Group will sue to protect salmon in Kennebec
Friends of Merrymeeting Bay say federal regulators have exceeded a deadline to rule on their petition.

By SETH HARKNESS Staff Writer February 20, 2008

A Bowdoinham-based environmental group announced Tuesday that it will sue two federal regulatory agencies in an effort to have Atlantic salmon in the Kennebec River protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Friends of Merrymeeting Bay first sought protection for the salmon under the federal act when it co-signed a petition submitted to the National Marine Fisheries Service in 2005.

Ed Friedman, chairman of Friends of Merrymeeting Bay, said the Endangered Species Act required the National Marine Fisheries Service to make a final determination on the petition within 12 months of receiving it. Two-and-a-half years later, the petition organizers are still waiting.

"It's a straightforward deadline case and they certainly have exceeded the deadline," Friedman said.

The agency's spokeswoman, Teri Frady, said Tuesday that it will decide on the case this summer. She said she could provide no more specific information about when the decision would be issued, or why the agency has exceeded the 12-month deadline.

A Boston attorney representing Friends of Merrymeeting Bay, David Nicholas, said the federal regulators have not informed his clients of their intention to make a ruling this summer. He said his clients are seeking a more formal commitment to a decision within an exact time frame.

Friends of Merrymeeting Bay was joined in its notice of intention to sue by the Maine Toxics Action Coalition and the Center for Biological Diversity. The notice names the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In 2000, Atlantic salmon populations in seven of Maine's smaller rivers were given protection under the Endangered Species Act. At the time, federal regulators said they needed more information to determine whether salmon in the state's largest rivers also needed protection.

If salmon in the larger rivers were listed, owners of dams along the rivers could be required to alter fish passages so that the salmon could migrate freely between the ocean and upstream spawning grounds.

Friedman said he believes the federal government now has ample information to justify protecting salmon in the Kennebec under the Endangered Species Act. In response to the petition in 2005 to have Kennebec salmon protected, the National Marine Fisheries Service issued a finding in November 2006 suggesting that the petitioners' request had merit.

"The petition presents substantial scientific information indicating that the petitioned action may be warranted," the finding reads, in part.

The agency also issued a comprehensive review of the Atlantic salmon population in 2006 that detailed the fragility of salmon stocks throughout the Gulf of Maine. The report said that fewer than 1,500 salmon return to spawn in the Gulf of Maine each year. It put the probability of extinction for the fish as high as 75 percent in the next 100 years, even with current restocking efforts in place.

Last year, only 15 salmon were collected in a fish trap at a dam in Waterville, the first of four dams on the Kennebec River that the fish must pass to reach upstream spawning grounds.

Protection of salmon in the Kennebec would likely require the installation of protective screens over turbines at the dams, as well as better fish passages, according to Friedman.

Federal law requires parties to a lawsuit to provide a 60-day notice of their intention to sue. If the case is not settled in that time, the lawsuit will be filed in U.S. District Court in Portland.

Staff Writer Seth Harkness can be contacted at 282-8225 or at: