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Species in the Spotlight: Gulf of Maine Atlantic Salmon DPS

Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar), also known as the “King of Fish,” were once found in North American waters from Long Island Sound in the United States to Ungava Bay in Northeastern Canada. Dams, pollution, and overfishing led to significant declines in wild Atlantic salmon abundance in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Today, the last remaining wild populations of Atlantic salmon in U.S. waters exist in just a few rivers and streams in central and eastern Maine. These populations constitute the Gulf of Maine Distinct Population Segment (DPS) of Atlantic salmon that is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Wild Atlantic salmon populations were once abundant in the United States as far south as the Housatonic River in Connecticut. Atlantic salmon were an important food source that was highly sought after by Native American tribes in the Northeast and American colonists up until the late 1800s. In the late 1800s, Maine’s Fisheries Commissioner, Charles Atkins, suggested that based on the number of weirs and the average daily yield described by fishermen, Atlantic salmon annual harvests in the Kennebec River alone may have once exceeded 200,000 fish.


Find out more about their status, life history (nice illustration), threats, regulations, population trends, conservation efforts, and critical habitat.

What we are doing to recover Atlantic salmon:


Researchers at the Maine Field Station are working to recover wild populations of Atlantic salmon and other fish that migrate between fresh and salt water (diadromous). Employees from both the Northeast Fisheries Science Center and the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office make up the Northeast Atlantic Salmon Team, who are working on a variety of efforts--from studying the water chemistry, turbidity, salinity, and dynamics of the Penobscot River estuary during the smolt migration period to acoustically tagging smolts to find out more about migration and habitat use to conducting trawl surveys to find out more about the fish community--all to help Atlantic salmon recover. Find out more about Atlantic salmon recovery planning.

Recovery Planning

NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service worked together to develop the first Recovery Plan for the Atlantic salmon (Gulf of Maine DPS), published in 2005. The plan includes a threats assessment and recovery strategy that has been implemented. A new plan, based on 10 more years of data and work to recover the species, is due out later this summer. Additionally, NOAA Fisheries works closely with the Penobscot Indian Nation and the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Maine Department of Marine Resources to manage Atlantic salmon cooperatively under the Atlantic salmon framework.

International Coordination

NASCO, the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization, is an inter-governmental convention with six parties--Canada, Denmark (on behalf of the Faroe Islands and Greenland), European Union, Norway, Russian Federation, and U.S.--working together to manage Atlantic salmon throughout their range, from their rivers of birth to their feeding grounds in the sub-Arctic to fisheries zones of other countries.

Habitat Restoration

Dams have been identified as one of the primary threats causing the Gulf of Maine DPS of Atlantic salmon to be in danger of extinction. More than 90% of Maine’s rivers and streams are impacted from the effects of dams. In fact, only approximately 8% of their historic spawning and rearing habitat in Maine is currently accessible. More than 400 dams exist along the rivers and streams that currently support wild Atlantic salmon in Maine and only 75 of these have fishways, a structure such as a fish ladder that allows fish to swim around barriers to reach their natural spawning grounds. Restoring access to historic spawning and rearing habitat is a priority for NOAA Fisheries. NOAA Fisheries focuses on highest priority river restoration projects that are cost-effective, allow for unimpeded fish passage, and restore riverine ecological services.

Education and Outreach

The Northeast Atlantic Salmon Team works to raise awareness of Atlantic salmon and their associated ecosystems and promote the stewardship of healthy rivers, estuaries, and oceans by reaching out to audiences from school-age children to the general public to scientists and resource managers.

Check out our Atlantic Salmon Fact Sheets and our information sheet on Atlantic salmon in the Penobscot River.

This article is Part 4 of our 5 Part Atlantic Salmon Series

Part 1: The Challenges and Successes of Restoring Atlantic Salmon 

Part 2: Myriad of Challenges to Survive at Sea

Part 3: Penobscot River: Unbuild It and They Will Come

Part 5: Who is protecting endangered Atlantic salmon?