The Last Presidential Salmon

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The Last Presidential Salmon

August 9, 2019 | News | No Comments

For almost a century, the first Atlantic salmon caught each season was delivered to the President of the United States. The first of these fish, an eleven-pound silver, was sent by Karl Andersen, a Norwegian house painter in Bangor, Maine, to President William Howard Taft, in 1912. Andersen had caught the fish in the Kenduskeag Stream, on April 1st, when the water would have been flush with ice, and cold enough to numb his legs. He used a pliant bamboo rod, and sent the fish as a gift from Bangor; he hoped it would “contribute to the city’s need of honor and respect.” (His bet didn’t pay off: Bangor is now best known as the model for Stephen King’s Derry—a fictional town populated by cannibalistic clowns and reanimated zombie pets.) On April 12th, he packed the salmon with straw and ice and placed it on an overnight train to the capital. Taft ate it poached whole, with cream sauce and a garnish of parsley.

The Kenduskeag, which in the language of the local Penobscot Nation means “eel weir place,” had long been famous for its salmon runs. But by the time Andersen landed his fish the salmon population was already in freefall. Hundreds of dams were installed on New England’s rivers during the industrial revolution, presenting unnavigable walls for the migratory fish. As early as the nineteenth century, the Penobscot begged the governor of Maine to address the falling salmon numbers, but the condition of the waterways only worsened. A 1960 report by the city’s health department claimed that Bangor was using “the same sewage treatment facilities as that given to the crewmen of Samuel de Champlain’s ship in 1604.” It described “sewage solids” accumulating on the Kenduskeag’s banks, children and animals playing in a mixture of feces and “thick green scum,” and, strangest of all, a city program that drew water from a particularly sewage-heavy section and sprayed it on I-95—apparently in an effort to control dust.

Andersen, whether wittingly or not, enshrined a local tradition. President Franklin Roosevelt accepted thirteen salmon—a record that no other President has come close to matching. The annual gifting continued through to Dwight Eisenhower’s Presidency, when the Penobscot River, which the Kenduskeag flows into, became so polluted that all fishing in the region paused for some years. In 1964, after fishing resumed, President Lyndon Johnson ate a fish from the Narraguagus River that had been sliced into steaks and poached in a French style. (For culinarily-inclined readers, the science writer Catherine Schmitt has catalogued almost all Presidential salmon meals in her book, “The President’s Salmon.”) But the salmon population continued to dwindle. Since 1986, no commercial fisherman has reported landing a wild Atlantic salmon.

In 1992, the final Presidential salmon, weighing nine and a half pounds, was caught by Claude Z. Westfall, a sixty-four-year-old fisherman, in the Penobscot River. (The following year, Westfall’s son caught what would have been the last salmon, but due to what Westfall cryptically called “politics” the fish was never delivered.) As the president of the Veazie Salmon Club, Westfall kept tabs on who fished on opening day and what they caught, so he knew that he was the first person to land a salmon that year. He kept the fish cool while he fished out the rest of the morning. When he got home, he slit its belly from gill to vent, reached inside, and pulled out its organs. Then he packed its cavity with ice and placed it in his freezer. Once frozen, a fish can be thawed only once before being eaten.

Most Presidential salmon were shipped to the White House, or occasionally hand-delivered by Maine politicians hoping to get a special audience. But Westfall refused to let anyone else deliver his fish. On May 25th, he and his wife, Rosemae, placed it in a cooler in the back seat of their car and drove three hours to the compound of President George H. W. Bush, in Kennebunkport. Security guards checked their car, their bodies, and finally disappeared into a shed with the fish. “I don’t know what they did with it,” Westfall said. Five minutes later, they returned with the fish and waved the couple through.

Claude and Rosemae spent the afternoon with the President and the First Lady. Bush was an avid Atlantic salmon angler himself and particularly loved fishing up north in Canada. While they spoke, Bush pointed out the Coast Guard cutters by the bay and the photos of state leaders that sat framed on his walls. After the visit, they kept in touch. At one point, Westfall—who had spent around sixty years fishing the rivers and streams of the northeastern U.S.—invited the President to join him on a trip in Maine. Bush, citing a busy schedule, respectfully declined. Today, one of Westfall’s most prized possessions is a photo of the four of them. In it, Westfall displays the glistening fish while the President and the First Lady smile at the camera. Rosemae points—mouth open in delight—at the Bush family’s two dogs, who are leaping at the salmon. “Not too many people get an opportunity like that,” Westfall said.

Bush was the last person to receive a Presidential fish. Eight years later, in 2000, Atlantic salmon were listed as endangered.

Fishermen call salmon “leapers” because, when they spawn, they leap out of the water and flash in the sun. I learned this in 2014, when I moved to Alaska. I sold salmon for a nonprofit and occasionally went out with the fishermen to catch the fish myself. I spent most of the trips throwing up over the side of the boat, but I learned to scan the horizon for jumping fish, because the sight of one would almost always mean many more below. Salmon are anadromous. They are born in freshwater; migrate hundreds of miles within the ocean, quickly adapting to salt water; and then return to their natal streams to spawn. They are muscled, powerful fish, and, if you’re lucky enough to see one at the start of its journey, the way it swims through rushing water takes your breath away. Salmon expend all of their energy on their upstream migration—they don’t eat—and the transition from cool salt water to warm freshwater physically stresses their system. Atlantic salmon can survive two or three spawning seasons, though many die after just one. Pacific salmon literally disintegrate in the water at the end of their journey.

