COLUMBIA FALLS, Maine — It may seem odd at first glance that the Downeast Salmon Federation is in the blueberry business.
But the two go hand in hand, director Dwayne Shaw explained this week, when it comes to preserving salmon habitat.
“As salmon conservators, we have concerns regarding the extent of the growth of blueberry lands, particularly as it encroaches the buffers along the rivers,” Shaw said.
“Our concern is pesticide drift,” he added. “Our concern is also the number of access roads that are poorly constructed. Every blueberry road that crosses a stream is a barrier to fish movement.”
For the past four years, the federation has been managing 33½ acres of donated blueberry lands in Township 25 and Deblois.
“Other than the state of Maine, we are the largest organic blueberry producers in the state,” Shaw said this week.
By making the transition to organic, Shaw estimates that the federation was able to double the value of its crop while eliminating the use of pesticides in the Machias River watershed.
The harvester got an even bigger boost recently when Merrill Blueberry Farms Inc. in Ellsworth was able to obtain organic certification for one of its storage freezers.
Merrill also will be providing a harvesting crew, as well as the processing, freezing and marketing of the federation’s berries. “We will be harvesting about 40,000 pounds, or one tractor-trailer load,” Shaw said. “This is just a beginning. We hope this will stimulate others to switch to organic growing.”
Shaw said Maine Coast Heritage Trust is spearheading a grass-roots effort, which is still in its early stages, to form a coalition of local organic blueberry growers.
“We are hoping, with the conventional price of blueberries dropping and the organic price rising, more producers will look at managing organically,” Shaw said.
In making the switch, Shaw said the federation looked at several factors, including demand and price. “The demand for organic berries is staggering,” he said. The federation will be selling some of its harvest to an organic yogurt producer in New York.
“By selling organic, we can double our profit,” Shaw said.
The federation was given 420 acres in Deblois and carefully manages its impact on the salmon habitat. “This property was once slated to be a 20-acre subdivision. Three and a half acres are in blueberry production,” Shaw said. The property was a gift to the federation from the Pieri family of Rhode Island, which formerly owned the Boston Celtics.
“This is a very historical site,” Shaw said. “It is on the Machias River, and at the Wigwams — a series of rapids — there are some of the best salmon pools in the United States. Arthur Godfrey, Ted Williams, many famous people have fished there.”
A lot of the federation’s work is focused on water quality research and the effects of herbicides on Atlantic salmon.
“We know that pesticides and herbicides are not good for aquatic life,” Shaw said. “We know that there are small amounts of herbicides in the Pleasant River all the time, and this was not the case 30 years ago. This may be contributing to the fishery’s decline.”
The federation also is looking into the effects of acid rain on habitat.