Unlike most New England rivers, the East Machias River never quite lost its salmon. Every fall, a small remnant population swam upstream, against waters that tumble and curl 36 miles from Crawford Lake to the coast, through balsam-scented boreal forest where moose splash and eastern coyotes sing. The Downeast Salmon Federation’s weathered, cedar-shingled Peter Gray Hatchery sits along the bank, just below a narrow stretch of rapids that empties into the river’s wide, flat tidal reaches.
The hatchery building was an abandoned power station — infested with rats, windows broken, officially designated by the town of East Machias as a “slum and blight site” — before the federation moved in. Now, instead of rats, the place is full of salmon in various stages of development, swimming around in a couple of dozen tanks through which unfiltered river water flows. The damp air always has a fishy scent.
Believing that other hatcheries produced inferior fish, Gray asserted that his method produced “little athletes.”
Wild sea-run Atlantic salmon used to abound in at least 34 rivers throughout New England. Populations started dropping at the start of the Industrial Revolution, and Maine is now the only U.S. state where the species clings to existence, after year upon year of population decline caused by dam construction, pollution, overfishing, warming rivers, and poor survival rates at sea (possibly the result of increasingly cold ocean waters created by melting polar ice). To try to keep the fish from disappearing entirely, the federal government prohibits angling for them, even catch-and-release. And the work of trying to reverse the species’s fortunes falls largely on fish hatcheries, where salmon are raised and then released to repopulate the wild.
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