The Saccarappa Falls fish ladder, completed in Westbrook earlier this year, recently had its first run of fish, the first big run on the Presumpcot River since the 1700s. Chance Viles / American Journal

Friends of the Presumpscot River is keeping on eye on the pending sale of the Sappi fish ladder in Westbrook to make sure the buyer can afford its ongoing costs, President Mike Shaughnessy said.

Sappi announced the sale of the ladder and five hydropower facilities in Gorham, Windham and Standish to New York-based Dichotomy Power for an undisclosed amount on June 16.

Shaughnessy said Friends of the Penobscot will monitor the license transfer process to ensure that Dichotomy Power meets the obligations that Sappi previously agreed to, including maintaining the new Saccarappa Falls fishway and adding new passages to upstream dams at Mallison Falls and Little Falls in Windham when the number fish hits a target level.

“The licenses to the dams have to go through a process and they have to be able to prove that they have the fiduciary capacity to put in the fish passage when that time comes,” he said.

If the company can’t afford the agreed-upon upkeep and dissolves, Shaughnessy said, Sappi would have no responsibility for the fish passages, so his main concern is accountability. Large companies have used that tactic elsewhere to avoid ecological responsibility, he said.

The application for the purchase to the Federal Energy Regulation Commission so far does not outline how the costs will be covered, he said.

“Our position is it’s not so much who owns it, but what they are capable of doing. So we want to have assurances they have the capital for the obligations,” Shaughnessy said.

Dichotomy Power did not return an interview request by the American Journal’s deadline.

Sappi said Dichotomy can afford the obligations.

Sappi spokeswoman Olga Karagiannis told the American Journal that Dichotomy “has both the operational expertise and the financial wherewithal to assume all obligations associated with running the hydro stations, including any fish passage required by the FERC licenses.”

Dichotomy owns a number of hydroelectric facilities in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

A fish ladder is a structure allowing migratory fish to pass obstacles, such as dams.

The Westbrook fish ladder saw its first major run of ocean fish heading upstream using the ladder this month, Shaughnessy said.

Additional ladders on the Presumpscot will be required when 2,960 shad and 18,020 blue back pass through the Saccarappa Falls fishway, with counting to begin in 2024, he said.

It could be that as soon as the counting starts, the target numbers will be met, Shaughnessy said, though the agreement gave Sappi two years to create a Mallison Falls passage another two years to build the Little Falls passage.

An upcoming Department of Marine Resources “effectiveness testing” of the ladder to see how many migrating fish are using it could give some insight about how many fish already are using the ladder, but anecdotally there are already thousands of fish including blue back herring and shad, Shaughnessy said.

“The fish are all over Mallison falls, there are thousands of them there,” he said.  “They didn’t come from Sebago, they swam up.” 

The testing will show if he’s right, he said, “but it seems that way.”

An official count is also important, Shaughnessy said, because blue backs closely resemble alewives.

The fish headed upstream now and pooling at Mallison include the first run of sea fish in the waterways since the 1700s, according to the Friends of the Presumpscot.

“While the exact number of fish and the specific species is uncertain, it is certain that these are sea-run herring and they are moving upriver,” the group said in a prepared statement.

“These fish are making history. They are doing what was first sought by Chief Polin of the Abenaki in the 1730s, in response to the damming by the area settlers,” Shaughnessy said in the release.

According to a Sappi press release, the sale will allow the company to focus on their core business of specialized paper and away from hydropower.

“We are happy to have found a strategic buyer in Dichotomy Power, a company with a wealth of expertise in this area so that Sappi can continue to focus on its core competencies,” Sappi North America CEO and President Mike Haws said in the press release.”

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