EAST MACHIAS, Maine — Tens of thousands of juvenile North Atlantic salmon are being prepped for life in the wild after months of tender loving care at the East Machias Aquatic Research Center.
A labor-of-love, work-in-progress underwritten by the Downeast Salmon Federation, the new facility on the banks of the East Machias River has been nurturing 65,000 young salmon “parr,” now as large as four inches. They are the survivors of 80,000 eggs delivered to the new hatchery in January, a “relatively good” survival rate, according to Jacob van de Sande, the hatchery’s fisheries biologist.
“I would have liked to see a higher survival rate, but it’s the first run for this hatchery,” he said Friday. “It’s a whole new system — a whole new water system, all new tanks — and it’s been a very warm summer. All things considered, I think we’ve done very well. Our hatchery consultant, Peter Gray, came over from Scotland and was quite pleased with the quality of the fish, and that makes us happy.”
Throughout the ongoing, 10-month process of incubating and nurturing the young salmon, students from nearby Washington Academy have taken a hands-on role. Science teacher Don Sprangers has been using the hatchery as a laboratory for his coastal ecology students. About a dozen students walked to the hatchery Friday afternoon to clip the fins of young salmon so they can be identified after being released into the East Machias River watershed within a few weeks.
“We have to mark them so that we can tell these fish from other fish that were either stocked as fry or are the result of wild reproduction,” said van de Sande. “Our goal is to mark these fish so that, when we go to assess the success of our stocking program, we can tell the difference between our fish and other fish.”
The Washington Academy students wore surgical gloves and used a special tool to leave a distinguishing notch on the fins of the young salmon. Before being clipped, the fish were immersed in an anesthetic solution that, in effect, renders them lifeless and unconscious for about 20 seconds.
“When it comes to clipping 65,000 fish, it’s quite useful to have many hands,” van de Sande said. “We’ve already clipped about 13,000 so far with the help of students. It’s worked out quite well.”
It will likely be the first week of November before the water temperature in the East Machias River is ideal for stocking the young salmon.
“We’ll be stocking in every piece of known habitat that we can access,” he said. “We’re probably talking 30 miles from the headwater tributaries to this hatchery. We’ll load the fish up here in a truck with a big tank of recirculated and oxygenated water and then load the fish into 5-gallon buckets and gently dump them out into the river, making sure that the water temperature in the tank is within a few degrees of the water temperature of the river.”
There are 25 different stocking sites on the East Machias River, he said, some easily accessible, others not.
“Some are easy to drive right up,” he said. “Others, we’ll load up canoes with coolers with oxygen and take them up the river.”
How long the restocking process will take is anyone’s guess, van de Sande said. “It’s the first time around. We’re writing the book now.”
Once restocking is completed, the East Machias hatchery’s equipment will be drained and cleaned. Plans are to add six additional tanks, bringing the total to 10 tanks. Next year the hatchery hopes to take delivery on 180,000 eggs, which is 100,000 more than this year. Eventually a 10-tank hatchery could accommodate as many as 400,000 eggs, all sourced from the Craig Brook National Fish Hatchery in Orland.
“We want to totally saturate this river,” van de Sande said.
“It’s been well below the 10-year average,” he said, “which is disappointing after last year. In the Narraguagas River we had a count of 200 last year; this year it was 18. Last year, on the Penobscot, the count was 3,000. This year they haven’t hit 700. What we’re seeing in Maine has also been true in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Quebec, and to some degree Newfoundland. The thinking is that the low return is the result of something that’s going on in the ocean. Just what is the million-dollar question.”