EAST MACHIAS, Maine — The eggs aren’t in warm little nests. They aren’t being warmed by a heat lamp. Instead, 20,000 eggs of endangered Atlantic salmon are floating in trays of 32-degree water from the river where their parents were raised.
The Downeast Salmon Federation’s East Machias Aquatic Research Center is the only nongovernmental facility in Maine that is raising endangered Atlantic salmon.
“This is a milestone,” federation biologist Jacob van de Sande said Tuesday. “The DSF has been working towards a conservation-research hatchery on the East Machias River for almost 10 years.”
Van de Sande checks the trays twice daily, making sure the filters are cleaning the sand from water pumped in from the East Machias River next to the research center, ensuring that the temperature remains constant, and watching that the water continuously flows gently over the incubation trays that contain the coral-colored eggs.
Van de Sande admits that raising the eggs is an awesome responsibility.
“The federal agencies have been stocking rivers for years with fry,” van de Sande said. “The success has been marginal. We at DSF have been looking at other techniques, such as raising the eggs in the river water here at the facility.”
All of the eggs are from endangered fish. “These fish are an important part of the [Atlantic salmon] restoration effort,” he said.
The location of the hatchery in downtown East Machias creates a great opportunity to involve the community in salmon restoration, van de Sande said. The hatchery operations are overseen by DSF staff, but day to day the hatchery is run by local volunteers and students from Washington Academy and the University of Maine at Machias.
DSF will rear the eggs until May when they will be stocked in the East Machias River as fry.
“This is the first time endangered East Machias salmon have been raised outside of Craig Brook, the federal hatchery, and marks the beginning of a long-term project to rear the salmon in water from their river of origin,” van de Sande said.
DSF intends to use the rearing and stocking techniques to increase the survival rate of stocked salmon in Down East rivers.
“With improved rearing and stocking techniques, more young salmon will make it to sea where they can grow large and then return to the river to spawn,” van de Sande said. “This will eventually rebuild a recreational fishery for Atlantic salmon.”
For the past 15 years, the Maine Atlantic salmon restoration program has focused on using river-specific strains of salmon.
“For example, the salmon stocked into the East Machias River came from parents that were taken from the East Machias as juveniles, raised to adulthood and then spawned to produce the eggs that are reared to fry to be stocked into the river,” the biologist said. “For the past 15 years all of this was done at the Craig Brook Na-tional Fish Hatchery in East Orland. Unfortunately, while this program has kept the Atlantic salmon of Down East Maine from going extinct, it has not resulted in recovery of population numbers.”
Van de Sande said DSF, which last year raised landlocked salmon for release in Grand Lake Stream, has a good success rate and a low mortality rate.
“Here, we have a genetic representation of a large population,” van de Sande said, “while at Craig Brook they literally have all their eggs in one basket. If there were to be a catastrophic event there, they would lose the genetic code.”
The biologist said the goal of the program is eventually to put the hatcheries out of business.
“I’d rather be doing field research,” he said. “I’m a biologist.” Looking around at all the piping, pumps and motors keeping the eggs viable, van de Sande said, “Now, I’m a plumber.”
He said that once the restocking program is working well, the plan is to begin transferring the tiny fry to larger tanks at the facility and raise them until they are about 4 inches long. They would then be stocked back into the East Machias River.
“There are still so many unanswered questions as to why Atlantic salmon are not surviving in fresh water,” van de Sande said. An important study is under way at the University of Maine, he said, which involves looking at the overlapping habitat of bass, which were introduced in Maine’s waters, and Atlantic salmon, which are native.
“We eventually would like to set up an artificial stream channel here at the center, stock it with salmon and bass and, by varying the temperatures of the water, look at the competitive interaction between the species,” he said.
To learn more about the project, arrange for a tour or volunteer to assist with hatchery operations call 483-4336 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.