Salmon are an indicator species: in a fracturing ecosystem, they’re among the first to die off. States across New England have spent the past half century trying to bring back the fish. They’ve dismantled dams, stocked fry, and instituted fishing regulations. Connecticut alone spent eight and a half million dollars over the past thirty-two years on restoring salmon, largely without success. The last significant wild population left in the continental United States is in Maine. (There are still scattered populations across North America—mostly in Canada.) Each year, Maine’s Department of Marine Resources and United States Fish and Wildlife Service stocks the rivers and streams with millions of salmon eggs and fry and thousands of parr and smolts. In 2018, only about a thousand seafaring salmon returned home.

Last spring, I visited Rory Saunders, a fisheries biologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who grew up in Bangor and now works on restoring Atlantic salmon in Maine. When Saunders was growing up, several paper mills dumped polluted wastewater directly into rivers. Through the sixties, “paper mill sludge rafts” (floating collections of mill pollution and trash) regularly drifted down the Penobscot. He’d fish the stream and catch yellow perch or smallmouth bass—fish that, as he delicately put it, “aren’t very demanding of water quality.” He still remembers his parents scolding him for playing by the water. “We’d come back smelling like a sewer,” he told me. “Of course, things are a lot better now.” During the seventies, Bangor began cleaning up the Kenduskeag because of the Clean Water Act. The mills surrounding the city were prevented from dumping waste directly into the water, the city built a sewage-treatment plant, in 1968, and the river began to recover.

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The Kenduskeag is now a swift-running stream that flows through the city to the Penobscot. Some fish have started to reappear. In 2015 and then again in 2017, a single, lonely salmon redd, or nest, was spotted in the gravel. Saunders tells me that he’s hopeful. Right now, he said, the federal government plans to delist Maine’s Atlantic salmon population in about seventy-five years, providing that “everything remains steady.”

That “everything” refers to fishing regulation off the coast of Greenland, water temperatures, ocean pH levels, and, notably, federal funding for NOAA. Global warming makes the Atlantic salmon’s future uncertain. The increased acidification in the ocean that comes from rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, for example, has the potential to interfere with salmon’s ability to smell, which makes it difficult to sense predators, find food, and navigate to spawning grounds. Shallow streams are more vulnerable to both daily and extreme temperature swings than oceans, and, as freshwater temperatures soar, traditional runs in the South won’t support salmon populations. Developmental stages—the transitions between the eggs, fry, parr, smolt, and returning salmon—are governed by changes in water temperature, and warmer waters can disrupt the salmon’s life cycle by triggering stunted growth or premature hatching. Over the next thirty years, we will see mass extinctions on a scale that humans have never witnessed before. A recent U.N. report predicted that a million species—about an eighth of the estimated species alive today—are likely to vanish unless something changes drastically. When I see salmon running, it feels like I’m watching something that will soon disappear.

On the same day that I went to see Saunders, I visited Westfall at his home, in Orono. I’d spent nearly seven hours in the car that day, and, when I arrived at our interview five minutes early, I parked in the driveway and closed my eyes to stretch. When I opened them, Westfall, now ninety-one, wearing a plaid shirt and a cell-phone holster and holding a large black cat, was standing next to my door. “Well, come in when you’re ready,” he said.

Inside, the house was neat and orderly. Rosemae had died seven years earlier, and these days, Westfall told me, it was just him and the cat. He took me into his basement, where the walls are covered with exquisite, framed fishing flies. Periodically during our interview, Westfall pointed to one of the frames and asked me to guess how much each was worth. (Between five hundred and three thousand a fly, apparently.) At one point, he rifled through boxes, pulled something out, and pressed it into the palm of my hand: a hand-tied foxfire fly, made of dyed squirrel fur and black ostrich herl, ribbed with silver tinsel—perfect for catching salmon.

Westfall is one of the greatest Atlantic salmon anglers left alive. In addition to serving as the president of the Veazie Salmon Club, he was a founding member of the Maine Council of the Atlantic Salmon Federation. But now most of his days follow a more familiar pattern: he has lunch with one of his friends at the senior center and then spends the afternoon in his basement, puttering around his collection of salmon memorabilia. (He also has a giant model tractor in his basement that he built out of discarded beer cans.) He still goes out to fish, and, when I spoke with him, he was planning a summer camping trip up north, near the border. He told me that he didn’t expect to catch much. I’d spent the past two weeks reporting on efforts to bring back wild Atlantic salmon and had spoken to scientists, fishermen, and conservationists, most of whom had mustered some optimism about the future of the fish. Westfall was the only person to tell me that he thought the salmon were never coming back. He gestured around his basement and at the artifacts on the walls. “But that’s why all this matters,” he said.

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