EAST MACHIAS, Maine — On the banks of the East Machias River, in an old hydropower facility, Dwayne Shaw and others are working to not only change the way Atlantic salmon conservation is done, but also how the area’s rivers are treated.

“We call it, ‘Broken rivers, broken fish,’” said Shaw, the executive director of the Downeast Salmon Federation. The point, although unspoken, is this: If the rivers and tributaries and oceans aren’t healthy, the fish that depend upon them for sustenance will struggle mightily.

“When you look at the numbers [that show an increase in the number of salmon smolts that are heading out to sea after being introduced into the East Machias], you realize that you can do something wrong for a really long time, or you can learn from your mistakes, and we’re trying to learn from our mistakes, just like Peter Gray did,” Shaw said.

Gray is a Scotsman who came to Maine in 2011 to share his vision of river-specific hatcheries that helped raise super salmon that would be more able to compete in the wild.

Today, his name is on the facility that resulted from those visits, and from the work of people like Shaw. The Peter Gray Hatchery relies on a few basic tenets: Use unfiltered river water, raise the salmon in dark tanks, progressively increase the flow those fish have to swim in to make them stronger, and stock them later in the year than had done in the past so that the water is cooler and competitors are not so prevalent.

“The subtleties of all the things we’re doing add up to something that’s really significant,” Shaw said.

Shaw said Gray also “discovered” incubators that had actually been invented 100 years earlier, and their use has helped fish thrive. The fish can decide when they’re ready to emerge and start eating — the hatchery manager has no role in that decision — and as a result those tiny fish are 15 percent larger than they’d be if other models of incubators were used.

Rather than consisting of “trays” of eggs, with hatched fish sitting in their tray until all the other fish have hatched, the incubators allow the tiny fish to self-sort, and move away from the unhatched eggs as soon as they’d like.

“There’s a revolution going on within the salmonid recovery world, and a lot of it is based on the hatchery piece of it,” Shaw said.

And down in East Machias, that revolution is gathering steam, as the end of a first five-year effort is coming to a close and fund-raising for a second five-year push has been unveiled. The goal: Raise $2.2 million to aid in increasing the hatchery’s capacity, as well as an increase in habitat conservation work.

For far too long, Shaw will tell you, salmon restoration efforts used a laser-like focus on the salmon itself. More recently, an ecosystem-wide approach has focused on healthy watersheds that will help all species … including salmon.

“If we give the fish half a chance with the [fish passage issues] at dams, with the habitat, there will be a much, much increased result,” Shaw said. “And it has to be a holistic approach. So this single-species approach [doesn’t work]. We’ve got to look at the shad, look at the sturgeon, look at all the fish, and approach them in unison. What will benefit the salmon will benefit the alewives, and vice versa.”

And as that work continues, more people will join in as they see what’s to be gained, Shaw said.

“That will lead to a much less narrow approach, a much more community-based approach, where people can understand how these things are woven together,” Shaw said. “What we’re doing here for salmon helps the clam digger. We’re keeping water clean. And if you have closed [clam] flats [due to pollution], people are out of work.”

Shaw said that for years, different constituent groups pitted themselves against each other, thinking their goals were incompatible. Salmon restorationists and anglers were often viewed as “elitists from out of state,” he said. And some looked down upon the “clamdigger poacher.”

“How many times have you heard that?” Shaw asked. “In truth, we’re looking for the same thing: Sustainability and clean water, jobs for the kids, futures that are sustainable.”

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John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. He spent 28 years working for the BDN, including 19 years as the paper's outdoors columnist or outdoors editor. While...