The Hydro-Kennebec Project on the Kennebec River in Maine. The spring migration season for Atlantic salmon will begin in April.

Portland, ME – With Maine’s Atlantic salmon population on the brink of extinction, NELC lawsuits brought on behalf of Environment Maine and the Friends of Merrymeeting Bay have helped spur regulatory actions designed to improve conditions for endangered Atlantic salmon at three hydroelectric dams in Maine’s Kennebec and Androscoggin rivers. Hydropower dams, with their high retaining walls and rapidly spinning turbines, kill and injure downstream-migrating salmon on both rivers. They also impede upstream passage, thereby impairing critical behavior patterns (see related interview on 2013 Winter – Interview with Ed Friedman, Maine Activist).

The four NELC lawsuits, filed in 2011, allege that, by continuing to operate their dams without a federally-issued permit, the owners and operators of three dams on the Androscoggin River and four dams on the Kennebec have been illegally “taking” Atlantic salmon since June 2009, when the salmon in these rivers were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

In the spring of 2012, prompted in part by NELC’s suits, three of the dam operators—Brookfield Power, Miller Hydro, and Topsham Hydro—sought to obtain “incidental take statements,” ESA permits that would allow them to legally operate their dams despite “incidental” salmon mortality or injury, from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). NELC staff and fisheries biologist Randy Bailey, one of NELC’s retained experts in these lawsuits, provided NMFS with critiques of and comments on the companies’ submissions.

In September and October of 2012, NMFS issued formal biological opinions and incidental take statements confirming NELC’s allegations regarding the adverse effects of these dams on Atlantic salmon. While the incidental take statements (ITS) do not go far enough in mandating swift action to minimize salmon mortality, they do set limits on the levels of permissible take, and require the companies to systematically measure salmon mortalities at these dams.

One significant additional step forward is the requirement in the Brookfield Power ITS that upstream passage be installed by 2015, to enable returning adult salmon to reach upstream spawning grounds in the Kennebec River.

The four other dams in the NELC lawsuits, all of which are owned by NextEra Energy Resources, a large Florida-based power company, still do not have the requisite ESA permits. NextEra recently announced that it intends to sell these and its other Maine hydropower dams to a subsidiary of Brookfield Power.