Maine rivers – and the fish swimming in them – have always been at the heart of our state’s identity. Today, whole communities and economies revolve around our rivers and our fisheries, relying on the health of a dozen species that travel back and forth between the river and the sea. Even before Maine was a state, the Wabanaki fished the rivers and stewarded healthy waterways, understanding that our rivers are the arteries of our ecosystem, carrying nutrients back forth between the land and the sea. Their health is our health.

Globally, rivers face major challenges. The new Living Planet Index for Migratory Freshwater Fish – the first comprehensive report on the status of these critical species – finds that monitored populations of migratory freshwater fish have declined an average of 76 percent between 1970 and 2016. The report was developed by the World Fish Migration Foundation in partnership with The Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Zoological Society of London.

Among other things, the report found that the threat of habitat degradation, alteration and destruction accounts for about half of this loss. More is due to dams and other river barriers, which block fish from their mating and feeding habitat. Wetlands, which are essential to the health of rivers and many migratory fish, are disappearing three times faster than forests. Other key threats include unsustainable fishing practices and alterations in warming and cooling waters because of climate change.

There’s good news, too – and some of it comes from Maine. In North America, the decline in migratory fish populations is less severe (about 28 percent since 1970). That tells us that management actions like restoring habitat and removing dams have a big impact on the recovery of fish populations. Restoring the Penobscot River in 2016 increased access to over 2,000 miles of fish habitat; in the following years, river herring numbers grew from a few hundred to nearly 3 million and continue to climb. This project stands as a shining example and is informing and encouraging restoration throughout Europe and around the world.

It’s not just the Penobscot, either. Thanks to efforts in local communities, the past few years have brought valuable river restoration along the Sebasticook, Sheepscot, Damariscotta and other coastal rivers. Alewives, sold as much-needed lobster bait in towns like Benton, are bringing important annual revenue to those communities. Juvenile eels, or elvers, Maine’s second most valuable marine fishery after lobster, depend on access to their upstream rearing habitat, as well as safe downstream access back to their spawning grounds in the Sargasso Sea. Access to and restoration of migratory fish are also critical for Indigenous and local communities across the globe. Here in Maine, sustenance is a tribal right, and the health of these fish and the rivers that support them are essential to Wabanaki cultures.

Mainers should be proud of their leadership in river restoration. Still, there is so much we must do to create healthy river systems around the world. If you’re looking for somewhere to begin helping, get inspired by visiting one of Maine’s spectacular fish migrations (check out mainerivers.org and their excellent “Alewife Trail Map”). You can talk to your local land trust or watershed group to learn what they’re doing, and participate in a community science project, such as fish counts and spawning surveys in your local rivers and streams. You can support rivers at the ballot box by voting to remove obsolete dams, upgrade road-stream crossings to make them fish-friendly and allocate state and federal funding for restoration projects.

You can also join the global movement through World Fish Migration Day, a series of events spanning 100 countries and uniting countless cultures in the effort to restore our planet’s river health. This year, a 24-hour virtual event brought amazing talks from Maori leaders in New Zealand on their connection with longfin eel, The Nature Conservancy scientists in Mongolia working on Siberian taimen restoration and the annual release of sea lamprey by the Yakama Nation in Washington state. More virtual celebrations will take place in October.

We hope these opportunities will help inspire more people to support restoration of our vital rivers. After all, their health is our health.


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