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Gulf of Maine Times

Vol. 5, No. 1


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New center gives homage to an endangered fish

By Andi Rierden, Editor

The road leading to the Craig Brook National Fish Hatchery in East Orland, Maine, slices deep into a spruce forest dotted with a few homes and parked snowmobiles. About a mile or so in, the road breaks into a clearing overlooking Alamoosook Lake. More than a century ago, Charles Atkins, a fish culturist and photographer came here with his family, in hopes of rebuilding Atlantic salmon runs decimated in the 1800s by dams and the industrial revolution. The hatchery that Atkins established would become the first in the United States devoted to the Atlantic salmon. Within the next several years, Atkins' experiments and observations would lay the foundations of salmon hatchery science and greatly expand scientific knowledge about the fish's complex life cycle.

Charles Atkins (left) standing inside one of his "salmon cars" near the Bangor dam.

This summer, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the agency that owns the hatchery, will open a visitor and education center giving homage to Atkins and the Atlantic salmon he worked for decades to save. Housed in the agency's new $7.5 million hatchery building, the center will feature a stainless steel replica of the Atlantic salmon created by a local artist, and a large prototype of a wildlife habitat with a running stream and riparian zone. Another area will display Atkins' roll top desk and some 160 photographs he took of his family and the hatchery. Prodigious notes taken by Atkins and volumes of fish and wildlife journals dating back to the mid-1800s, have been rescued from the old hatchery's attic and placed in a library adjacent to the new center. 

The new center and hatchery represent a major attempt by the agency to educate the public about the region's watersheds and the precarious state of the Atlantic salmon, says Peter Steenstra, the center's coordinator. "When visitors leave here, it is our hope that they will understand how important the health of our watersheds are, and how the success of our efforts at Craig Brook are contingent upon the health of those watersheds."

Late last year, the USFWS and the National Marine Fisheries Service listed the wild Atlantic salmon as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) in eight rivers in Maine believed to contain the last vestiges of the wild Atlantic salmon in the United States: the Dennys, East Machias, Machias, Pleasant, Narraguagus, Ducktrap, and Sheepscot rivers and Cove Brook. 
To list the fish as endangered, the federal agencies had to show that the Maine salmon was a separate subspecies from wild salmon in Canada. The agencies relied on biological data to determine that the fish differed genetically from Canadian salmon.

The state of Maine has appealed the federal decision to list the Atlantic salmon as endangered, arguing that the listing will cripple businesses such as aquaculture, timber and blueberry, by overburdening them with regulations. The state also argues that over the past century, hatchery and stocking programs have diluted the species to the point where it is highly doubtful that any wild salmon exist.

"The only wild salmon left in Maine are on the walls of fishing clubs," says John Ripley, a spokesman for Maine's Governor Angus King. 

Tom King, Craig Brook's hatchery manager, says that the Atlantic salmon they are struggling to save have not been immune to a genetic infusion, but that there is enough of a legacy left in them to make them worthy of protection.

"We have done the genetics work and our fish do have differences," King says. He adds that regardless of the outcome of the state's appeal, the fish hatchery will continue working as a buffer against the salmon's extinction.

Since the early 1990s, the hatchery has been part of a long-term recovery team involving federal and state agencies, local watershed councils and other conservation groups that are working to rebuild salmon stocks and restore fish habitat. For its part, Craig Brook has focused on boosting the genetic pool of young wild salmon in six of the eight rivers listed as endangered, and protecting them from disease to increase their odds of surviving in the wild--strategies never considered until a decade ago, King says.

The rewards may come beginning this spring or next as the salmon stocked in rivers in the mid-1990s complete their life cycle and return from sea to spawn in their home rivers.

Atkins on the Penobscot

The century-old practice of rearing and stocking wild salmon to revive populations has proven to be one long roller coaster ride.
The first attempt to artificially raise salmon began in the 1860s when a commission formed by the New England states obtained 70,000 eggs from the Miramichi River in New Brunswick and transported them to New Hampshire. Later eggs from the Miramichi and Lake Ontario were hatched and stocked in the Merrimack and Connecticut rivers. Despite extensive efforts, most of the eggs died en route or under high incubation temperatures.

