ELLSWORTH — The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has asked Black Bear Hydro Partners LLC to explain the cause of serious fish kills in the Union River downstream of the company’s Leonard Lake hydro dam.
According to a letter from FERC to the company dated Nov. 13, the agency received reports on Oct. 30 and Nov. 4 describing two incidents.
On Oct. 24, according to the first report, approximately 75 dead “young of the year” alewives were spotted onshore and in shallow water below the dam. Some of those juvenile fish “were decapitated or cut in half.”
In the second incident, on the morning of Oct. 31 several dead adult eels were spotted in the water below the dam.
“At least two large eels each had been killed and had several lacerations on their bodies,” according to the FERC letter. Later in the day, three more dead eels, one with similar injuries, and a dead alewife were found in the water.
Under a fishery management plan approved by FERC in 2010, Black Bear is required to operate downstream fish passage facilities at its Ellsworth and Graham Lake dams between April 1 and Dec. 31 each year. Those fish passages allow fish such as alewives and eels to migrate down the Union River to the ocean, where they eventually spawn, after reaching adulthood in fresh water above the dams.
The fish kill comes at an awkward time for Black Bear. The company, now owned by the Canadian investment firm Brookfield Renewable Energy Partners, a part of the giant Brookfield Asset Management group, is in the midst of renewing its licenses for the Union River dam and the Graham Lake dam above it.
Brookfield Renewable reportedly owns 38 hydro dams in Maine with a total generating capacity of 340 megawatts — about 45 percent of the state’s total hydroelectric generating capacity. The Union River dam can produce some 29.9 megawatts from four turbine generators located in the powerhouse at the western end of the dam.
Black Bear began the renewal process with FERC in 2012. Its current license doesn’t expire until 2017. As part of that process, the company was required to prepare an “Initial Study Report” relating to the fish species present in the river. That report was filed Sept. 4.
In a letter to FERC dated Nov. 3 in response to the study report, Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher said the report “does little to inform fisheries management decisions” required “to protect and manage the resources of the state of Maine.”
According to Dwayne Shaw, executive director of the Downeast Salmon Federation, before the dam was built in 1907, the Union River was considered a prime Atlantic salmon river. Even now, he said, a few salmon return to the river in the spring but they are unable to get over the dam to their freshwater spawning grounds.
Between 1971 and 2014, according to DMR, more than 1.5 million hatchery-raised salmon fry (juvenile salmon) were released into the Union River above the dam. DMR estimates that, this year, between 3,500 and 7,000 wild salmon smolt, progeny of Atlantic salmon stocking in 2011, were present in the Union River during the 2014 seaward migration season and wild salmon returned to the river to spawn.
“Safe, timely and effective downstream and upstream passage is important in a system such as the Union River that still has the capacity to produce wild Atlantic salmon,” Keliher wrote.
Safe fish passage also is an issue for alewife and elver fishermen, Jeff Pierce, executive director of both the Maine Elver Fishermen’s Association and the Alewife Harvesters of Maine, said recently.
Regulators recently imposed significant cuts in the elver harvesters’ allowable landings quota, but agreed that the state could get credit toward larger quotas in future years if it could show substantial habitat restoration for eels.
According to Pierce, it is important to provide better upstream passage for juvenile eels. Elvers now slither up the rocks alongside the dam, but the harvesters and scientists would like to see Black Bear install “Irish eel ramps” that would allow 2-year-old eels 6 to 9 inches long to pass above the dam and into the Union River watershed.
Just as important, he said, is to provide a safe way for mature eels to return to the ocean to spawn. Eels can spend as long as 20 years in fresh water before returning seaward, where a female may produce millions of elvers.
In an ideal world, Pierce said, the dam would allow both adequate passage upstream and safe passage downstream via outward migration tubes. Now, many adult eels are killed as they pass through the Union River dam turbines.
“There is technology for fish-friendly turbines,” he said.
According to the Downeast Salmon Federation’s Shaw, fish kills of the magnitude of the Halloween incident have been “likely since the dam was built but have never been documented.”
As one of the largest river systems in Maine, the Union River “has tremendous fisheries potential for sea-run fish” and could have a significant impact on the state’s fishing economy. “One way to manage a sustainable fishery is to show that (fish) habitat is in suitable condition.”
Earlier this month, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service filed letters with FERC echoing DMR’s concerns about the inadequacy of Black Bear’s Initial Study Report.
In its Nov. 13 letter to Black Bear, FERC gave the company until Nov. 28 to respond to questions raised by the Halloween fish kill. As of Wednesday morning, the FERC website did not show that any response had been filed.
Telephone calls to several numbers listed for Black Bear Hydro Partners were not returned by The Ellsworth American’s deadline.