Alumni Profile: Brandon Kulik '76

Majors: American Studies,Environmental Studies
Brandon Kulik

Source: Colby Echo, 10/28/09

The Penobscot River Restoration Project is an assertive, aggressive, public-private attempt to restore native fish populations in the Penobscot River.

Over 150 years of land clearing, sewage waste and industrial pollution by pulp, paper, textile and lumber mills turned the river into what Brandon Kulik '76 refers to as a "biological desert."

The Penobscot River continued to succumb to extreme amounts of sludge and contamination until the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972 and a series of hydro quality reforms in the 1980s.

Today, the Penobscot River Restoration Project is issuing a new wave of reforms primarily focused on removing the Veazie and Great Works Dams, and on creating a bypass around the Howland Dam to allow for migratory fish passage. The dams are being removed to allow native fish to migrate upstream to breeding grounds that have been barred for over the past few decades.

The project will hopefully rejuvenate populations of fish such as the Atlantic salmon and sturgeon, which are bordering on extinction. While many people may equate the removal of the Veazie and Great Works Dams with a loss of renewable water energy, the remaining dams along the river are being retooled with more efficient turbines. These upgrades will equal, and in some cases surpass, the amount of energy lost by the impending dam removal.

Currently, the policies and procedures for the dam removal are being conducted informally in business and government offices, and the physical removal of the dams is not slated to occur for another year or two. Conversely, other aspects of the restoration project are currently visible on the river itself.

Kulik is one member of a team of fisheries biologists who are collecting data on the current fish populations in the Penobscot. The data collected through these studies will be used to compare population samples from before and after the restoration project. The team takes samples all along the 100-mile mainstream throughout the spring, late summer and early fall.

Kulik claims that they have been fortunate to have the opportunity to collect data two years in a row, beginning in 2008, and that they are lucky to have data from a previous study Kulik conducted for the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) using the same methodologies in 2004.

The most prevalent method used for counting fish is "electrofishing." Kulik says that electrofishing is popular because it is "highly mobile" and "misses almost nothing." Electrofishing uses a charged electric field Kulik describes as "similar to the tractor beam effect from Star Wars." Any fish caught in the oval or cone of the electric field are beamed to the surface for counting.

Another, though less widespread, methodology is hydroacoustics. Hydroacoustics is primarily used in the lower sections of the river inhabited by small populations of fish. Hydroacoustics takes a sonar sampling of a cross section of the river, comparable to a large-scale ultrasound, and depicts the shapes of fish swimming through the section. Each fish has a distinctive shape that fisheries biologists can monitor on the screen.

Kulik envisions positive outcomes from the Penobscot River Restoration Project, not only in the repopulation of fish, but also in the benefits a growth in fish population will create for the surrounding ecosystem.

Kulik terms the phenomenon the "ecological ripple effect." 

Much of the ecosystem along the Penobscot has been "very anemic" for the last 150 years. Wildlife within the area such as eagles, raccoons and minx have been deprived of the marine protein or nutrients they derive from spring fish migrations upstream. The mussel population of the river has also substantially decreased from lack of its transportation system. Without fish to carry the mussels upstream, only a few pockets remain throughout the river. The reduction of mussels subsequently affects the water quality of the river since muscles are powerful water filters. Not only are fish populations at stake in this project, but also ecosystems spanning the entirety of the 150-mile river.

Kulik attributes much of how he approaches his career and his work to the experience he had as an undergraduate on the Hill. Kulik said, "Colby gave me a black and white, solid foundation to move forward from."

"I got to know a little bit about everything...many people in science have a hard time transferring data into terms that others can understand. Colby gave me the ability to be able to communicate what I'm doing. Although I am a fishery biologist, I am fearless at being able to write, at sitting down and creating something to get science out to the people," he said.