The Importance of Atlantic Salmon in New England

By Heather Goldstone & Elsa Partan

29 Oct 2018

For thousands of years, Atlantic salmon – known as the King of Fish – ran almost every river northeast of the Hudson. And for decades, the first fish caught in Maine’s Penobscot River was actually presented to the president of the United States in a “first fish” ritual.

Catherine Schmitt and Madonna Soctomah will speak at the New England Aquarium’s IMAX Theater on Tuesday, October 30th from 7:00 to 8:00 PM. 

But overfishing and dams brought populations to their knees and the commercial fishery for Atlantic salmon closed seventy years ago in 1948. For most of us, the closest we’ve ever gotten to an Atlantic salmon is the farm-raised variety in the fish market.

But, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is celebrating the international year of the salmon, and the New England Aquarium is marking the occasion with a public lecture by Catherine Schmitt, author of The President’s Salmon: Restoring the King of Fish and its Home Waters; and Madonna Soctomah, former Passamaquoddy Tribal Representative with the Maine State Legislature and St. Croix International Waterway Commissioner. That’s the St. Croix River in Maine and New Brunswick, not the Caribbean island.

The Presidential “first fish” ritual started in 1912 with angler Carl Anderson. He decided that he wanted to give his fish – which was the first fish caught on opening day April 1st – to the president of the United States.

“It reflects first fish traditions that can be found around the world and it was a way to sort of show the city of Bangor’s honor and respect for the president and maybe bring some attention to the city of Bangor and the Penobscot River,” Schmidt said.

Atlantic salmon are large and can range in size from 11 to 25 pounds. They’re muscular too, with a tapered head and tail that helps them make their long migration from Greenland to the Gulf of Maine and up rivers. Most interestingly though, they can come back multiple times to spawn. Unlike Pacific salmon who spawn and die.

Before they were deemed endangered, salmon were very important from a food perspective. They were caught in rivers as they were migrating to their spawning grounds and they could easily be caught from somebody’s home or at falls and rapids close to where people lived.

And from a Native American perspective, salmon are deeply embedded in the Passamaquoddy history, culture, traditional beliefs, and legends. According to Soctoma, the tribe is connected to the salmon and all the wider creatures for survival.

“Culturally it is connected to who we are and the loss of fish in the river would compromise the identity of the Passamaquoddy people,” Soctomah said.

And the Passmaquoddy people are helping to bring them back. Overfishing was just one of the issues that caused Atlantic salmon to become endangered, the others are polution and dam construction.

“Throughout the region I think some tribes are really leading the way in terms of restoring aquatic habitat for salmon and other sea or on fish. Their voices are some of the strongest,” Schmidt said. “[The tribes] are on the ground level, working to remove dams and restore fish passage.”

Web post produced by Liz Lerner.

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