The Downeast Salmon Federation (DSF) recently purchased 73 acres along the banks of the Narraguagus River in Deblois, Maine. The nonprofit organization plans to preserve the parcel while still maintaining public access to the trails there.

Dwayne Shaw, executive director of DSF, says the 73-acre parcel, known as the Great Falls, is an important breeding ground for endangered wild Atlantic salmon.

“It’s actually the most productive site,” Shaw said.

There are only eight rivers remaining in the United States with wild Atlantic salmon. All eight rivers are in Maine and five are in Washington County, where DSF is based.

Even in these rivers, the wild Atlantic salmon population is extremely small. Shaw estimates that fewer than 200 wild salmon find their way back to Maine rivers every year.

“Some rivers may only have two or three fish coming in,” he said.

Wild Atlantic salmon, unlike their well-known counterparts in the West, spawn several times before dying. Because of their longer lifespan, Atlantic salmon can grow up to 40 pounds. They typically migrate every year between Maine and Greenland.

The Downeast Salmon Federation believes Atlantic salmon are at the greatest risk of mortality in Maine rivers. Through a radiotagging program, DSF discovered that many salmon don’t make it out of Washington County rivers alive.

“The fish seem to be having a problem by the estuaries,” said Shaw. “There seems to be quite a bottleneck.”

Shaw, a fisheries biologist, believes multiple factors are killing off Maine salmon, including pesticide runoff from nearby blueberry and cranberry fields, habitat devastation from increased logging and road building, sewage drainage from towns on the rivers, and acid rain.

“It’s death by a thousand cuts,” Shaw said.

Being one of the only inland aquatic animals on the Endangered Species list, salmon survival is often tied to the greater issue of water quality. DSF samples water from the Machias River every 15 minutes. Shaw says the pH of those samples can go as high as 4.2.

“Which is darn near toxic for any critter that has gills,” says Shaw.

Even if salmon make it to the coastline, they face increased predation from growing populations of seals and cormorants. The number of salmon predators has jumped in recent years due to wetland and coastline preservation and restoration. Unfortunately, the population of predators of these predators has not rebounded as well.

“The system is out of balance,” Shaw said.

The 73-acre Great Falls parcel was originally slated for a housing subdivision, but the land’s owner decided to offer it to DSF first. He also sold the land to DSF at $5,000 below its appraised value. The total purchase price was $180,000.

In the last five years, DSF has managed to preserve more than 2,000 acres of land in the Washington County area through purchases and conservation easements, including the locally famous Saco Falls and Machias River Wigwams.

DSF also maintains two centers for fishery and watershed research and is one of a few private organizations licensed to spawn and release Atlantic salmon.