On a cool sunlit morning, as mist hovers over the stream, the salmon begin to move, returning home. There is nothing like the sight of a salmon returning from the ocean waters, up a river to where it began life, to spawn and make new life. Many years ago, those sights were plentiful on the East Machias River and brought with them a cadence to life in Downeast Maine. But today there is a quiet absence. The salmon have nearly disappeared from this and other rivers Downeast, but for one organization the commitment to bring back the Atlantic salmon is just as strong today as it was back in 2000, when it began the challenging task.
The East Machias Aquatic Research Center (EMARC) is owned and operated by the Downeast Salmon Federation (DSF). The facility is housed in what was an abandoned hydro plant located in East Machias, sitting directly on the banks of the river. With the dam long gone, there was an opportunity to create a hub for research and education and a chance to achieve the ultimate goal: hatching and releasing Atlantic salmon into this river and having them return in the fall to spawn.
The hatchery within the facility is named for the late Peter Gray, who developed a successful salmon-rearing technique in the United Kingdom on the River Tyne. The Tyne had been void of the fish, but now it's one of the top salmon rivers in all of the UK. This technique was brought over to Maine to be replicated on the East Machias River. The building was remodeled, and the first rearing of salmon at the hatchery took place in 2012.
The parr project is now in its fourth year of an initial five‑year contract. EMARC hopes to implement the second phase of the plan over the next five years. Traditional salmon stocking methods call for fry -- salmon just beginning to feed C to be released in the spring. The method EMARC uses is a parr release in the fall. Kyle Winslow, hatchery manager, explains, "We are stocking fall parr, which are nine months old -- five months older than fry. We keep the fish in the hatchery over the first summer and stock in the fall when they are bigger, and at a time when they don't have to focus on competing with other species for food, but rather on finding their place in the river to overwinter. The fish are better able to evade predators, and at this point have made it past their most vulnerable life stage."
EMARC runs the hatchery on a budget of $200,000 annually. The building also houses offices for Maine Coast Heritage Trust as well as the Conservation Fund. Continued state funding for the project is in limbo as LD 450 was carried over in May and is anticipated to come up again for a vote next winter. This bill, if passed, would provide much-needed funding for EMARC and DSF to continue their efforts with this project, as well as construct similar hatcheries on the Narraguagus and Machias rivers.
As with any program, results are the key to funding. The gains have been small to date, but there have been signs that momentum is building, and the potential for greater success may be close at hand. Winslow says, "There have been successes in the four years since the project started. Over 270,000 fall parr have been stocked into the East Machias River, with another 230,000 scheduled for this October." Through a process known as electrofishing, EMARC has seen the largest densities of juvenile salmon in the river in 25 years. Winslow adds, "We also continue to see heavy populations of healthy smolts [the stage after parr] that were reared at EMARC headed to the ocean. In line with the Atlantic salmon life cycle, it takes an average of three years after we stock our fish before we could see some returning adults. Based on our smolt trapping results, we will likely see adult returns start to increase in 2016."
Challenges still remain. The Atlantic salmon, once prevalent Downeast, has been at very low numbers for some time. As for why that is, Winslow says, "It is a long and complex answer. There are many factors that played a part in the current state of fish populations. One of the biggest would be habitat degradation. Two hundred years of log driving, dam building and sedimentation have taken away vital habitat for all fish, including Atlantic salmon. Overfishing is another factor, both in freshwater and at sea." Winslow points out that the same populations of salmon that are endangered here in Maine are still commercially harvested in their summer feeding grounds off Greenland.
The return of the Atlantic salmon is an open book that is still writing its next chapter, but there are also other things EMARC provides to the community. Winslow says, "EMARC has had thousands of students, community members, out-of-state visitors and volunteers come through the doors since its opening. The parr project is also unique in that it is a working conservation project that involves non‑government organizations, international organizations, communities, individuals and local, state and federal agencies all working together toward a common goal of restoring our rivers."
The road ahead continues to be a challenging one. The factors against the salmon's return appear to outweigh those that are favorable, but the dedication and commitment of EMARC will no doubt continue. And, if successful, what awaits is the sight of the Atlantic salmon moving in the early morning hours towards the end of a long journey, a journey home.