Atlantic Salmon: A Symbol of Wild America
Forty years ago, while camping at Grand Pitch on the Seboeis River in Maine, I saw something out of the corner of my eye. As I stared at the tannic water cascading over the rocky ledge, a fish of 30-inches or more leaped from the blackness and attempted to clear the falls, only to slide back into the white foam below. It tried twice more over the next ten minutes before disappearing. I had just seen my first Atlantic salmon in the wild, a fish that has haunted me ever since…
When it comes to fish, nothing symbolizes wild America like sea-run, or anadromous, salmon and trout. Born in freshwater, these fish spend several years at sea before returning to their natal streams to replenish their ranks. They travel upwards of 100 miles inland from the ocean, navigating large rivers and waterfalls, and pushing up streams that seem far too small for fish their size. Some die after spawning, some winter over in lakes, and some drop back to sea to repeat the cycle of life.
Atlantic salmon were once found from Long Island Sound to Maine’s border with Canada. Today they are extant in just a handful of rivers and streams in Maine. While most sea-run salmon and trout are in trouble, none are as stressed as Atlantic salmon. By most estimates, fewer than 100 “wild” Atlantic salmon, those born in nature from naturally deposited eggs, return to U.S. rivers and streams in a given year, and it is as likely as not that one or both of their parents originated in a hatchery.
Even the most depressed runs of western salmon and steelhead would represent a notable improvement in regard to the nation’s Atlantic salmon. In many cases, Atlantic salmon runs are now measured in just tens of fish, not hundreds or thousands. Some runs have blinked out altogether, including virtually all outside of Maine in the United States. Only the fabled Penobscot River sees more than a thousand fish return.
In a 2020 article on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website entitled “Penobscot River Salmon Run Surges for Second Straight Year,” a return of just 1,426 salmon was hailed as “encouraging news.” The run is referred to as a “vast improvement” over 2014, when a mere 248 fish returned to the river. These numbers are down from what is said to have been 75,000 to 100,000 fish that returned to the Penobscot before it crashed.
By 1948, things had gotten so bad in regard to the nation’s Atlantic salmon that the commercial fishery was suspended. Unfortunately, the impacts of recreational angling were ignored, and while salmon stocks were collapsing, anglers continued to harvest critically important adult fish returning to the rivers and streams to spawn. The walls of salmon clubs across the northeast are still adorned with pictures of proud anglers holding large dead Atlantic salmon.
After decades of posturing, infighting, and inaction, Atlantic salmon were finally listed as “Endangered” by NOAA and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2000. As a result of political wrangling by Maine, only Cove Brook on the lower Penobscot and the Dennys, Ducktrap, East Machias, Machias, Narraguagus, Pleasant, and Sheepscot Rivers were included in the listing, leaving the critically important Penobscot River and its middle and upper tributaries in limbo.
In 2009, the recovery zone, or Distinct Population Segment (DPS), associated with the federal ESA listing pertaining to Atlantic salmon was expanded to include the Penobscot, Kennebec, and Androscoggin Rivers, the first of which is, and always has been, ground-zero for Atlantic salmon restoration in the United States. This recognized that the species as a whole, not just specific populations, was in trouble.
A Species of National Significance
Atlantic salmon were an important seasonal food source for the indigenous people of the northeast, including the Penobscot Nation and Passamaquoddy and Maliseet Tribes of Maine. They were utilized by early European settlers as well. Even today, Atlantic salmon are highly coveted as table fare.
Called the “King of Fish” and “The Leaper” due to their unmatched fighting ability and acrobatic jumps, Atlantic salmon helped define the United States’ recreational angling scene, and played an important role in early outdoor sporting history, lore, literature, and art. Atlantic salmon were the fish of choice of luminaries such as President George H. Bush, baseball legend Ted Williams who referred to them as “the greatest of game fish,” and fly fishing and fish conservation icon Lee Wulff who wrote a book about them. For many, Atlantic salmon represent the pinnacle of recreational angling.
Established in 1887, the Penobscot Salmon Club in Brewer, Maine, is said to be the oldest fishing club in America. The equally famous Veazie Salmon Club and Eddington Salmon Club are located on the Penobscot as well, and the Dennys River Sportsman’s Club in Downeast, Maine, once included famed professional boxer Jack Dempsey in its ranks.
For roughly eighty years, the first Atlantic salmon caught in the United States each season was iced and delivered to the President of the United States. The first fish went to President William Howard Taft in 1912, and the last, befittingly, to part-time Maine resident and avid Atlantic salmon angler President George H. Bush in 1992. Referred to as the “Presidential Salmon,” no other species of fish has been so honored.
The United States has numerous official symbols including the bald eagle as our National Bird, and the North American bison as our National Mammal. We have a National Tree (elm) and Flower (rose), as well as a National Anthem and Motto. We do not, however, have an official National Fish.
The most recent attempt to establish a National Fish was in 2015, when a U.S. Representative from New Jersey, Tom MacArthur, introduced the Striped Bass American Heritage Act. The initiative apparently didn’t get very far as the website promoting it has been inactive for over five years.
While striped bass and other fish are worthy of consideration, like the bald eagle and North American bison, one species of fish stands above all others in regard to majesty, power, strength, and endurance: the Atlantic salmon. As the sea-run life history strategy stands above all other lifeforms of fish, no species stands out among its anadromous peers like Atlantic salmon.
In 2021, U.S. Senators Susan Collins and Angus King of Maine issued a joint statement saying that “Atlantic salmon are a critical part of our state’s marine ecosystem, but they are endangered and at risk of extinction… We welcome this [NOAA] funding, which will help to conserve and restore wild Atlantic salmon and their ecosystems across the state.”
Native Fish Coalition (NFC) agrees with Senators Collins and King here. We recently wrote to the Maine Congressional Delegation asking for their help in regard to making Atlantic salmon our official National Fish. With their help, this iconic and historically important fish could get the recognition and support it deserves and needs.
NFC believes that like the bald eagle and American bison, Atlantic salmon should and can be saved. When it comes to saving something, symbolism is a powerful tool. And when it comes to symbolism, nothing is more powerful than a national symbol designation. Given the same level of attention, Atlantic salmon could experience a similar success story as our National Bird and National Mammal.
If there is a more worthy candidate for National Fish designation than Atlantic salmon, NFC is not aware of it. While there are other species that stand out among their peers, Atlantic salmon should be at the top of any list in regard to National Fish designation. Like the bald eagle and American bison, the Atlantic salmon is a symbol of wild America and deserving of recognition at the national level.
Bob Mallard is a founding member and Executive Director for Native Fish Coalition with chapters in 16 states from Maine to Alabama. He is a former fly shop owner, Registered Maine Fishing Guide, blogger, writer, author, fly designer, and twenty-five-year native fish advocate. Bob can be reached at Info@NativeFishCoalition.org.