Saving Atlantic Salmon: The Peter Gray Parr Project

The Peter Gray Parr Project’s unique streamside hatchery is located on the banks of the East Machias River.

A new way of raising and stocking juvenile Atlantic salmon is paving the way to the species’ recovery in the United States. By Tom Keer

If I had to spend the rest of my life pursuing only one fish, it would be the Atlantic salmon. Atlantics are spectacular game fish that fight hard, jump high and take flies often enough to keep die-hard anglers like me coming back for more. The fact that their boomerang journey starts in their river of birth, takes them thousands of oceanic miles to Greenland then back again makes them even more remarkable.

But America’s Atlantic salmon are not doing well. Indeed, the fish has resided on the Endangered Species List for many years. The problems began shortly after the arrival of European settlers, as salmon returning to New England watersheds to spawn were easy prey. Rivers and tributaries were chock-a-block with fish, making them easy to net, trap and spear. The salmon arrived just in time for 4th of July celebrations, and were even served as the main course at Colonial barbeques. When you factor in water pollution and the creation of dams that blocked the fish’s passage to their spawning grounds, it’s no wonder we now eat burgers and hotdogs on Independence Day.

 

Parr are raised in a state-of-the-art hatchery with water velocities that increase as they age. The goal is to make them strong so as to survive their ocean journey.

For decades, attempts to re-establish a salmon fishery for anglers failed because managers raised and stocked salmon as they did trout. Eggs were reared far inland in circulated tank water. Parr (juvenile salmon) were stocked in the spring, when they were too young and vulnerable to predation. The results were dismal, and all New England stocking programs have since been terminated.

However, we don’t need to watch Atlantic salmon go the way of the dinosaur. The Maine-based Peter Gray Parr Project (www.wildatlanticsalmon.org) is a scientifically proven program that is the last, best chance for Atlantic salmon recovery in the Unites States. Launched in 2012 by the East Machias-based Downeast Salmon Federation, the group is on a fund-raising mission to increase the number of parr raised and stocked in New England rivers. The cost: a buck per parr.

The project’s methods are based on those of the late British biologist Peter Gray. Over three decades, Gray increased salmon stocks on the River Tyne from 724 fish to over 10,000. Today, salmon runs are so strong on the Tyne that the recreational fishery has reopened. Using Gray’s hatchery and stocking methods, we could see similar results in the U.S.

PGPP biologists began their efforts by building a streamside hatchery adjacent to the East Machias River, a traditional salmon spawning river. Water from the river is diverted into the hatchery, so that the juvenile salmon are reared in water identical to that in which they will eventually live once released. Substrate boxes that closely replicate a wild salmon redd (spawning bed) are used for egg maturation, and holding tanks are painted black. The black color darkens the parr while it conditions the small fish to be light-sensitive. When the juvenile fish are stocked in the wild, they will be naturally wary and less vulnerable to predators. As the parr mature, water flows inside the hatchery are steadily increased to condition the fish to life in the ocean. Parr are stocked in the fall, when water temperatures are cold. Their lower metabolic rates at this time mean they aren’t feeding, which reduces their exposure to cormorants, herons and other birds looking for a meal.

 

Spring electrofishing helps biologists determine parr and smolt densities.

Currently, the hatchery in East Machias is being expanded to increase the number of parr raised. The plan is to build similar hatcheries next to other Maine rivers after the East Machias strain has been restored. Fortunately, many of these rivers have already experienced habitat improvement through the removal of dams and the addition of fish ladders to help augment the remaining stock of wild salmon. They include the Dennys, the Machias, the Pleasant, the Narraguagus, the Ducktrap, the Sheepscot, Cove Brook, the Penobscot, the Androscoggin and the Kennebec.

In just 5 years, incredible progress has been made by the Peter Gray Parr Project. “Smolt numbers have more than tripled since the start of the project,” says Hatchery Manager Zach Sheller. “Drainage-wide densities of large parr in the East Machias River have more than tripled. And, genetic diversity of the East Machias salmon line has been increased. Stocking fall parr from the Peter Gray Hatchery has been shown to statistically produce more parr per unit than any other stocking strategy. Additionally, more attention is being paid to Atlantic salmon in the Downeast Maine rivers. We’re self-funded, and each parr costs $1 to raise and stock. Any contribution is appreciated.”

I doubt that I’ll catch a wild Atlantic salmon in Maine, but thanks to the hard work of the folks at the Peter Gray Parr Project, my children probably will. Their efforts deserve our support.

 

Learn more about the Peter Gray Parr Project, or make a donation.