the new fish passage agreement also establishes dates and procedures for testing the effectiveness of the fish passages; creates the Saco River Salmon Enhancement Fund; provides a grant of $25,700 to the Saco River Salmon Club; provides a total of $100,000 for fishery management over 10 years; and supports a public education outreach program totaling $25,000 over five years.

The Cataract fish way was built 14 years ago at Cataract Falls in Saco. Every spring and summer the fish way allows fish such as the Atlantic salmon to get upstream to spawn and downstream to the ocean.

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