COLUMBIA FALLS – Thursday was a momentous day for the 15 volunteers who trekked down a grassy path at Fred Newcomer’s woodland home to the banks of the Pleasant River.
After a decade of raising Atlantic salmon for every Maine river but their own, staff and volunteers at the Pleasant River Hatchery released thousands of wild salmon into the hatchery’s home river.
The 10,000 tiny salmon – referred to as fry – are the descendants of salmon brood stock that federal and state scientists collected from the Pleasant River in June 2000.
The collected fish grew to sexual maturity and spawned at the Craig Brook National Fish Hatchery in Orland.
In February, the eggs were transferred from Craig Brook to the Pleasant River Hatchery. The eggs hatched and the fledgling salmon grew to feeding stage – the point where they can be released to the river.
If all goes as hoped, the wild salmon will feed and grow in the Pleasant for two years, then head out to sea, returning in another 18 months to spawn the next generation.
Seeing fish from the Pleasant River Hatchery enter the Pleasant River was a long time coming, according to those who have been involved in the project since its inception.
“We’ve raised salmon for the Penobscot, the Machias and the Narraguagus and trout for Pleasant,” said Dwayne Shaw, executive director of the Downeast Salmon Federation.
Thursday also was the first time the Pleasant has been stocked with salmon since 2000, when wild Atlantic salmon in the Pleasant and seven other Maine rivers was declared an endangered species.
In the mid-1990s, Craig Brook had begun a river-specific stocking program using brood stock from a river to produce the next generation of fish.
But a series of problems had prevented the agency from stocking the Pleasant.
In 1995, 1996 and 1997, the brood stock collected from the Pleasant were destroyed after tests indicated they had been exposed to the deadly swimbladder sarcoma virus.
Then, in 1999, scientists confirmed that large numbers of juvenile aquaculture salmon were entering the Pleasant and could be competing for habitat with the dwindling wild stocks.
The aquaculture fish were believed to be escapees from the Connors Bros. Inc. salmon hatchery in Deblois.
Shaw said aquaculture fish are still showing up in the river, but in fewer numbers.
In 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Maine Atlantic Salmon Commission had to take every descendant of previous stocking programs they could find in the river, Shaw said.
Thursday’s fry stocking, which is connected to the Wild Salmon Resource Center education program, is one of three approaches to wild salmon restoration, Shaw said.
A second approach involves use of conservation easements. The Downeast Rivers Land Trust, a project of the salmon federation, holds or is a partner in 560 acres of easements or reserves that protect prime salmon habitat on the Pleasant.
Shaw said 120 acres of the easements – including Newcomer’s – were donated.
“I’ve always been interested in conservation,” said Newcomer, an architect who moved to Maine from California six years ago. “As soon as I came to the area, I stopped in at the Wild Salmon Resource Center and met Dwayne.”
The third component of the program is addressing water quality problems, including erosion, such as the runoff from the bulldozed path the previous owner created on Newcomer’s property.
Shaw said the watershed council volunteers reseeded the path and installed diversion ditches.
Financial contributors to the projects include the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Maine Atlantic Salmon Commission, Project S.H.A.R.E., Machias Savings Bank, C.F. Adams Charitable Trust and local donors, Shaw said.