Last run for salmon-stocking program

By Diana Graettinger

Saturday, September 02, 2006 – Bangor Daily News

LOON BAY, New Brunswick – Three-inch-long juvenile Atlantic salmon – with a little help from some friends Thursday – went home. But it will be the last time salmon will be stocked in the St. CroixRiver.

The young fish are the offspring of adult Atlantic salmon captured by the St. Croix International Waterway Commission in 2005 on their return to the St. Croix River.

The commission, with headquarters in St. Stephen, New Brunswick, started the salmon restoration program in 1993. But it’s over.

During the last decade, thousands of young salmon have been stocked in the river that serves as a boundary marker between Maine and New Brunswick. During the past week, another 27,000 young salmon went into the river.

But the commission dismantled its Milltown hatchery on the banks of the river just north of St. Stephen at the end of summer. “For the first time in 13 years the [commission] will not be holding returning adult salmon to provide eggs for future stocking efforts. All of the native salmon entering the river – four to date – are being released above the Milltown
fishway to spawn in the river on their own,” Sochasky added. It’s been a tough year.

“It’s just too difficult to find the $40,000 a year needed to keep the restoration program going,” Lee Sochasky, executive director of the waterway commission said Thursday. “We’ve banged on countless doors to raise this money year after year and have simply run out of options.”

Sochasky has worked hard to restore the salmon to the river.

Since 1993, the commission working with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada raised more than 126,000 young St. Croix salmon at the hatchery, while another 273,000 were raised by DFO.

Between 2000 and 2002, the commission cooperated with federal and states agencies in an experiment to stock nearly 1,300 adult salmon in the river to see if it would “jump-start” a major salmon run. “Agency studies showed that these fish laid their eggs and young fish hatched, but by fall few of these were found in the river. Instead, the surveys often found young smallmouth bass in the salmon habitat,” Sochasky said.

In 2002, the commission lost 1,700 young salmon as a result of a chemical spill from the local pulp and paper mill. In 2003, the commission lost broodstock to the impact of the red tide and in 2004 a poor hatch produced small numbers to stock.

Sochasky explained the problem. “The Atlantic salmon is a magnificent fish, and the St. Croix was once one of the region’s largest salmon rivers. But the rivers have changed. Other fish live here now and there is less food for salmon at sea,” she said.

And returns have been disappointing. “The numbers of returning salmon have fallen over the last decade from an average of 50 fish per year in the late 1990s to 20 fish in the early 2000s and now just nine fish in 2004 and six fish last year,” Sochasky said. “We’ve had so few little fish to stock that we haven’t had as many adults returning, but this year the
27,000 we put in may produce better returns in four years.”

The young salmon were raised in Fredericton through a partnership with DFO and the Maine Council of the Atlantic Salmon Federation. The fish were hatched and raised through their first summer at DFO’s Mactaquac Biodiversity Facility.

“This hatchery period greatly increases salmon survival by allowing the little fish to gain size in their critical first year without falling prey to fish-eating birds and other fish. Now the small salmon are coming home to spend one to two years in their native river before going to sea,” Sochasky said.

The commission knows the salmon from a fin clip they’re given before they’re released into the river.

But even though the commission program no longer exists, Sochasky is optimistic. “This fish is a fighter and I hope it persists,” she said. Thursday was a beautiful day to stock the river.

Sochasky and her crew of staffers and volunteers rendezvoused at Scott Brook on the New Brunswick side of the river about 45 minutes north of St. Stephen. There they were met by a large flatbed truck with a huge tank on the back. DFO staffer Bill MacDonald hopped out of the cab and onto the back of the truck. Sochasky joined him.

Staffers Bruce Richardson, Nicole Grant and Mel Weeks carried large coolers and placed them at the foot of the truck. Volunteers Tony Reader, George Bartlett and John Mallory assisted.

MacDonald and Sochasky dipped 5-gallon buckets into the tank and passed them to the commission staffers who dumped them into the coolers.

Dipping a long-handled net into the mouth of the tank, MacDonald lifted out hundreds of wiggling baby salmon, 12,578 by the end of the day. They were placed in the coolers and loaded onto canoes. It was time to start their journey.

Staffers and volunteers paddled three miles down the winding river, past large stands of trees, some already suggesting a hint of fall on their leaves.
The salmon were going home.

Overhead were sunny skies, beneath the water a carpet of logs left over from the logging days of old. A gentle tail wind helped push the canoes along.

The first stop – Rocky Rips. Richardson, working with a bright yellow strainer purchased at the Dollar Store in St. Stephen, dipped into the cooler and pulled out baby salmon. He gently dumped them into the river. The theory is to release the salmon into prime salmon habitat.

“We go to the best places for them, the places that have fast-moving water and nice boulders to hide behind,” she said. “We stock them out at about 20 fish per hundred square yards so each can pick its own rock to hide behind. Young salmon eat insects and aquatic life. So they’ll sit behind a rock and wait for something to float by, go out and grab it and then hide behind their rock again.”

Two canoes followed behind Richardson with more salmon.

Stops were made at Split Rock , Meeting House and Haycock Rips, where more salmon were released.

Then it was just a short paddle, through the rapid waters of the Haycock Rips that added some bounce to the trip. The canoes put ashore at Loon Bay, eight miles down river from where they had started.

It was time to load the canoes onto the back of the DFO trucks and head for home.

“We hope these fish will find each other in this big river system and manage to keep a small native run going,” a hopeful Sochasky said.

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