Date of Award

Fall 12-6-2019

Level of Access Assigned by Author

Open-Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)


Wildlife Ecology and Wildlife Conservation


Jessica Jansujwicz

Second Committee Member

Joseph Zydlewski

Third Committee Member

Carly Sponarski


Hydropower dams represent a significant challenge for the successful migration of sea-run fish, many species of which are in decline. Most hydropower dams in the United States are regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), an independent federal agency responsible for granting 30 to 50-year licenses to projects for their continued operation. Licenses typically include conditions for the conservation of sea-run fish such as fish passage construction, operational changes, monitoring of effectiveness, and other mitigative conditions. While FERC remains the primary authority in licensing, the current regulatory framework stipulates input from other federal and state resource and regulatory agencies, many working from differing timeframes, varying levels of authority, and within the bounds of a complex legal system.

Outside of the relicensing process, modifications and improvements are not required unless prescribed in the original license or prompted by legal action (e.g., the listing of new species under the ESA). In effect, the relicensing process presents the most effective opportunity for agencies to influence dam operations. Due to accelerated construction of hydropower dams in the 1980s, many of the projects in Maine will require relicensing within the next decade requiring input from an array of federal and state agencies. When negotiating hydropower operations, agencies must make timely decisions and examine tradeoffs based on their respective and often competing authorities, values, and objectives. Using the Kennebec and Penobscot Rivers in Maine as a model system, the overall goal of this research is to examine the hydropower relicensing process to: 1) identify and describe the role and authority of resource agencies during dam relicensing, 2) determine the factors that may affect the design and implementation of fish passage measures, and 3) highlight management and policy implications that may be used to inform fish passage decisions and future relicensing efforts. This research provides the historical context for fish passage in the study area and describes hydropower regulation.

The first chapter uses content analysis of relicensing documents readily available on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) eLibrary to identify the main factors that influence fish passage decision-making and describe patterns in agency engagement during relicensing. Our results indicate an overall increase in concern for fish passage over time with mitigation measures focused almost exclusively on Atlantic salmon and American eel. Agency engagement and the use of regulatory authority increased after the 1900s, especially with regards to the use of Water Quality Certification conditions as a tool for addressing fish passage. Overall, hydropower projects were found to differ along a spatial gradient with coastal projects correlated strongly to fish passage language and input from the Maine Department of Marine Resources (MDMR), United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and inland projects to input from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW). Despite stated interest in basin-scale planning, policies in support of it, and continued improvement, implementation has been slow at best. Our results suggest there remain significant opportunities to spatially integrate the FERC process.

The second chapter investigates the concept of “best available science” (BAS) as it applies to the relicensing decision process. Agency regulators are tasked with using the BAS to make informed decisions about hydropower operations and management. Although embraced as the standard, best available science is not well-defined and is inconsistently applied. Citation analysis and an online survey of regulatory and resource agency staff were used to identify the informational sources used in relicensing and assess agency perceptions of BAS. Analysis of relicensing documents (n=62) demonstrates that FERC and licensee documents (i.e., documents produced by the individual or organization that was granted the license) are highly similar in citation composition. NOAA reports typically cite more sources and are three times more likely to cite peer-reviewed literature than FERC and licensee documents. Survey data reveals that federal and state agency respondents (n=49) rate peer-reviewed literature highly in terms of BAS, followed by university (e.g., theses), agency (e.g., agency grey literature), and expert sources (e.g., guidance from experts), while industry (e.g., consultant reports) and community (e.g., comments and personal interactions) sources rate poorly. Overall, there is low agreement among respondents with regards to BAS rankings of informational sources. The reported differences in information use may be linked to disparities in access to certain sources, particularly peer-reviewed literature. A common concern expressed by agency staff is the lack of applied technical information for all aspects of dam operations.

One such disparity relates to the difficulty in assessing downstream passage for out-migrating juvenile fish. The final chapter addresses this knowledge gap by describing the development of a novel buoyancy conversion (BC) tag that may be used to facilitate fish recapture for passage assessments. The BC tag uses low-cost materials, does not significantly hinder fish movement, and has a delayed deployment. This chapter provides a detailed description of the BC tag and describes the process used to optimize the tag for a range of fish sizes, specifically for juvenile river herring. This work is intended for the public domain and is meant to be highly adaptable for use with many fish species and life stages.