Iconic Endangered Fish Making Comeback in U.S. Rivers

In a remarkable turn of events, Maine officials have reported the highest count of Atlantic salmon in over a decade. This significant uptick offers a glimmer of hope for a species that has long been under threat due to issues like overfishing and pollution. The Atlantic salmon, protected by the Endangered Species Act, seems to be on the path to recovery.

The Penobscot River Resurgence

The Penobscot River, known for hosting the largest run of Atlantic salmon in the United States, has witnessed a resurgence. Maine state data reveals that more than 1,500 wild salmon have returned from the ocean this year alone. While the numbers have been on an upward trajectory over the past few years, with over 1,000 recorded in four of the last five years, this year’s count of 1,500 is the highest since 2011 when it reached 2,900. However, it’s essential to note that some years see only a few hundred salmon returning to the rivers.

Changing Landscape of Salmon Consumption

A significant proportion of the salmon consumed by Americans today comes from farm-raised sources through extensive aquaculture operations. The commercial fisheries for wild Atlantic salmon in the United States closed decades ago. This shift in salmon sourcing has prompted experts to evaluate the implications of this change on wild salmon populations.

Conservation Efforts Bearing Fruit

Sean Ledwin, the director of the Maine Department of Marine Resources sea-run fish programs, believes that the recent surge in salmon numbers may be a testament to the success of conservation efforts. Conservation groups in New England have been focusing on removing dams, which have historically impeded salmon populations.

River Herring’s Role

While the resurgence of Atlantic salmon is promising, it’s crucial to consider the role of river herring in this success story. Sean Ledwin points out that the numbers of river herring have also been on the rise. This could be a contributing factor to the improved survival rates of Atlantic salmon.

River herring play a unique role in this ecosystem by diverting the attention of hungry predators, such as seals and striped bass, away from the comparatively rarer Atlantic salmon. This diversionary tactic helps increase the chances of survival for Atlantic salmon as they navigate their way upstream.

A Long Road Ahead

Despite the optimism surrounding the recent uptick in Atlantic salmon numbers, it’s important to keep the bigger picture in mind. The Penobscot River, which was once witness to salmon runs numbering in the tens of thousands, has faced the challenges of over-damming and other environmental issues.

Dan McCaw, the fisheries program manager for the Penobscot Nation, a Native American tribe with a deep historical connection to the river, emphasizes that while the recent improvements are notable, they are still far from the river’s glory days. He describes the current situation as a “tick up compared to previous years” but also acknowledges that, “in the grand scheme of things, it’s still abysmal.”


The resurgence of Atlantic salmon in Maine’s Penobscot River is indeed a positive development, offering hope for the species’ survival. It highlights the importance of continued conservation efforts, habitat restoration, and the need to address the challenges that wild salmon face in their journey to recovery. While the road ahead may be long, these recent developments provide a glimmer of hope for the future of this iconic species.

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