The city of Gardiner witnessed a river restoration miracle this summer.

Atlantic sturgeon, once rare in the Kennebec, showed up in force at the mouth of Cobbosseecontee Stream to spawn just a few weeks ago. These giant fish, which have inhabited our planet since the time of the dinosaurs, are spectacular to see. People who live along the Kennebec are familiar with the sight of leaping sturgeon in the river, but what happened in Cobbosseecontee Stream was different. Maine’s Department of Marine Resources estimated that there were hundreds of sturgeon right in the stream itself. As mayor of Gardiner, I was delighted that people from all over Maine came to our community to look at the fish from the bridges over the stream. Some of the sturgeon were 10 feet long!

Sturgeon have returned in full force to Gardiner as a result of decades of river restoration work. The Clean Water Act, and the work of the state, municipal governments, and industry compliance have been responsible for turning the Kennebec into a true gem for central Maine. The removal of the Edwards Dam and other improvements provided sturgeon with access to their historic spawning habitat (the Kennebec below Waterville) and now they have returned. In Gardiner, state agencies recently worked together to design the new bridges across the stream to have a wider channel where the river and stream meet, making it more inviting for these fish to spawn.

Atlantic sturgeon are only one of 12 species of sea-run fish that are native to the Kennebec. Alewife also return to the mouth of Cobbosseecontee Stream, but they cannot reach the lakes above the stream to spawn. Other species, including Atlantic salmon and shad, are stopped at the Lockwood Dam in Waterville. The fish that enter that passage way are trapped and trucked to other places. After watching the successful return of the sturgeon, I have more confidence that Maine can move forward and help all the sea-run fish species reach their ancestral spawning grounds.

The rebirth of the Kennebec has been an important factor in revitalizing our riverfront communities. A cleaner, more inviting river provides more recreational opportunities and draws people to fish, boat, walk, and play. The cleaner river has sparked much needed public-private investments in waterfront parks, restaurants, housing, new businesses, and other infrastructure. Like the fish, our communities are thriving.

The fish in the Kennebec River are an amazing resource for river communities and all who visit. While much progress has been made, dams upstream from Gardiner continue to impact our native fisheries, restricting the river’s wildlife populations and limiting recreational and commercial fishing industries.

The Cobbosseecontee Stream sturgeon run of 2023 was a powerful reminder of the richness of the Kennebec fisheries and a glimpse of what the river could be if we continue to help it return to a more natural state.

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