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On The Trail

On the Trail: Sales jobs

Why not traipse back this week to that old, familiar topic of salmon?

Yes, salmon, specifically Connecticut River Atlantic salmon, which I once spent a lot of time and energy on before wandering off to other subjects that tickled my fancy. But now, briefly back to the fish fit for kings and noblemen. Who knows how long before I’ll revisit it again, if ever? For that matter, who cares?

The impetus for this step back in time is twofold — 1.) a recent rereading of Catherine Carroll Carlson’s 1992 UMass doctoral dissertation based on the archaeological record titled “The Atlantic Salmon in New England Prehistory and History: Social and Environmental Implications” and 2.) a surprise press release that found its way to me from Oswego County, N.Y., promoting what may prove to be just another pie-in-the-sky Atlantic salmon-restoration fantasy.

More than anything else, what leads me to suspect such a fruitless scheme is the press release’s lead paragraph stating with bold bravado that, “Back in the early years of the 19th century, Lake Ontario had the greatest population of landlocked Atlantic salmon in the world. So many ran the tributaries each fall to spawn that men could drive horse-drawn wagons into the streams and spear or net a loadful. Housewives would wade in up to their knees and catch salmon dinners in their aprons.”

Oh boy! Here we go again, fellas. Talk about hyperbole? Haven’t we been through this before? Remember the stories about walking across shallow Connecticut River constrictions on the backs of large, bottlenecked salmon? Yeah, right!

All I can say is thank the heavens I made it a habit way back when to take rhetoric classes each semester during an erratic but not totally wasted college career. What that subject taught me was to avoid one-source stories and be suspicious of all messengers and authoritative filters. When you understand who the messenger is, and why he or she’s trying to sell whatever it is they’re pushing, you learn to be skeptical, which I truly am. In fact, by now I may even be a proud and committed cynic.

But isn’t it interesting that such a press release would, by chance, at this time, arrive in my inbox right on the heels of rereading Carlson’s scholarly exploration of a topic that should have been vetted before the infamous Connecticut River Salmon-Restoration Program was ever kicked into high gear some 50 years ago and ultimately failed miserably?

What’s interesting is that there were indeed insiders who were skeptical from the start of the doomed program. We’re talking about trained, card-carrying fisheries biologists, no less, who warned their true-believer colleagues that their pet project was a long shot at best, because, in their humble opinions, Atlantic salmon never populated the river in great numbers. And if at any time they had, it was then just a temporary southern shift of their range triggered by the Little Ice Age, which New England rivers just so happened to be benefiting from at the colonial-contact period. The problem was that the people in charge wouldn’t listen to reason or alternative hypotheses, and in fact went so far as to rudely silence them at what should have been open and honest exchanges of opinion. No sir, there was none of that, just nasty looks and threatening gestures. Oppositional feedback was not welcome. It was a recipe for disaster, which eventually came to fruition, forcing the plug to be forever pulled on the program in 2012. Turn out the lights, the party’s over. Yet, still, a total of 123 stragglers migrated upriver over the past two years, 31 this year.

UMass student anthropologist Carlson delivered the bad news in 1992 to the boos and catcalls of true-believers chasing their unattainable dream of a viable Connecticut River salmon sport fishery. Yes, it seems Ms. Carlson took it upon herself to investigate some 75 known Northeastern prehistoric Native American fishing sites and, go figure, found almost no archaeological evidence of salmon. The great salmon myth had finally been obliterated. But no. Whoa! Wait a second. That was not what the stubborn proponents wanted to hear. They refused to listen, choosing instead to mount a public-relations campaign to discredit Ms. Carlson and anyone with the audacity to cast light upon her findings, including the four advisors who supervised and signed off on the validity of Carlson’s study: Dena F. Dincauze, Boyd E. Kynard, H. Martin Wobst, and Alan Swedlund — all bona-fide experts with the papers to prove it — not to mention the few scribes who reported it.

Now, in a different place called the Lake Ontario watershed, where industrialists had literally killed the lake, polluting it to the point where it was a fire hazard in the Sixties, a concerted clean-up effort has brought it back to a viable trout/salmon sport-fishery that pulls in tourist megabucks. Not satisfied yet, they’re now trying to restore landlocked Atlantic salmon to tributaries known as the Salmon and Oak rivers, an initiative that seems to be a long shot these days, no matter where Atlantic salmon restoration is attempted.

So don’t hold your breath waiting for a rare success story on Lake Ontario, and don’t buy the propaganda about housewives scooping salmon supper from feeder streams with their aprons, either. It’s no more than a tawdry sales job.

Which reminds me that I have in recent years polled students attending elite colleges and don’t believe many schools offer rhetoric classes these days. Why? Well, let me speculate employing my alternative world view. I would say because skeptics and cynics don’t buy deceptive sales pitches cranked out by clever spinmeisters paid handsome salaries in our consumerist culture, where everything from toilet paper to presidents is sold to a duped public that gets its news from tweets and texts and 15-second sound bites.

Orwell sounded the warning long ago. Few listened then, even fewer now. Take heed before it’s too late.

Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a longtime member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Blog: www.tavernfare.com. Email: gary@oldtavernfarm.com.

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