by ROSS PURNELL – FLY FISHERMAN MAGAZINE
ATLANTIC SALMON RECOVERY so far in America has been an expensive failure. In 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service abandoned its 50-year salmon re- recovery program on the Connecticut Riv- er that cost roughly $25 million over that timespan—most of that money support- ing the production of salmon fry raised at the Richard Cronin National Salmon Station. In the final year of that effort, 54 adult fish returned to the river.
The Merrimack River salmon recovery program was canceled in 2013 when only 22 adult fish returned to that New Hampshire river. The program released an average of one million salmon fry into the river annually for 38 years at a taxpayer cost of $750,000 in the final year alone when only 22 adult fish returned to the river.
Not only did these and other decades-long collaborative state and federal efforts fail in their mission to restore salmon stocks to historic levels, they oversaw a dramatic decline in salmon populations in every state and every watershed under their umbrella of responsibility.
Now, for all intents and purposes, wild Atlantic salmon in the United States are gone from their native U.S. range outside of Maine. And in 2000, all the salmon in Maine were listed as endangered. Of the Maine rivers that historically held salmon, eight still have salmon. They are completely extirpated from 14 other drainages.
It’s clear to anyone who has watched this precipitous decline that the same well-trodden path of the past de- cades will not get us any closer to the goal of salmon recovery or even of saving what few salmon we have left. We have to do something different.
When the salmon parr are 2.5 to 5 inches long in November, volunteers—including many local students—help clip the fins of the young fish for identification purposes. The young salmon spend the winter in fresh water, and then migrate downstream to the ocean in the spring.
In 2015 I traveled to Iceland for a whirlwind tour of some of that country’s finest salmon rivers. I was hosted by Eleven Experience—a detail- oriented adventure travel business owned by American Chad Pike. Eleven has been quietly building lodges and developing fishing programs on some of the best fishing waters in the world, from Colorado, to the Bahamas, and most notably in Iceland where the company has been acquiring rod days on salmon rivers such as the Laxá and the Selá that have shown steady increases in catch rates. The fishing is so good that Eleven is building a multimillion-dollar fishing and heli-skiing lodge called Deplar Farm at the head- waters of the Fljótaá River, and has purchased all the annual angling days on the nearby Hölkná River.
Chad Pike is a passionate fly fisher and conservationist who grew up in New Hampshire, so while his business is capitalizing on the best salmon fishing in the world, his family’s Grassy Creek Foundation is simultaneously funding the most significant Atlantic salmon recovery program in the U.S.
The blueprint for this Hail Mary recovery comes from the River Tyne in the U.K. where for decades the annual average catch rate hovered around a few hundred salmon. A new hatch- ery program started by Peter Gray in 1979 boosted the catch to 724 salmon in 1985, with a continuous two de- cades of improvement that resulted in average annual catch rates of 4,000 salmon and 5,500 salmon last year.
The story of the Tyne is recounted by Peter Gray and coauthor Michael Charleston in their book Swimming Against the Tide (The Medlar Press, 2011). The lessons from this greatest Atlantic salmon turnaround in history were not lost on Orri Vigfússon, chairman of the North Atlantic Salmon Fund (NASF), who had been thinking a long time about funding a project in the United States—he just needed a strong candidate river.
If there is a kind of Noah’s Ark that could bring back U.S. Atlantic salmon it might just be the genetic stock of the East Machias River. In 1999, the Downeast Salmon Federation (DSF) demolished a 74-year-old dam on the East Machias that interfered with spawning runs of salmon, but didn’t completely wipe out the strain. The salmon persisted, and the genetical- ly pure East Machias salmon became brood stock at the nearby Craig Brook National Fish Hatchery.
The former Bangor Hydro Electric Facility was renovated to become the East Machias Aquatic Research Cener—headquarters for the grassroots DSF—and the original plan was to build a fairly standard hatchery on-site to pursue the organization’s mission to restore Atlantic salmon to Maine.
“We planned to stock salmon fry, which is what we do on the Pleasant River, but while we were at the planning stage we started talking to Orri Vigfússon and Peter Gray about the River Tyne and the successes they had there,” said Dwayne Shaw, executive director of the DSF.
“Peter’s philosophy was that our hatchery efforts here in America have failed to recover salmon stocks be- cause we’ve been producing inferior fish,” said Shaw. “He believed we needed to produce ‘little athletes’ with a superior ability to survive, grow, navigate the North Atlantic, and return as healthy adults.”
“We work with a lot of great people in the United States and have many supporters there,” said Vigfússon. “I have been looking to do a project there for many years but I needed the right methodology and I needed the right river to get started. Chad Pike is a great supporter of the NASF and has followed the success of the River Tyne for many years, so when I raised the idea of using the same techniques in Maine, he was enthusiastic.”
“I have been fortunate to experience the pristine rivers of Iceland and Norway where nature is still working properly, as well as rivers like the Tyne in the U.K. where nature needed a boost,” said Pike. “When Orri showed we could take these techniques to my home waters in New England, it got me excited to fund what can hopefully become a prototype for further restoration of what were once prolific salmon runs in Maine waters. It is high risk, but it could be very high reward.”
