Thousands of young Atlantic Salmon released into Piscataquis River

GUILFORD, Maine (WABI) - The state of Maine has invested tens of millions of dollars into restoring riverways and the wildlife that populate and rely on them.

Wednesday, when thousands of young Atlantic Salmon were released into the Piscataquis River, it was seen as an investment in the future.

"It's exciting for us because it's been six years or so since we've had fish that were released in the Piscataquis River," said Oliver Cox of the United States Fish & Wildlife Service.

The fish are a year old and have been raised at the Green Lake National Fish Hatchery in Ellsworth.

"Atlantic Salmon are iconic in the state of Maine and the Penobscot River in particular," said Sean Ledwin of the Department of Marine Resources. "This is the last big strong hold for salmon, so we are putting a lot of energy in this river."

They'll release 25,000 young salmon in hopes that within the next two years, 40 will return.

"These fish will start their migration toward the Gulf of Maine where eventually they will head up off the coast of West Greenland for over summer feeding grounds and then they will return," explained Cox. "We get a few fish that return after one sea winter. Those are mostly males, and then the majority of them will return after two sea winters and those fish will be mature adults."

Because the fish have imprinted on this part of river, officials hope they will return stronger, which is what the species needs.

"Trying to slowly move toward having wild fish spawn," said Ledwin. "Fish that spawn in the wild have much higher survival. They have to go through the evolutionary gauntlet of avoiding predators, finding their way, adapting to the local river. Those subsequent fish, while there will be fewer of them then we could produce in the hatchery, are the most wild fish, and so we need more fish like that."

The salmon released Wednesday are a small portion of the 550-thousand that have been raised and will eventually be introduced into the wild.

"It speaks to the challenges of Atlantic Salmon restoration, and it speaks to the importance of our mission and what we're trying to do to conserve the species," said Cox.