History, Program & Hatchery
Our hatchery, built in 1997 is located at the state boat launch at the end of Marblehead Lane in Biddeford, Maine. Our story begins in 1975 when the Saco River received an unexpected stocking of Atlantic salmon. A stocking truck from the Green Lake National Fish Hatchery in Ellsworth, Maine was bound for the Connecticut River with a load of salmon smolts. The truck suddenly experienced problems with it aeration equipment as it traveled along I-95 approaching the city of Scarborough. The driver was instructed to proceed to the Saco Yacht Club and to release the smolts into the Saco River estuary. Three years later, salmon from the first Saco spawning run in hundreds of years were found leaping their way up the Factory Island Falls at head of tide. Recognizing an opportunity to create a salmon fishery, local fishermen gathered to discuss what could be done to help the new arrivals to establish themselves in the watershed. Other local residents who wanted to help the salmon make a comeback also joined in the effort. This was the beginning of the salmon restoration program and the founding of the Saco River Salmon Club (SRSC). SRSC was restructured in 2014 and re-chartered as the Saco Salmon Restoration Alliance and Hatchery (SSRAH).
The Atlantic salmon was listed as an endangered species in the state of Maine in 2000. Their populations are in decline globally.
Fertilized salmon eggs were initially obtained from the Green Lake Hatchery for instream incubation along the riverbanks. The first SRSC hatchery operation began in a vacant warehouse building on the banks of the Saco in Bar Mills, Maine in 1982. Continued procurement of eggs from the Green Lake Hatchery enabled fry stocking throughout the watershed. Changes in the warehouse building status necessitated relocation of the hatchery. The current hatchery facility was built in 1997 overlooking the river's estuary at Marblehead Lane in Biddeford. This hatchery has a recirculating (well water) system that is equipped with state-of-the-art filtration systems. Though the facility has a one millilon egg incubation capacity, we reset our annual egg allotment at a maximum 500,000 give or take a few thousand in order to better manage the strain on our water system and volunteer force.
With the salmon's population gradual declines, and the recognition that the Saco's tributary habitats were fragmented and greatly in need of restoration, SRSC's focus began to shift from fishery development to habitat restoration and species recovery in 2013. Subsequently, the organization underwent it's transformation into the Saco Salmon Restoration Alliance to more-accurately define the organization, its evolving mission and its recovery program. Throughout it's 34 year history, SRSC stocked approximately 10 million salmon into the Saco watershed prior to this restructuring. It also was party to the negotiations that led to the Fish Passage Agreements that remain in place with the Saco River dam owners and the various agreement stakeholders.
SRSC's former restoration program consisted of stocking hatchery reared salmon in the fry, parr and smolt life stages. But with the restructuring, the program was adjusted in order to streamline the operation, to decrease operational costs, and to work more efficiently. Due to the fact that 200 years of hatchery-based restoration efforts have not produced the anticipated results, and in light of various new approaches to restoration, SSRA resolved to take a different path. With the awareness of a new, more-natural fertilized egg planting method that is being pioneers by scientists with the Maine Department of Marine Resources, we opted to diversify our program to pursue this new approach.
As the North American Salmon Conservation Organization (NASCO) recognizes egg planted and fry stocked salmon as "wild", the decision was made to phase out the hatchery parr and smolt stocking programs in order to optimize the salmon's natural rearing and to work solely with wild fish. Central to the new SSRA program are habitat restoration and fertilized egg planting. Our mission is to monitor, restore and maintain salmon habitat while producing and enabling a self-sustaining run of wild sea-run Atlantic salmon to the Saco River watershed.
With connectivity between vital spawning habitat and the Atlantic Ocean re-established, our purpose is to supplement the Saco's sea run salmon strain using this new and modified egg planting method. As the size of our egg planting program is proportionate to the amount of restored habitat, the remainder of our annual egg allotment is incubated, hatched and reared to the fry stage in our hatchery facility. The fry are stocked as early as possible each year (in late April to early May) as conditions throughout the watershed allow.
We're currently monitoring a small population of naturally reproducing salmon on a lower Saco tributary. It is our hope that supplemental egg planting efforts on this and other tributaries will help to jump-start similar populations.
Most people we speak with normally ask about numbers -- "How many salmon are returning to the Saco?" It's impossible to say with any amount of certainty due to passage issues at the head of tide, and the fact that salmon continue to leap up the west channel falls at Factory Island and over the Cataract West Channel Dam. As the salmon have regularly passed this dam undetected (and uncounted), return data has always been skewed. We continue to find evidences of their presence in various tributaries in the lower section of the river. We also receive periodic reports from property owners about their encounters with our salmon in the lower tributaries and throughout the watershed. We're not so much concerned with the numbers as we are about facilitating passage to ensure access to quality habitat, and maintaining suitable water quality.
Returning salmon arriving at the Skelton Dam in Buxton, ME are trapped and transported annually to the Big Ossipee River near the town of Cornish. The Ossipee River is the predominant tributary within the watershed and has the largest amount of quality salmon habitat. Salmon arriving at the Big Ossipee have been known to return to the river's main stem and visit the nearby Little Ossipee River.