EAST MACHIAS, Maine — The Downeast Salmon Federation took delivery this week on 53,000 North Atlantic salmon eggs that will be among 125,000 to be incubated and reared to “parr” stage over the next nine months for release into the East Machias River watershed in Washington County.
The eggs are being provided by the Craig Brook National Fish Hatchery in Orland to the federation’s East Machias Aquatic Research Center, which opened in 2011 on the East Machias River after being retrofitted from a long-abandoned Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. hydro-dam generating facility.
Last year the facility worked with 80,000 salmon eggs and was able to release about 54,000 young fish that measured 5 to 7 inches into upriver streams and lakes in Washington County’s Township 19 and other remote areas. Some of the 25 stocking sites were only accessible by canoe.
This year’s expansion of the program to 125,000 eggs will require the center to quickly expand its unique hatchery system from four nursery tanks to 10, a project expected to cost $50,000.
“We need to ramp up our incubation equipment, and soon,” Jacob van de Sande, the hatchery’s fisheries biologist, said Thursday. “The eggs we are taking delivery on now will begin hatching in early March.”
A 10-tank hatchery system, he said, could eventually accommodate as many as 400,000 eggs.
Van de Sande said the center hopes to receive some of the funding required — $10,000 to $15,000 — through the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund, which distributes revenue from the state’s scratch-off lottery ticket sales. Since the conservation-themed scratch tickets first went on sale in 1996, they have generated over $16.9 million used to fund grants to more than 800 projects statewide, according to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
While van de Sande is at work finalizing the budget for the hatchery expansion, The Downeast Salmon Federation also is soliciting donations required as matching funds for a $50,000 grant from the Freeport-based Elmina B. Sewall Foundation. That grant, which is contingent on being matched, was among $6.4 million in conservation and animal welfare grants made by the Sewall Foundation to 138 organizations during its 2011-12 grant cycle, mostly to nonprofit groups in Maine.
If the matching funds can be raised by May, the Downeast Salmon Federation plans to use the money to finish the second floor of the East Machias Aquatic Research Center building.
“The second floor has been plumbed so that we can put in tanks and establish a laboratory,” said Alan “Chubba” Kane of Gouldsboro, a member of the federation’s board of directors and the president of the Maine Council of the Atlantic Salmon Federation. “We need to do some insulation, finish the walls and install flooring. We want to establish a conference room that can be used as a classroom and a space where we can host groups of people … There’s been an in-kind donation of a kitchen, so he can host events right there.
“Once this second-floor facility is finished, we can do a lot of fish biology research and water quality work right here, in-house,” Kane said. “We’d like to help coordinate the research that is going on and become the information center for all of Down East Maine. That was our vision years ago, and we’re almost there.”
So far, Kane said, $17,000 has been raised for the required $50,000 match.
“The clock is ticking,” he said. “We’ve got to start hustling and calling in favors. We have $17,000, but we still have two-thirds of it to raise.”
As it has in recent years, the center will involve students from nearby Washington Academy in the hands-on elements of raising juvenile salmon, from incubation to fall release. As a first step students will help van de Sande and others cull the thousands of eggs already on hand to remove those that have died or appear to be diseased.
Van de Sande said the center won’t know until September how the young fish introduced to the wild last fall have fared. When the state undertakes its annual juvenile fish census this fall the salmon raised in East Machias will be identified by distinctive notches placed on their fins, which is among the tasks assigned to Washington Academy students.
Van de Sande and other fish biologists are concerned that Atlantic salmon returns to Maine rivers for spawning were poor last year. In the Narraguagus River the count was 200 in 2011. In 2012 it was 18. On the Penobscot River, the count was 3,000 in 2011 and less than 700 in 2012.
“What we’re seeing in Maine has also been true in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Quebec, and to some degree Newfoundland,” said van de Sande. “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.”