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  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Salmon fry are transported in a cooler from their Hollis Elementary classroom, to the Souhegan River in Milford.


  • File photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    With the help of George May from the Atlantic Salmon Restoration Program, Revathi Nithipalan, left, and classmate Natalie Bronfine, along with more than a 100 third-graders from Hollis helped release salmon fry into the Souhegan River in Milford in May, 2010.
Friday, April 6, 2012

Adopt-a-Salmon program to continue along Piscataquog River

Classroom-raised salmon aren’t being released into the Souhegan River this year for the first time in well over a decade, but that doesn’t mean the popular school activity is ending.

Next Wednesday, April 11, students from Tyngsborough Elementary in Massachusetts will release about 100 fish into the Piscataquog River in Manchester, the first of a number of releases as part of the annual Adopt-a-Salmon Family program.

The switch was made for a good reason: A long-running program to return wild salmon to the Merrimack River watershed may finally be working.

“I couldn’t be more excited,” said George May of Merrimack, a volunteer who has helped oversee the program since its inception, and who is scrambling to get the project moved to its new location at Piscataquog River Park.

The Souhegan fish release program has been halted this year because wild salmon have been found making nests in the riverbed. Fisheries biologists are keeping a close eye on the results, and don’t want imported salmon to give birth and confuse things.

“If we get natural salmon coming back into the Souhegan, building nests and so forth, then the whole restoration program – well, I think it’s done,” May said.

It’s far from clear that the fish are actually back and spawning here, however.

Salmon are anadromous fish, meaning they are born in fresh water, swim downstream to the ocean and spend several years in salt water, then swim back upstream to the place they were born to spawn again. The dams built on the Merrimack River at Lawrence, Mass. and Lowell, Mass. ended that life in the 19th century, and attempts to restore the migration with fish ladders have never worked.

In recent years, biologists have captured all salmon returning up the Merrimack at the Essex Dam in Lawrence, the first dam on the river, and brought them to hatcheries, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Hatchery in Nashua. Their eggs are removed and raised, and the resulting fish are placed in various streams, sometimes via the Adopt-a-Salmon program, in hopes they would generate young that would eventually return.

It hasn’t worked, with only a few hundred fish at most returning to Essex each year. Nobody is sure what happens to the other millions of fish spawned in the watershed; whether they’re eaten by bass, die going over the dams downstream, are caught or otherwise die out in the ocean, or can’t find their way back to the Merrimack.

Genetic testing of fish, to tell exactly which stream they were born in, is helping figure out the answer, but there’s still no certainty.

Last fall, in a change in procedure, adult salmon were released into the Souhegan, Baker and upper Pemigewasset rivers, after genetic testing indicated those are the rivers in which they were born. Monitoring radio-tagged fish and counting salmon nests, known as redds, showed that they were settling in.

The question now is whether they will produce offspring that will head downstream, and return later.

This shift in strategy was inspired by a record number of 402 returning Atlantic salmon counted at the Essex Dam in the spring of 2011, plus similar increases recorded on salmon rivers throughout Maine and Canada, giving hope that more fish may be surviving in the ocean.

May’s excitement about salmon in the river – which he knows intimately, since he has lived near it and boated on it for more than six decades – is increased by his long relationship with salmon restoration.

“I’m telling all the kids they could be the ones that are responsible for it - that’s a fact, they could be,” he said. “Kids in high school now, who released their salmon in the fourth grade, this could be as a result of their release.”

For more information about the program, contact May at georgemay@comcast.net.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com.