My Turn: Connecticut River salmon: the (un)natural history

  • KARL MEYER

Published: 10/15/2021 8:26:56 AM

John Sinton’s Sept. 24 piece, “Salmon story: Squeezed out by dams” reminded me of old generals still arguing their last, lost war — claiming they’d won. In truth the 1967 Cooperative Fishery Restoration Program for the Connecticut River Basin should never have put salmon — extirpated here since 1809, at the center of a federal program. Their ghost-salmon focus and the hundreds of millions spent on its hatcheries have crippled the upstream revival of infinitely-restorable American shad and still-living blueback herring runs past Turners Falls Dam to this day.

American shad was the first fish mentioned in the 1967 charter for that federal/state restoration. But leaders flipped basic biology on its head to put an extinct salmon strain at its center. They also ignored a successful fish lift in place downstream at Holyoke Dam since 1955 — one already passing hundreds of thousands of American shad by the mid-1970s. Instead, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries and state agencies — entities still steering river management today as the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, ultimately chose a disastrously- complex fish ladder system to pass spawning runs. Based on Pacific salmon on the Columbia River, their Turners Falls complex failed for all but a few of the hardiest migrants when completed in 1980.

That system gave rise to a river wasteland and the miles of reversing river currents existing today in the reaches between Turners Falls and the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project. Annually it’s left hundreds of thousands of Holyoke-lifted shad and unable to reach Vermont and New Hampshire these 40 years. Of an original promised run of 38,000 salmon, no fishing licenses were ever issued. While kids received “salmon-in-the-schools” hype and a fat hatchery salmon was displayed annually at Holyoke Dam, their biggest “run” was in 1992 — when 350 salmon returned.

Ironically 1992 was also the year Catherine Carlson — completing UMass doctoral work in anthropology, published her thesis: “The Atlantic salmon in New England prehistory and history: social and environmental implications?” Like Sinton, Carlson offered colonial records showing salmon as formerly a small part of the river’s migratory runs. But she highlighted the massive runs of American shad as comprising this river’s breadbasket — ancient sustenance of the Norwottuck, Pocumtuck, Abeneki and later the invading English.

Carlson documented a lack of evidence of any long-term salmon presence across a large swath of New England archeological digs. She elegantly argued salmon were but brief colonizers here — drawn in by a centuries-long period known later as the Little Ice Age, whose cold Atlantic currents led to natural runs for a few centuries of unusual cold on the river. Simultaneous with disastrous colonial dam building and the massive forest-felling here — when the climate and river re-warmed, those pioneering salmon headed back north to reliably colder rivers. Yes, dams were a dead end here, but climate — even back then, was always the tipping point for living salmon runs on the Connecticut. All the program’s hatchery stock had had hailed from cold Maine and Canada rivers — places where it made sense to rescue living runs.

Carlson’s work was attacked by the young fish scientists Sinton mentioned. Here was a woman scientist unwilling to romanticize the history of an extinct trophy fish. I read her thesis while at UMass and was inspired by her courageous work. Dr. Carlson, semi-retired today in her native Canada, should have seen here science applied and commended. Instead 20 more years of dismal returns ensued before U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ended its hatchery program. I spent years writing about the blind spot of those fisheries agencies to the downward spiral of once huge spring runs (721,000 in 1992) of shad and herring (632,000 in 1985) passing Holyoke, while their hundred salmon made headlines. They’ve never owned their massive mistake. Sanctuary Magazine published my “Turners Falls Turnaround,” detailing the miseries for shad and herring seeking Vermont and New Hampshire habitats in 2009. My “How to Keep a Dead Fish Alive” also ran widely in New England that year. In 2012 I penned the Gazette story announcing the US Fish and Wildlife was ending the program. But the brutality of its failure haunts the Connecticut River to this day.

In 2021, giant suction from the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station reverses the river’s flow for over 3 miles at times, while — for the last 49 years, it continues eviscerating 100s of millions fish and aquatic animals annually. And all those migrating shad, herring, and eels — guaranteed safe up and downstream passage since 1872 by the U.S. Supreme Court? All but a few make it past Turners Falls today, their chance at restoration squandered 40 years ago.

Karl Meyer lives in Greenfield. His in-depth “Endgame Looms for New England’s Great River” can be downloaded, free, from the Center for Biological Diversity’s The Revelator at: https://bit.ly/3AKT6UG




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