Officially, NASF sponsored the construction ($300,000) and the operation ($150,000 annually) of the Peter Gray Memorial Hatchery, but Pike’s family Grassy Creek Foundation is one of NASF’s major donors, and he earmarked some of his donation specifically for the project. It’s the first time NASF has been involved in a boots-on- the-ground project in America.
Peter Gray passed away suddenly in 2012—the same year that first batch of 80,000 eggs were hatched at the facility that now bears his name. Hanging on the wall of the facility just above the feeding tanks is a wooden plaque that says merely “raising athletes.” The newly hatched eggs went straight into incubation boxes designed by Peter Gray. The Kielder substrate incubator isn’t just a bare box of aerated water, it contains artificial gravel that simulates the habitat that would nurture the al- evins in the wild.
“Peter’s box allows the individual fish to swim out when they want, and when they are ready, rather than when the hatchery manager visually determines they are ready and dumps them all into the feeding tank,” says Shaw. “That one step in the process produc- es much healthier fish going into the next stage.”
It takes four to six weeks in the incubator for the alevins to dissolve their yolk. In the wild, when the yolk is gone the alevins swim up out of the river cobble just when the insect life is developing to feed them.
The newly built Peter Gray Hatchery is a flow-through streamside hatchery—just like the Kielder Hatchery on the Tyne. “Our water is not coming out of a well or pond like so many other hatcheries, it’s coming from the East Machias River so we are relying on 10,000 years of evolutionary connection between the fish and their river to raise wild fish and preserve their genetic legacy,” says Shaw. “We don’t filter the water so there are insects and other and natural variations in water chemistry and temperature coming into the feeding tanks—the hatchery is essentially an extension of the river.”
In most hatcheries the feeding tanks are painted blue to make observation easier for hatchery employees. However, Gray found that observation is an anathema to salmon fry, and in order to hide, they all gathered where the water source entered the tank, using rippled water as cover. That competition for extremely limited space causes excessive fin biting that kills some fry, and leaves the rest with damaged fins that hinder their long-term ability to survive in the wild.
Gray strongly believed that intact fins are a critical part of raising little athletes and he found that when he painted the feeding tanks black, the salmon dispersed evenly throughout the entire feeding tank, preserving the fin quality and enhancing the vitality of the fish.
Most of the millions of Atlantic salmon stocked as part of state and federal recovery programs over the past 30 or more years were dumped in the river as salmon fry in the spring after only about a month in a feeding tank. This, according to Peter Gray, is the single most important reason for the hatchery failures of the past. Just a month after dissolving their yolk, the fry are ill-equipped to deal with variable spring/summer flows, escape predators, or to compete with other fish for food and territory.
“Gray believed that 90 percent or more of released hatchery fry died before spending a year in a river,” said Michael Charleston, co-author of Swimming Against the Tide. “He was sure that an autumn release of even 1,000 salmon parr would produce more returning adults than 90,000 ready-to-feed fry.
Gray’s primary directive was to keep the fry in the hatchery more than twice as long and to produce larger, healthier, and stronger parr to be released in the fall. To prepare them for to release, Gray trained them the same way as many other athletes—making them swim on a treadmill (of sorts).
“To produce little athletes, you need to keep them moving constantly, so what we do is increase the water velocity gradually over time as the fish are growing, so we are training the fish to constantly fight that current,” said Shaw. “It’s not something you usually see in a hatchery but it helps our fish stay sleek and toned. They come out with beautiful fins and are really wild looking.”
In 2012 the hatchery started with 80,000 eggs, and stocked 52,000 fall parr. The goal is to stock nearly half a million fall parr annually, and every year, the national fish hatchery has been providing more and more eggs. In 2013, 2014, and 2015, the DSF stocked 77,568, 149,815, and 192,032 fall parr respectively, but Shaw wants to stock many more.
“We have not yet stocked the density we’re after, we’d like to stock 400,000 annually. Bringing salmon back to the East Machias is really a numbers game, we’re not talking about the California condor with one egg every four years, we’re talking about an animal with incredible fecundity,” said Shaw “What we’re attempting to do is to quadruple the stocking rate, but to do that we need more hatchery capacity and more eggs.”
The East Machias project is now in its fourth year of a five-year contract with the NASF. In the summer of 2016 they expect to see the first results of the first parr stocking, with adult salmon hatched at the Peter Gray Hatchery returning to the East Machias. “In 2015 the total number of salmon redds in the river was only seven, so the population of wild Atlantic salmon in the river is on the brink of extinction,” said Shaw. “If we can get that number of redds to start moving up the scale instead of down, we have accomplished something much different than what has been done in the past 100 years. It’ll take some time to get to where we want to go, the first step is just moving forward in the right direction.”
If the DSF can perfect Peter Gray’s stocking methodology on the East Machias, and get that river on the road to recovery, it could be implemented on all the former salmon rivers of Maine. “My hope is that the hatchery techniques we are experimenting with in Maine will work on the East Machias as it worked on the River Tyne,” said Vigfússon. “In ten years I’d be thrilled if we had a self-sustaining run on the East Machias, and hatcheries using the same methodology on several other rivers in Maine.”
Let’s all hope that Vigfússon’s dream comes true, because if it doesn’t work, we could be witnessing the final days of wild Atlantic salmon in the United States. For more information, or to make donations to NASF or its Maine Restoration project please contact Orri at email@example.com.
Ross Purnell is the editor of Fly Fiserman.