By Michael Levesque, Contributing Writer
The Natural History of a Maine Watershed class taught by Nancy Prentiss, accompanied by Maine aquatic professionals, ventured out to lay Atlantic salmon eggs near Avon, ME.
Classified as an endangered species, Atlantic Salmon are almost exclusively found in New England and waters north. These fish travel up rivers, like the Sandy, to lay their eggs and exit later to spend years of their lives out in the Atlantic Ocean. After their time in the ocean, they return to roughly the same area where they hatched from their eggs to lay eggs of their own and repeat the process.
Nancy Prentiss, the professor of the Natural History of a Maine Watershed class, has now made this trip three years in a row. She looks forward to this trip every year. “I’m definitely a field person,” Prentiss says, “I really pushed hard to submit a form for approval.” Luckily for the class, approval was given. They were able to utilize the class’ small number of students and independent travel to help make sure that everyone involved stayed safe.
Joining Prentiss and eight members of the class were the Department of Marine Resources, the Atlantic Salmon Federation and the National Marine Fisheries Service. Previously, the class prepared for the trip by practicing using snowshoes the week before. Despite frigid weather, COVID-19, and having to trudge through snow on snowshoes, the class persevered.
After locating a spot to lay the eggs, a gravel nest was made–similar to that made by actual salmon–to help protect the eggs. A tool resembling a funnel was used to create the depression in the ground. This process was delayed as cold temperatures made some of their equipment freeze. Although there were delays, Prentiss and her class embraced the challenges. “This is science,” Prentiss said.
Describing the eggs as similar to “Orbeez”, Hope Norton mentions she wasn’t expecting a class trip like this involving professionals to happen. The eggs were previously fertilized three months before. As eggs and young fish, they will call that nest home for approximately two years before making their own journey to the ocean. “I just love throwing students into a situation and then you learn by doing,” Prentiss says. “When [the students] are doing it themselves, that’s the best way to learn.”
Lauren Preis, a student in the class, described the struggles these salmon face today. “They have trouble migrating because of dams and culverts,” said Preis. “For every 15,000 eggs, only one adult salmon fish will return,” Preis says. Because of these grim statistics, blockages are a problem for the Sandy River and for other places and species as well.
Although these rates are alarming and frustrating, some studies and efforts show these fish as possibly having a chance. “There are fish returning from the fertilized eggs they have planted,” Prentiss says. Efforts made by educational institutions like colleges and high schools in Maine as well as state and federal agencies have produced some hopeful results.
For the class, this was an experience that shaped their student experience while getting them outside of UMF. “It was an amazing life experience,” Preis said.
Preis and her classmates perhaps didn’t imagine taking such a trip in the beginning of the semester, but are grateful nonetheless. “I wish I could do it with everybody,” Prentiss said. “We are always in a different stream and every time I go, I learn more.”
Prentiss is hopeful her class will be able to continue this tradition and have more people down the road lay salmon eggs. The shared goal of this class and others in the industry is to remove these fish from the endangered species list.