The building that houses the Downeast Salmon Federation is wearing a disguise, Dwayne Shaw says with a grin, gesturing around the sparkling building that contains the Peter Gray Hatchery, a museum, a laboratory and office space.
“We took an old run-down building that nobody else wanted,” Shaw, the organization’s executive director, explains. “It was a ‘slum and blight’ site — that’s an official designation to let it qualify for funding from the state.”
That building, which sits next the the East Machias River in the town of East Machias, used to belong to Bangor Hydroelectric Company when a dam spanned the river nearby.
The old cinder-block facility has been hidden, sheathed in attractive shingles, and an upper floor has been added where one didn’t exist.
Now, the dam is gone, and what became known to Atlantic salmon anglers alternately as ‘Hydro Pool’ or ‘Bulldozer Channel’ is just outside.
On Thursday, dozens of attendees were expected to show up to help celebrate a community kickoff of a $2.2 million fund-raising effort for the Peter Gray Parr Project.
Once gathered, they’d laugh, tell stories, and get the chance to congratulate each other for their efforts over the past six years, as they built what supporters say has become a model for Atlantic hatcheries to come.
“In the early 80s, all of the [salmon restoration] resources were going to the Bangor crowd,” Shaw says, recounting the attitude of the day. That’s when the Downeast Salmon Federation was formed, in hopes of restoring runs to rivers in Hancock and Washington counties.
“We call these runs the last best hope for Atlantic salmon,” Shaw says. “[These rivers] never lost their fish.”
They may not have lost all of their fish, but they have watched those runs decrease dramatically. On all of Maine’s rivers, Atlantic salmon are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. And on the East Machias River, where historic high salmon returns may have reached 1,000, only 14 salmon redds, or nests that fish build to use while spawning, were counted this year.
Enter the Peter Gray Hatchery, and the Parr Project.
Maine has all kinds of fish hatcheries, some that produce freshwater fish like landlocked salmon and trout, and others that produce sea-run Atlantic salmon. What makes the Peter Gray Hatchery different?
Well, several things, actually.
First and foremost, the vision of Peter Gray, a Scotsman who came to Maine in 2011 to consult with members of the Downeast Salmon Federation, and subsequently convinced them that the techniques he’d used to help restoration efforts in England’s River Tyne would work here.
The water in the hatchery, as per Gray’s instruction, is unfiltered, and comes directly from the adjacent East Machias River, where the salmon parr that are produced will eventually swim.
The tanks in the hatchery are darkly colored, which helps produce a more naturally colored salmon.
And the water flow in those tanks has been ramped up to produce more athletic fish that will be more able to compete when they face conditions in the wild. Picture a bunch of fish that have been lifting weights like an Olympian or swimming workouts like Michael Phelps, and you get the idea.
Also essential: The fish are the offspring of fish that are native to the river.
Gray died in 2013, but his vision lives on through the Downeast Salmon Federation efforts that continue.
After buying into Gray’s method, the Downeast Salmon Federation’s goals became more focused, Shaw says.
First, establish the hatchery. Then, make it work. And finally, replicate it elsewhere on other Down East rivers.
This year, 1,697 salmon smolts were counted as they made their way out the East Machias River, heading for the sea. That’s the best total since the hatchery opened. On Thursday, about 300,000 salmon swam around in the hatchery’s tanks; they’ll be released into the East Machias this fall, and make their way to sea in another year or two.
And eventually, some of them will return to the East Machias River. More, Shaw is certain, than have returned in past years, before the hatchery existed.
That’s the kind of success that he’s confident will continue, and will serve as a blueprint on the Pleasant and Dennys rivers in years to come.
Shaw has lived in Washington County since arriving here to attend college back in the early 1980s. His first year here, studying fisheries science, was the year the Downeast Salmon Federation was formed.
He says he has heard the criticism of some who think too much money has been spent on salmon restoration efforts, both on the Penobscot River and those that flow farther east.
“Our biggest struggle was cynicism,” Shaw says.
Shaw says town residents are beginning to see what might happen. They’re learning that a healthy river doesn’t mean that just salmon live there. It means that those who dig clams prosper, because the ecosystem is healthy and the water is clean. It means that those who dig marine worms also benefit, for the same reasons.
And now, it seems, the project’s biggest strength just might be hope.
John Holyoke can be reached at email@example.com or 990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke