×

My Turn: Importance of protecting fish

  • MEYER



Tuesday, November 21, 2017

It’s been decades since migratory fish on New England’s Great River got a break — bleak since deregulation came to federally licensed electricity plants on the Connecticut beginning in 1998.

Deregulation turned a regional market into a venture capital free-for-all, opening the door to speculators and foreign interests controlling public resources. In less than 20 years, the Vernon hydro station changed hands three times. The Vermont Yankee nuclear plant next door is currently courting a third owner. Downstream, the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station and Turners Falls hydro complex flipped four times between investors. Further south, the Holyoke hydro station sold only once in 2002.

None of this proved healthy for an ecosystem.

The post-deregulation decade saw a steep slide in American shad passing Holyoke Dam. After two decades of averages well above 300,000 fish, yearly numbers plunged to near half that — a far cry from the 720,000 passed in 1992. Things were even more desperate at Turners Falls Dam. There, impacted by the massive water appetite and violent, peaking flows sent downstream by the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, passage dropped below 1 percent some years. For a decade, just 3 or 4 migrating shad in 100 were tallied emerging alive upstream. Today’s numbers languish near 1980s levels.

The federal license signed by Holyoke Gas & Electric in 2002 required it complete fish lift improvements at Holyoke by 2008 to pass endangered shortnose sturgeon upriver. Sturgeon were literally unable to spawn — blocked at that dam from reaching their only documented natural spawning site, a fail-safe refuge known as the Rock Dam Pool at Turners Falls. Year-in, year-out, that mandate went unenforced. It was finally met last year.

In 2004, federal fish biologist Dr. Boyd Kynard handed results of 15 years of Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon research to the National Marine Fisheries Service. He and colleagues had documented that that Rock Dam spawning site for the only federally endangered migratory fish on the river was being decimated by industrial practices. Yearly gatherings failed for the few dozen spawning-ready sturgeon surviving upstream of Holyoke — as they attempted to continue a tenuous 200 million-year-old genetic line. But NMFS didn’t come to their aid; no watchdog intervened.

Ultimately, decades of research by Kynard and company was compiled into “Life History and Behaviour of Connecticut River Shortnose and other Sturgeons,” published by the World Sturgeon Conservation Society. After experts at the Europe-based WSCS published the book in early 2012, the U.S. Geological Service (where Kynard retired as a federal fish scientist) began making belated objections, halting all publication for a time. Their objections caused a de facto embargo of its sale in the U.S through that spring.

USGS cited editorial and style concerns in “recalling” three chapters on sturgeon biology and spawning — including the data and text showing industrial flows caused spawning failure at Turners Falls. Nearly a dozen state, federal and university contributors to the book cried foul, citing censorship and the public’s right to government information. In June, concurrent with press inquiries and a letter from Congressman John Olver questioning the withholding of public science, USGS suddenly withdrew all its objections. Federal agencies now had the facts. Yet, despite the Endangered Species Act, none took action.

In spring of 2014, a popular beer, Shortnose Stout, debuted in the region. Its label displayed Kynard’s website and highlighted spawning conditions at Turners Falls. The Connecticut River Watershed Council soon stepped up to accept donated profits from its sale, but those sturgeon were again left hanging. Today, conditions at Rock Dam remain as ruinous as when the first 2004 findings were released.

In 2015, the controversial chapters from Kynard’s book got entered into the public record in the current Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s relicensing process for Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls. With that science on the record, things changed at federal proceedings. Sturgeon spawning became a key factor in flow discussions for future FERC licenses there mandating river conditions. This June, new restoration targets to meet failed 50-year-old federal Anadramous Fish Conservation Act requirements were released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. With passage failed for half a century at Turners Falls, new shad targets mandate 397,000 fish passing annually. New owner, Canada Public Pension Investments, will be on the hook to build lifts and safeguard sturgeon spawning.

In August, a fisherman near Vernon landed an endangered shortnose sturgeon — a fish thought not to exist above Turners Falls. He took a photo and released the fish, sending the picture to officials who confirmed it; then forwarded it to the National Marine Fisheries Service. There is reason to believe that landing may not be an isolated occurrence. NMFS is taking the confirmed capture seriously. Is a remnant shortnose population clinging to life in Vermont and New Hampshire waters? Did someone release them there? Either way, federal law requires owners at Vernon Dam, Vermont Yankee and Northfield Mountain to protect the migratory fish of the United States as a public trust. After decades of speculation, it’s high time our fish had their day.

Karl Meyer lives in Greenfield. He is a participating stakeholder in the FERC relicensing process for the Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls projects. Meyer is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.