Every spring, for thousands of years, the rivers that empty into the North Atlantic Ocean turn silver with migrating fish. Among the crowded schools once swam the King of Fish, the Atlantic salmon. From New York to Labrador, from Russia to Portugal, sea-bright salmon defied current, tide, and gravity, driven inland by instinct and memory to the very streams where they themselves emerged from gravel nests years before. The salmon pools and rivers of Maine achieved legendary status among anglers and since 1912, it was tradition that the first salmon caught in the Penobscot River each spring was presented as a token to the President of the United States. The last salmon presented was in 1992, to George W. Bush.
That year, the Penobscot counted more than 70 percent of the salmon returns on the entire Eastern seaboard, yet that was only 2 percent of the river's historic populations. Due to commercial over harvesting, damming, and environmental degradation of the fish's home waters, Atlantic salmon populations had been decimated. The salmon is said to be as old as time and to know all the past and future. Twenty-two thousand years ago, someone carved a life-sized image of Atlantic salmon in the floor of a cave in southern France. Salmon were painted on rocks in Norway and Sweden. The salmon's effortless leaping and ability to survive in both river and sea led the Celts to mythologize the salmon as holder of all mysterious knowledge, gained by consuming the nine hazelnuts of wisdom that fell into the Well of Segais.
The President's Salmon presents a rich cultural and biological history of the Atlantic salmon and the salmon fishery, primarily revolving around the Penobscot River, the last bastion for the salmon in America and a key battleground site for the preservation of the species.
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Catherine Schmitt is an environmental scientist who has conducted water-quality research in Maine and done work in the red maple swamps of the Connecticut River Valley. She is communications coordinator for Maine Sea Grant and conveys research findings and information about ocean and coastal issues to both public and commercial audiences. A frequent contributor to newspapers and magazines, she lives in Bangor, Maine.