Scientists Attempt to Naturally Replenish Maine's Atlantic Salmon Population

(NECN: Amy Sinclair) - Maine Rivers used to be home to a large wild Atlantic salmon population, but today, the fish is endangered.

Scientists are trying an innovative experiment, based on a mother's instincts, to restore those historic salmon runs.

The team begins by hauling sleds filled with precious cargo through the snow covered woods in Phillips, Maine. They are delivering more than 70,000 fertilized Atlantic salmon eggs, cradled in Styrofoam coolers to the Sandy River.

In a sense, it's a homecoming.

"Historically, the Sandy River was an Atlantic Salmon river," said Paul Christman, Department of Marine Resources biologist. "Probably sometime in the 1800's, the dams went in and many mills, so they were cut off back then."

The team is hoping to reintroduce the endangered species in 5 Maine Rivers by seeding eggs into the rocky bottom.

"We’re going to put them in the gravel like a mother salmon would have done last fall," said Christman. "With any luck, they'll produce fry and live here for two years before going to sea.”

The team mimics the action of an egg laying female by pumping river water through a hose into homemade funnels buried in river rock. The eggs are then carefully scooped into the funnels where they float to the bottom and settle into gravel holes.

Christman says they'll hatch out in April and begin feeding in May when the first insects arrive.

"This fall we'll electro-fish in here and see how many juveniles we have," he said.

So far, around 20% of the eggs have made it at least that long.

The program began in earnest five years ago. That's how long it takes for a river born salmon to return from the Atlantic.

So the big question is will the first generation of eggs come back this spring?

This will be exciting for us," said Christman. "We hope that if we get a large number they'll come back and start doing the trip on their own."

If it works, it could create one of the best natural runs of wild salmon in the country, all thanks to a mother's ingenuity, and the scientist's good sense to copy her.

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