SHERIDAN, Maine -- Unfed salmon fry swim as they are released into a tributary of the Aroostook River. Credit: Courtesy of David Putnam

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — A local nonprofit group is harnessing help from across the Canadian border as it develops a plan to restore Aroostook County’s Atlantic salmon to their native waters.

For more than 35 years, Atlantic Salmon for Northern Maine has raised salmon eggs at a hatchery near Ashland and released tiny fry — baby fish — into the Aroostook River. Until about a century ago, the Aroostook and other Maine rivers teemed with the fish before pollution, hydroelectric dams and land use changes cut off their natural sea routes and disrupted their reproductive cycles.

Salmon restoration efforts are ongoing statewide, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources. Though last year the Penobscot River counted a low number of 561 Atlantic salmon, a record year in 2020 saw 1,491. It’s a tough life for the fish, because many don’t survive ocean runs or are stopped at dams. But in Aroostook County, Atlantic Salmon for Northern Maine has hope for success thanks to international cooperation and a new plan.

Steve Barker of West Chapman (left), director of Atlantic Salmon for Northern Maine, and Gary Giggey, vice president, examine salmon eggs incubating at the Dug Brook hatchery in Sheridan. Credit: Courtesy of Atlantic Salmon for Northern Maine

The Aroostook River was once the most productive tributary of the St. John, group president Brian Fields said Thursday. But structures like the Tinker Dam in Aroostook, New Brunswick, close to Fort Fairfield, cut off the fishes’ natural routes and depleted the population.

A fish passage at the dam site, operated by New Brunswick Power, has helped, but few fish make it back. Predator fish like pickerel and muskellunge have also entered the waters, further harming salmon’s chances, Fields said.

Composed solely of volunteers, Atlantic Salmon for Northern Maine owns and operates the Dug Brook Hatchery in Sheridan. Each year they obtain about 40,000 eggs, growing them for release into Aroostook waters in hopes of rebuilding the salmon population.  

Brian Fields prepares to place eyed salmon eggs into a disinfectant bath at the Dug Brook hatchery in Sheridan. Credit: Courtesy of Atlantic Salmon for Northern Maine

“Once the hatchery was built, we needed cooperation from the Canadians,” Fields said. “The Aroostook River has been called the ‘bastard river of the state of Maine,’ because it’s the only one in Maine that runs into a [largely] Canadian parent river.”

The Aroostook club is affiliated with the New Brunswick Salmon Council and the Maine Council of Canada’s Atlantic Salmon Federation. One of its most important partners is New Brunswick’s St. John River Basin Salmon Recovery Inc., which has provided St. John River eggs to the Sheridan hatchery each year since it opened. The relationship is central to the group’s work.

“Without them, we would have no eggs.  We would have no fish,” said David Putnam, an adviser for Atlantic Salmon for Northern Maine and an associate professor of environmental science at the University of Maine at Presque Isle.

Salmon from the Aroostook River are different from those in the Penobscot, Kennebec or any other river, Putnam said. The fish are genetically adapted to their specific rivers, and 95 percent of them will return home.

But between a high mortality rate and predators, the numbers of salmon returning are minimal. There are a few every year, but not to the point where the population has re-established, he said. They had a good year in 2019, with 43 adult fish returning to the region.

The continuing low numbers prompted the group to devise a new strategy that involves cross-border partners.

A 2019 agreement with Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans provides 50,000 Tobique River salmon eggs to the hatchery each year through 2024. For its part, the Aroostook group agreed to build a facility to raise fish to adulthood to better their chances of survival, according to Atlantic Salmon for Northern Maine documents.

The facility is yet to be built, but it has a home. The club owns 12 acres on the Caribou riverfront, old water utilities property with pumps and tanks still intact.

Putnam worked with University of Maine engineering students in 2020 on their graduation project, in which they completed a plan for the building and a surrounding park costing approximately $800,000 to build. It would employ a biologist and technicians.

The club is applying for government funding and exploring other financial options.

The Dug Brook hatchery would raise the fry and transfer them to the Caribou rearing facility — including females that will produce eggs. Millions of eggs, instead of the thousands each year they have now, could mean enough fish to sustain the population.

Adult fish, weighing from 15 to 25 pounds each, are less likely to become prey and would be hardier to withstand spawning journeys.

“In two years, ideally, we should be able to produce our own eggs. And then we’d have broodstock coming each year,” Putnam said.

Cara O’Donnell, natural resource director for the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, releases salmon fry into a tributary of the Aroostook River for Atlantic Salmon for Northern Maine. Credit: Courtesy of David Putnam

The local group is also working with the Aroostook Band of Micmacs and Houlton Band of Maliseets, both partners in their organization. Micmac Farms in Caribou has a trout hatchery which houses about 40,000 of the fish.

“We work closely with the Micmacs, who have a lot of expertise and are giving us technical advice,” Fields said. “They have a model trout hatchery.”

There is no timeline yet for the Caribou facility.