A new book celebrates the return of fish to the Penobscot

Reviewed by Carl Little

Special to The Ellsworth American

You know that children’s song “Three Little Fishies” with its chorus, “And they swam swam swam right over the dam”? Were it that easy.

In Peter Taylor’s “From the Mountains to the Sea: The Historic Restoration of the Penobscot River (Islandport Press, softbound, 146 pages, $24.95), dams stand in the way of fish — 12 sea-run species to be precise — and their survival. The removal or circumvention of said structures lies at the heart of this inspiring account of river restoration.

The book opens with a vision of a pre-dam waterway filled with fish, followed by Penobscot tribal elder Butch Phillips’ account of the history of how the river was used and abused over the centuries to the point where the Sacred Circle of Life was broken. Thanks to the Penobscot River Restoration Trust (PRRT), the rest of the story is, so to speak, all upriver.

The effort to restore the river began in the late 1990s, prompted by the near collapse of the wild Atlantic salmon run. That prized fish, celebrated in Catherine Schmitt’s remarkable book “The President’s Salmon: Restoring the King of Fish and its Home Waters,” spurred a group of conservation organizations to join forces to work with dam operators, the Penobscot Tribe, nearby communities and others to resuscitate the river.

Taylor recounts the multi-phase restoration plan in prodigious detail, highlighting the milestones of complex negotiations and consensus-building. He also outlines how the trust worked on all fronts, including children: Peter Seenstra, outreach coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, created a game that “got kids thinking like salmon.” Laura Rose Day, the PRRT’s executive director, held “kitchen-table conversations” with stakeholders. “In the end, we weren’t buying the dams,” she explained. “We were buying the river back for the fish.”

Peter Taylor, president of Harpswell-based Waterview Consulting, has written an inspiring account of the Penobscot River’s successful restoration begun in the late 1990s.

There were many champions along the way, a veritable who’s who of Maine’s conservation and philanthropy communities (the project ran over $60 million so there was a lot of fundraising). John Banks, director of the Department of Natural Resources for the Penobscot Indian Nation, proved invaluable to the project, lending both expertise and vision. “We consider these fish the refugees of the Penobscot River,” he said. “To bring the refugees back and fully honor [the Penobscot Nation’s] sustenance rights, we knew we had to remove those dams.” 

The book is richly illustrated, with easy-to-understand graphics and gorgeous color photos of the river by the likes of Bridget Besaw, Steve Cartwright, Pam Wells and David Small. A helpful timeline of selected key events in the life of the river spans nearly 300 years, from 1739, when Chief Polin (Abenaki) petitioned the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to add fish passage to dams on the river, to 2020, when the accumulative catch-to-date of Atlantic salmon reached 1,443.

Reading this book is to wonder at the breadth of the Penobscot watershed, which drains about 8,570 square miles of land while dropping about one thousand feet from headwaters to sea. You also learn about dams and how to get around them.          

In one of his last reviews, George Smith, longtime president of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and a passionate fisherman, praised Taylor’s book but noted that there was still a lot of work to be done in Maine, especially on his beloved Kennebec River. After reading this book, you have to agree with Smith’s final piece of advice: “Please, support any effort to remove more of the dams on these wonderful rivers.” 

As the fight over the Central Maine Power/Hydro-Quebec power line continues, this book presents a model of large-scale collaboration “to balance resource use and cultural values.” “From the Mountains to the Sea: The Historic Restoration of the Penobscot River” should be required reading for folks in need of perspective — and inspiration.