This is the second year in a row Maine Audubon will raise Atlantic Salmon from eggs until they are free-swimming “fry” old enough to be released into the wild. But this year isn’t just any old year for these salmon — 2019 has been designated the International Year of the Salmon!
Atlantic Salmon are truly amazing, and have survived in spite of some dramatic challenges. Years of overfishing, pollution, habitat destruction, and the damming of rivers led to dramatic declines in Atlantic Salmon populations across the northeastern U.S. Once found in all the major rivers north and east of New York’s Hudson River, the last remaining wild populations of Atlantic Salmon in the U.S. are only found in Maine. And while we’ve made significant improvements in water quality across the state, as well as improvements in fish passage through dams, Atlantic Salmon still face many obstacles.
Did you know there are over 1,000 dams on Maine’s rivers and streams, and tens of thousands of culverts — many of which are undersized and block fish from getting where they need to go? The removal of trees and vegetation near streams and the increase in pavement from development across the landscape increases water temperature (as well as runoff of pollutants and sediment into streams). Maine’s legacy of transporting timber down its rivers and streams a century ago has also left many waterways cleansed of the natural structure that once created pools juvenile fish need to feed and grow, and gravel bars where adults would come to spawn.
Yet the Atlantic Salmon hangs on. An anadromous fish, wild Atlantic Salmon require both fresh and salt water to complete their natural life cycle. To fulfill this need, they undertake an amazing migration of thousands of miles. In the fall, eggs are laid in cool freshwater streams. These hatch into immobile alevin safe in the gravel bed, then grow into free-swimming fry in the spring. In Maine, these fish usually spend one to three years in freshwater streams before heading to the ocean, where they spend another one to three years feeding and growing. Then — amazingly — they return to their natal stream to spawn. They use the scent of the water to navigate back to the very stream where they were born! As a result, each stream has its own unique population of salmon, genetically different from those found in neighboring streams and river systems.
Maine Audubon and its partners are working hard to improve things for salmon. Through our Stream Smart program, we work with towns, foresters, NGOs, government agencies, and private landowners to improve stream/road crossings across the state. Our Forestry for Maine Birds program encourages forest landowners to maintain forested buffers near waterbodies and streams. Through our advocacy work, we support efforts to reduce pollution and protect Maine’s waterways and drinking water, and our educational programs work with students of all ages to develop a population of environmental stewards to protect Maine’s natural resources into the future.
This is the part of the life cycle you can observe at Gilsland Farm and Fields Pond as we partake in the Fish Friends Program, an educational salmon rearing program taking place in schools across the state.
Hosting these eggs is just part of what Maine Audubon plans to help celebrate the Year of the Salmon! We’re joining with conservation organizations, fisheries biologists, government agencies, and concerned citizens around the world to raise awareness about the plight of salmon.
Throughout the year, we’ll be hosting events and sharing information about salmon and their important role and history in Maine. Please stay tuned for more from us on the Year of the Salmon, and make plans to join us in our celebration of Maine’s iconic fish. In the meantime, be sure to swing by and visit our “salmon babies”!
QUICK MID-YEAR UPDATE: We’re just heard that the number of Atlantic Salmon returning to the Penobscot River this year has topped 1,000! Wonderful news, and hopefully more to come!