On Wednesday, however, Keliher was happy to report that his staff was in the process of celebrating a milestone that has been years in the making.
“We just caught our 2,000th fish today,” Keliher reported at about 3 p.m.
Bureau of Sea-Run Fisheries staffers tend the fish trap at Veazie Dam on the Penobscot River, where salmon are collected, tagged and either released or taken to Craig Brook National Fish Hatchery in Orland to serve as brood stock for future generations.
As soon as the fish trap began operation after May’s heavy rains, the fish began returning at a record rate. And although returns have since fallen behind the pace seen in 1986 (when more than 4,000 fish returned to the river), recent rains have cooled and raised the water, and salmon have again begun showing up in the trap.
A total of 11 fish were trapped on Wednesday alone, bringing the year-to-date total to 2,002.
That marks the first time more than 2,000 fish have returned to the trap in 12 years. In 1996, 2,044 salmon were trapped.
Keliher is happy … but remains reserved.
“We’re still cautiously optimistic, but it’s nice to get numbers like that to build confidence with the crew,” Keliher said. “We’ve been struggling with salmon, but it’s nice to see all the hard work that we’ve been doing pay off.”
Norm Dube, a biologist who serves as the environmental coordinator of the Atlantic salmon program, was excited about the recent run of salmon.
“Fish are back,” Dube said.
He said recent rains have played a key role in the latest run of fish, which followed nearly a month of much spottier returns.
On July 9, the fish count stood at 1,904 fish, and the water had warmed substantially. On that date, no fish returned to the trap – the first day since May 19 when no fish had been caught. Much of the rest of the month featured warm water, with few fish making their way up the river to the trap.
“The river’s cooled off with a little bump of water,” he said. “It’s 20.5 degrees [C] now, 69 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. It was up to 25 [C]. That’s 77 degrees [Fahrenheit].”
Dube said the crew that handles the fish at Veazie Dam began checking the trap twice a day late last week, as they do earlier in the year.
When the run petered out in early July, as the river’s water temperature warmed, fisheries staffers had cut back and checked the trap just once a day.
Dube said that if the current weather trend continues, conditions would be adequate for the run of fish to continue.
“If we get cool nights like we had last night and the night before, when it was in the 50s, that helps a lot,” Dube said. “Sunny weather will warm it up a lot, but as long as we get the cool nights, it’ll be fine, good for fish.”