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These are trying times for the Atlantic Salmon and for the fisheries scientists trying to bring them back. More than two centuries ago Atlantic Salmon disappeared from places like the Connecticut and Merrimack Rivers and from New York State.
The numbers also dwindled in rivers in Maine. Tens of millions of dollars have been spent on recovery and restoration with mixed results. As part of a collaboration with Northeast Stations, Maine Public Radio's Susan Sharon reports that one Maine fish hatchery has played a key role in keeping them alive.
Standing in an indoor tank of cold water, three biologists at the Craig Brook National Fish Hatchery in East Orland, Maine are wrestling with two-to-three-foot long silver-colored salmon. They're wriggling and slippery and the biologists are getting soaked.
"Got a girl!"
"Oh, my gosh. She's a first timer. Yay!"
Each fish contains an embedded electronic chip which provides a few pieces of key information about its history.
"We're going through and we're scanning all of the fish because we're looking for fish that have spawned previously."
Denise Buckley is the assistant manager at the hatchery, where efforts to recover the nation's last remaining populations of wild, Atlantic salmon are a 24-hour-a-day job. Here, captured wild fish from seven rivers in Maine are grown to maturity and used for breeding. The fish from each river are kept separate from each other. Their offspring are also raised separately and released into their home rivers. Hatchery manager Paul Santavy says this helps preserve the genetic health of the fish, which adopt characteristics that are specific to each river.
"The reason there is some remnant wild fish still coming back and spawning in those rivers is because of hatchery intervention."
Salmon spend part of their lives in the ocean and part in rivers where they reproduce. But few salmon who head out to the ocean ever return. Scientists are not sure why. The problem is especially bad for endangered salmon. Atlantic Salmon from eight rivers in Maine have been on the Endangered Species List for nearly a decade...but their returns from the ocean have not improved...still fewer than 100 every year. And in the two smallest rivers with endangered salmon, the fish have disappeared all together. Santavy attributes that failure to the lack of hatchery intervention. There was not enough room or money to include those rivers at Craig Brook.
"The facility was built. And it cost alot of money to build. And you know, there had to be a limit put on how big it was built and how much money was put in it. And those populations no longer exist."
But this year there is good news for Atlantic Salmon on the Penobscot River in Maine, home to the largest remaining Atlantic Salmon run. Returns have more than doubled over the last five years. Penobscot salmon are the fish that were originally used to create a strain of salmon that now roams in the Connecticut River. 142 adult salmon returned to that river last year.
Those fish are now supported by separate hatcheries in Vermont and Massachusetts. New Hampshire's Merrimack River has also been fed by fish from the Penobscot River in Maine. According to figures from the federal government, both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service spend more than 10 million dollars every year on salmon restoration and recovery in the Northeast. But the agencies maintain the number of fish returning is not the only benefit.
"The water quality has improved tremendously since we began the program. And it's just not a number of fish coming back, it's about the quality of the habitat."
Dan Kuzmeskus of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says by that measure the program has been successful even if salmon returns are small. And Paul Santavy puts it this way:
"The public is getting a fantastic deal. We are keeping these remnant wild populations in Maine from disappearing forever. Once they disappear you can't ever bring 'em back."
But even as the hatchery program rejuvenates some fish in some rivers, other salmon populations are disappearing. Recently, the federal government proposed adding Atlantic Salmon from several other Maine rivers to the Endangered Species List.