Salmon and Peas

I’m writing this on the Fourth of July, a day to think about both the founding and current state of our nation.

Dinner will be salmon and peas, a culinary tradition I’ve adopted in adulthood. When I was a child, the holiday repast involved hotdogs and hamburgers, potato salad and ice cream. But these days we eat more fish than meat, and we have made it our ritual to eat salmon, new potatoes and peas on Independence Day, as the early settlers of New England did.

Eating local was the only option in the early days of this country. After a winter of root vegetables and dried, salt-cured meat, a Fourth of July meal of fresh fish with just-picked peas and newly dug potatoes must have been a celebration indeed. At that time, the summer salmon migration upriver from the Atlantic Ocean provided an abundance of protein-rich fish, so it’s no surprise salmon on the Fourth became a traditional meal throughout the region.

The habitat for Atlantic salmon was undermined beginning in the middle of the eighteenth century when industrialization led to rivers across New England being dammed to provide power to the mills along their banks. It either didn’t occur to the dam builders that the river-spanning monoliths would harm the native fish population or they didn’t care, but blocking the rivers prevented sea-run salmon from reaching their spawning grounds.

In addition, until implementation of the Clean Water Act, industrial pollution degraded the water quality to the point that the populations of wild salmon and many other fish species pretty much collapsed. In 2022, Maine is the only state that still has a population of Wild Atlantic salmon, but its endangered status puts it off limits to both the commercial and recreational fishery.

However, as the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead is reported to have said, “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” In recent decades, small groups of committed citizens have dedicated themselves to dam removal and the restoration of water quality in Maine’s rivers, a fact that gives me hope in these days when it is in short supply.

The Presumpscot runs through my community of Westbrook, and it’s a different river today than it was in the mid-1990s, when a concerted restoration effort began. The Friends of the Presumpscot River, the Coastal Conservation Association, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Conservation Law Foundation, as well as government entities such as the Army Corps of Engineers, the Maine Department of Marine Resources and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service have collaborated since that time on reviving the Presumpscot and its wild salmon fishery. The story of their work is captured in this article:

Appreciation for the river—its history, its natural resource values and its future potential—informs the common commitment of those who are involved in this important work. To me, the mix of volunteer and governmental organizations on this list is particularly powerful. Since the 1970s, enormous strides have been made to clean up our water and air, and the most far-reaching and enduring results have been when governmental agencies have coordinated and worked cooperatively with groups of citizen volunteers dedicated to protecting and preserving treasured places and precious water bodies.

Last week the US Supreme Court showed itself to be out of step with this thinking.  In West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency, a 6- 3 court ruled the EPA does not have authority to regulate power plant emissions. The case was about clean air, but the ruling will almost certainly have implications on clean water efforts and many other environmental initiatives. Unless Congress acts, the EPA’s role and resources will be curtailed.

What can you do if you want to be sure not only you but future generations will be able to access Maine rivers for fishing, boating, hiking, birdwatching or any other environmentally sustaining purpose?

  • Join and support volunteer organizations in your area dedicated to the health and vitality of Maine’s rivers. For those who live near the Presumpscot River, information about educational programs and volunteer opportunities can be found here:
  • Contact your Congressional representatives about the value of Maine rivers and the need to protect them with laws that specifically grant to regulatory agencies the authority to implement environmentally positive policies such as emissions controls and dam removal. If you need some talking points, check out this video:
  • Ask my blogmates Richard Cass and Sandra Neily for their ideas about effective action.  Dick is a lifelong fly fisherman and Sandy is an expert at that, too. They know more about Maine Rivers that I ever will and I’m sure they have plenty of suggestions.
  • Register to vote. If you’re registered already, encourage those in your life who are not registered to do so.
  • Vote like the quality of your life depends on it. Because it does.

Brenda Buchanan brings years of experience as a journalist and a lawyer to her crime fiction. She has published three books featuring Joe Gale, a newspaper reporter who covers the crime and courts beat. She is now hard at work on new projects. FMI, go to

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11 Responses to Salmon and Peas

  1. judyalter says:

    Thanks for the positive approach to the environment and for a good dietary suggestion. Salmon and peas sounds better than a hot dog any day!

  2. dickcass says:

    Great piece, Brenda. Guess what’s for dinner . . . 😉

  3. Deborah Botts says:

    I’m not sure you understand the WV decision. Congress makes laws, not bureaucrats. Congress can give specific authority to set emissions by delegating it to bureaucrats, but didn’t. Congress can set emissions themselves in the absence of delegating authority, but didn’t. Congress must act.

    • Brenda Buchanan says:

      Agreed, Deborah. For decades, that regulatory authority has been assumed in good faith, and the results have been, while not perfect, generally good. I grew up in a town with a filthy river thanks to paper mill discharges. Today you can canoe in it, something that would have been terrifying when I was a child.

      The Supreme Court holding means for government agencies to do their jobs, the details of what each agency can do needs to be specifically delegated by Congress. So as you say, Congress must act. Ideally, it should delegate broad authority to the experts in these regulatory agencies. But think about how dysfunctional Congress is these days. It’s going to be a pitched political battle, and we need to prepare for that.

      • Anonymous says:

        I think broad authority and lawmakers not wanting to own their decisions are where the problem started in the first place. How did we get here?

  4. Sandra Neily says:

    From the salmon celebration dinner to the river’s history and your practical list of how to get involved, this was soooo very powerful. And heart felt. (I was on the first run down the Presumpscot after the dam removal. Bit hairy but inspirational. Rocks still full of slime and stink yet to get removed but….oh my… I have good memories of walking out on the low tide sand bar to fish for stripers there, after a few years of cleansing.) Thank you! And of course, my fav quote…that one of Mead. We used to say on river trips when I had the raft company and people discovered the feel of a river for the first time that all they had to do was find a ‘home river’ and love it. Well, this seems to be your river. NIcely done. Have copied it to share……. Thanks for the shout out! S

    • Brenda Buchanan says:

      Thank you, Sandy. I had no idea (but am not at all surprised) you were on that first run once the dam was removed. The Presumpscot is a beautiful river–not as mighty as the Penobscot or the Kennebec or the Androscoggin perhaps–but it has an important history and, thanks to many hardworking, committed volunteers (people like you!) a positive future.

  5. Cathy Counts says:

    Thank you for this, Brenda. From the Independence Day celebratory meal of salmon, peas and new potatoes to the dam-free Presumpscot River, I’m hungry for good nutrition and happy for good actions.

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