The Experimental Method That Might Just Save Maine’s Salmon

The Peter Gray Conservation Hatchery, on the East Machias River, might offer the last best hope for saving the U.S. population of sea-run Atlantic salmon — the “king of fish.”

By Ted Williams

Unlike most New England rivers, the East Machias River never quite lost its salmon. Every fall, a small remnant population swam upstream, against waters that tumble and curl 36 miles from Crawford Lake to the coast, through balsam-scented boreal forest where moose splash and eastern coyotes sing. The Downeast Salmon Federation’s weathered, cedar-shingled Peter Gray Hatchery sits along the bank, just below a narrow stretch of rapids that empties into the river’s wide, flat tidal reaches.

The hatchery building was an abandoned power station — infested with rats, windows broken, officially designated by the town of East Machias as a “slum and blight site” — before the federation moved in. Now, instead of rats, the place is full of salmon in various stages of development, swimming around in a couple of dozen tanks through which unfiltered river water flows. The damp air always has a fishy scent.

Believing that other hatcheries produced inferior fish, Gray asserted that his method produced “little athletes.”

Wild sea-run Atlantic salmon used to abound in at least 34 rivers throughout New England. Populations started dropping at the start of the Industrial Revolution, and Maine is now the only U.S. state where the species clings to existence, after year upon year of population decline caused by dam construction, pollution, overfishing, warming rivers, and poor survival rates at sea (possibly the result of increasingly cold ocean waters created by melting polar ice). To try to keep the fish from disappearing entirely, the federal government prohibits angling for them, even catch-and-release. And the work of trying to reverse the species’s fortunes falls largely on fish hatcheries, where salmon are raised and then released to repopulate the wild.

Hatcheries for various species are sometimes successful — without them, for instance, Lake Superior would have no breeding population of lake trout. But results with salmon have been largely disappointing. After work began on Washington State’s Grand Coulee Dam, in 1933, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation assured the public that new hatcheries would compensate for the deleterious effect of blocking salmons’ migration route along the Columbia River. Since then, salmon and related salmonid species have declined 95 percent. In 1970, when I signed on as a public information officer with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, we were telling anglers they’d be catching salmon again in the Connecticut River within 10 years. During the ensuing decades, stocking crews blitzed tributaries with juvenile salmon. In 2012, the effort was finally abandoned. That’s how projects to restore salmon populations tend to go.

Maine has two federal salmon hatcheries — one in Orland, another in Ellsworth — that inject nearby rivers with millions of young salmon every year. Last year, though, only 1,528 adult salmon were counted returning to Maine rivers, most of them in the Penobscot, where the fish used to make annual spawning runs by the hundreds of thousands.

Faced with such a discouraging history, the nonprofit Downeast Salmon Federation sought a fresh approach for the East Machias River. In 2008, as it started setting up its hatchery, the group turned for guidance to a maverick Englishman named Peter Gray. By then in his early 70s, Gray had grown up on the River Tyne, in northern England, where the salmon population was similarly depleted. He eventually ran a hatchery on the Tyne, developing unorthodox methods based on his belief that other salmon hatcheries simply raised inferior fish — a belief that didn’t sit well with the hatchery bureaucracy. Gray asserted that his methodology produced “little athletes.” 

The Downeast Salmon Federation’s hatchery is the only one in North America to have adopted Gray’s ways. Most hatcheries put fertilized eggs in holding bins, then move the hatched fish into larger pools. In East Machias, incubation boxes are lined with gravel that simulates the natural river bottom, providing artificial nesting sites that allow newly hatched salmon to remain in place and use energy from attached yolk sacs for development rather than movement. Once ready to leave their nests, they swim through pipes and drop into larger tanks, where steadily increased water velocity helps them build muscle tone.

Maine is now the only U.S. state where the species clings to existence, after year upon year of population decline.

Most hatcheries raise salmon in concrete pools, and contact with concrete erodes fins. The Peter Gray Hatchery’s gel-coated tanks eliminate that problem. The tanks’ insides are painted black to reduce stress. And because fish take on the color of their surroundings, the hatchery salmon are as dark as river-bred salmon, allowing them to blend in with other fish in the wild. Also, while other hatcheries use groundwater or water from lakes and ponds where the fish won’t eventually live, the Peter Gray Hatchery uses water straight from the East Machias, acclimating the fish to natural fluctuations in acidity and temperature and exposing them to pathogens that help them build immunities. 

Perhaps the most significant nuance of Gray’s approach, though, is how it regards the life cycle of a salmon. Hatcheries generally stock rivers with smolts, silver-skinned juveniles that have become tolerant of salt water and are one step away from becoming breeding adults. These facilities accelerate hatchlings’ development into smolts by overfeeding them, accomplishing in just a year what would take several years in nature. 

The Peter Gray Hatchery, on the other hand, stocks parr, younger juveniles that aren’t yet ready for salt water. Staffers release the parr — each about as big as a human pointer finger — every fall, when there is little competition for food and space and the young salmon can gorge on newly hatched river herring. Then, the parr transform into smolts according to their own natural biological rhythms, often after spending three years in the river.

Bob Mallard, executive director of the Maine-based Native Fish Coalition (a conservation organization on whose board I serve), describes the process at the East Machias hatchery as “tough love.” 

“The salmon it produces are much better suited for life in the wild than their coddled conventional-hatchery cousins,” he says. “It’s brilliant — and brilliantly simple.” 

On the River Tyne, annual salmon counts have steadily climbed from a few hundred fish in the 1970s to 12,000 today. Up until his death, in 2013, Gray claimed credit, but some fisheries professionals have attributed the recovery as much to pollution abatement, improved fish passage over dams, and salmon straying into the river from Scotland. That other hatcheries haven’t followed suit owes mostly to bureaucratic inertia and the well-worn adage that “we’ve always done it this way.”

Last year, seven years after the Downeast Salmon Federation introduced its first full batch of salmon into the East Machias River, Gray acolytes got some vindication: 60 salmon nests were counted in the East Machias, six times the annual average from the past two decades. And unlike the Tyne, the East Machias River and its watershed have been in pristine condition for several decades — there weren’t other variables to credit.

“It’s clear we’re on to something,” Downeast Salmon executive director Dwayne Shaw says. “We had a large cohort of smolts go to sea, and they’re surviving way better than hatchery smolts dumped into other rivers.”

Sixty nests might not sound like a lot, but each nest represents two adults, and the total doesn’t account for the presumed others that hatchery staff missed. For a small river, and in a nation where the Atlantic salmon has been flickering out, that’s a significant step toward reestablishing wild salmon in Maine and possibly beyond. 

It was more than three and a half centuries ago that Englishman Izaak Walton, in The Compleat Angler, his seminal ode to fishing, conferred upon the majestic and still-abundant Atlantic salmon the title of “king of fish.” Now, there’s a small glimmer of hope that the king might regain the throne. Someday, maybe, the work on the East Machias will be obsolete, says Emily Bastian, national vice chair of the Native Fish Coalition: “The ultimate measure of success will be the day the Downeast Salmon Federation can shut down the hatchery.”