Atkins and other experts recognized early on that using stocks closer geographically to New England rivers would improve restoration.

He became the first fish culturist to capture wild salmon and hold them until the fall when they spawn. In 1871, he bought live salmon from fishermen on the Penobscot River and transported them to Dead Brook Pond by "salmon cars," water-filled boats covered in canvas to prevent the fish from jumping out. Most of the fish died before Atkins could spawn them, although the 18 survivors produced 72,300 eggs. Atkins incubated the eggs in the basement of an old mill at the mouth of Craig Brook Pond, then packed them in moss and shipped them to hatcheries in Massachusetts, Connecticut and other parts of Maine. In 1889, the U.S. government purchased 135 acres of land bordering Craig Brook from Thomas Partridge for $2,000. Atkins supervised the construction of the new hatchery, supervisor's quarters, holding ponds and 100 troughs, while he and his wife lived out of a tent.

All told, Atkins is credited for developing new methods of packing and shipping eggs and documenting the relationship between water temperature and the development of salmon eggs. He was one of the first to tag salmon using aluminum tags attached to the dorsal fin with a platinum wire. By keeping track of the tagged salmon's whereabouts, Atkins concluded, "Salmon visit the Penobscot River for the purpose of spawning but once in two years, and that they visit for no other reason."

Since Atkins' time, more than 100 million juvenile fish raised at Craig Brook have been stocked into rivers in New England and beyond. But overall, the results have fallen far short of expectations.

Lessons from the past

"We've been trying to restore these stocks for over a 100 hundred years, and we've had successes," King says. "Then they collapsed in the 1950s, then rose again in the 1970s to the mid-80s, when runs on the Penobscot River ran as high as 4,000 fish, before they collapsed again." Recent salmon counts in Maine rivers totaled 614.

Photo courtesy of Craig Brook National Fish HatcheryThroughout most of its history, the imperfections of hatchery science can be traced to a number of factors from primitive transportation methods to an ignorance of salmon physiology. Too, strategies used to enhance recreational fishing often included stocking salmon from Canada and the Pacific west, are believed to have weakened native stocks. 

"The Ducktrap received silver salmon, a west coast species which is popular with the sportsmen of the Pacific coast because of its gamey qualities," reads a 1945 press release issued by the USFWS. 

Today the emphasis at Craig Brook is focused almost solely on recovering an endangered species. 

The process of rebuilding those populations begins inside the Craig Brook's receiving building. Here, a large green tank holds 250 young salmon collected from the Machias River that are being monitored for a year and screened for disease. Once they pass inspection, they will be brought out of isolation and placed in a brood stock pool inside the hatchery building. 

The next step takes place in the fall when biologists spawn mature females, by injecting an air hose into their abdomen, which pushes out the eggs. Arching the fish's back expels the milt, or sperm, from the males. All fish are anesthetized before they are spawned to prevent trauma, King says. Biologists then mix the milt into the eggs to fertilize them. Eggs from Machias River salmon are incubated in an isolation room specific to that river. The Dennys, East Machias, Pleasant, Narraguagus and Sheepscot rivers also have designated isolation rooms, or separate hatcheries.

Once the Machias River eggs hatch beginning in late February, they will be placed in temperature controlled troughs, filled with filtered, oxygenated water to fortify the salmon's environment. By June, all of the young progeny will be stocked into the Machias. 
The fish are stocked as small salmon, says King, to enable them to develop olfactory memories that will help guide them home from sea. Salmon sniff their way back from ocean to stream by relying on odors derived from a mix of elements such as plants, animals and soils in their home stream. 

"The most important time for salmon to imprint those instincts is in the pre-smolt stage," King says. 

The salmon's long life cycle from the time it enters the river, undergoes the physiological transformation that prepares it for ocean waters, makes its way to feeding grounds in southwestern Greenland and returns home, can take four to five years. 

"It is amazing what this magnificent creature can do," King says. 
Though King anticipates returns of salmon into eastern Maine rivers beginning this spring, he adds that overall, the recovery of the species will take a very long time.

"You don't bring back mother nature in ten years," he says.

For more information about the new center and the hatchery's recovery efforts contact Tom King or Peter Steenstra at (207) 469-2803