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THE CONNECTICUT RIVER SHORTNOSE STURGEON: A PLANNED EXTINCTION?

Posted by on 08 Jul 2014 | Tagged as: Atlantic salmon, Connecticut River, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Dr. Boyd Kynard, ecosystem, Endangered Species Act, Extinction, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS, NOAA, Rock Dam, Turners Falls, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS

THE CONNECTICUT RIVER SHORTNOSE STURGEON: A PLANNED EXTINCTION?

Click on the link above for: Part one of Local Bias interview between Karl Meyer and Dr. Boyd Kynard, produced by Drew Hutchison of Greenfield Community Television.

Watch an interview with fisheries biologist Dr. Boyd Kynard who has made a career of researching migratory fish behavior and fish passage at dams in large rivers across four continents. Kynard is the long-standing research expert on the federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon.

For 45 years federal and state fisheries agencies plowed $100s-of-millions into a program targeting “restoration” of a strain of Connecticut River salmon extinct since 1809. Failing to understand the concept of extinction, that project failed.

For those same 45 years agencies including NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, the US Fish & Wildlife Service, and Massachusetts and Connecticut fish and wildlife departments ignored, dismissed, and failed to provide the protections, outreach, and funding needed to rescue a native, four foot-long, living fossil: the federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon.

Listed among just 22 fish species in the original 1967 federal Endangered Species Act, these agencies–as well as regional non-profits, have failed to protect the 2-mile stretch of river decimated by industrial flows containing the only known natural spawning grounds of this pre- Dinosaur-Age fish: the pool below a natural rocky cleft in the river known as the Rock Dam, in Turners Falls, MA. Just 300 Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon can access the Rock Dam site today–where industrial flows cripple their spawning attempts, and endangered species protections are ignored.

The Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon

Posted by on 21 Apr 2013 | Tagged as: American shad, Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Endangered Species Act, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federal trust fish, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, MA Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, National Marine Fisheries Service, shortnose sturgeon, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS

 

Copyright © 2013, by Karl Meyer

The following piece appeared earlier this April in the Rutland Herald, Vtdigger.org, The Recorder, Daily Hampshire Gazette, Shelburne Falls Independent, and on other sites.

                       The Shortnose Sturgeon and Spring’s Teachable Moment 

There’s a watershed opportunity for teachers investigating migratory fish this spring.  It’s the final season classrooms will raise Atlantic salmon eggs from a massive federal hatchery program, dismantled after 46 years.  It’s a chance to teach kids that “extinct,” in evolutionary biology terms, means exactly that: gone, forever.  It’s a profoundly simple lesson, with ramifications that can be fully grasped in a week.  I’m hoping teachers will put a living dinosaur of a fish in that salmon’s place—one still here, though teetering on the edge of extinction these 46 years: the federally endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon.  As teachable as T. Rex, this marvelously adapted, 3-4 foot fish has survived for 100 million years. 

On April 20, 1967, two federal agencies and four states signed the Cooperative Fisheries Restoration Compact for the Connecticut River.  It specifically targeted American shad and blueback herring, plus salmon–extinct here since Darwin’s birth in 1809. Within two years its emphasis had overwhelmingly veered to conjuring up a new salmon.  Still, with a little help shad and herring populations blossomed.  Combined runs reached 1,000,000 fish in the 1980s; then dropped precipitously.  Bluebacks are now rare as hen’s teeth. 

By 1975, what was then the Federal Power Commission had heard testimony that Long Island Sound had warmed to a point that might prevent cold-water salmon from entering rivers in its basin.  The climate had changed.  Still, in 1980 MA and US Fish and Wildlife Service officials insisted a series of salmon ladders be built, leading all migrants into a power canal at Turners Falls.  It failed instantly; yet skewed logic continued.  In 1983 Congress renamed the restoration The Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission.  It continues today. 

Those extinct salmon had only visited here–the southern tip of their range, for a few centuries.  Importing eggs from Canada and Maine, the program proved futile, costing millions annually.  It left the real problem for native shad, herring and endangered sturgeon—a broken Connecticut River, quietly untended.  Those species had returned here for thousands of years.  Bony-plated sturgeon had been vacuuming-up freshwater mussels eons before the present valley took shape. 

On March 11, 1967, the shortnose was listed as “endangered” in the original Endangered Species Preservation Act.  No one knew how they’d survived, or how many remained.  Shortnose were sometimes landed downstream of the 1849 Holyoke Dam; and a few were recorded upstream below Turners Falls.  By 1980, researchers discovered embryos and larvae upstream–proof shortnose spawned somewhere below Turners Falls.

Beginning in 1990, Dr. Boyd Kynard and colleagues began 17 years of continuous federal and state-funded sturgeon research.  Kynard ultimately uncovered the structure of the population, its migratory patterns, and ancient spawning grounds.  A key finding established that all shortnose head upstream to an ancient spawning pool between Greenfield and Turners Falls known as Rock Dam.  Less than 2,000 survive today.  They exist in two groups of a single genetic population, separated over 150 years ago by the raising of Holyoke Dam—which luckily had left some adults upstream with access to spawning.  Fish trapped downstream were out of luck.  

Today, the bulk of the population lives in the river below Holyoke Dam.  Known as “reproductive nulls,” some 1,500 sturgeon linger in a forced limbo created by agencies charged with protecting them.  If one manages to slip into Holyoke Gas & Electric’s fish lift for a spawning ride upstream, it is trapped and pointedly dropped downstream—per orders of the National Marine Fisheries Service and the MA Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program.  Surviving for 40 years or more, adults will repeatedly attempt to pass the dam until, genetically unfulfilled, they expire.

NMFS, MA NHESP and USFWS claim this protects sturgeon from being sliced up in HG&E’s turbines, if they return downstream after spawning.  All the while HG&E is 5 years in violation of license agreements mandating construction of safe downstream fish passage.  The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has done nothing to enforce environmental statutes that were key to Holyoke receiving a new hydro license in 1999.

Today, some 300 sturgeon cling to life upstream of Holyoke.  An unknown number are adults.  Some attempt to spawn near Rock Dam each spring (females spawn once every 5 yrs).   According to Kynard et al, success is far from guaranteed.  Unregulated flows emanating from FirstLight’s Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls dam and canal imperil that endangered process.  Annually, spawning fails 79% of the time at Rock Dam; and 29% of the time at a default site just downstream.  Fertilized embryos are also killed when waffling flows flush them out, or leave them parching on river banks.  Many years, no young are produced.

Laws ignored; habitats decimated, river groups mum: it’s a blueprint for extinction.  Yet, amazingly, our dinosaurs persist. It’s this spring’s teachable moment.  Anyone up to a challenge? 

Karl Meyer’s Wild Animals of North America won a 2008 Teachers Choice Award for Children’s Books.  He lives in Greenfield, MA.

Its about the River, AND the Fish…

Posted by on 19 Jan 2012 | Tagged as: American shad, Atlantic salmon, Bellows Falls Fishway, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River ecosystem, Conte, CRASC, Dead Reach, ecosystem, federal trust fish, FirstLight, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, river steward, salmon, Salmon eggs, salmon hatchery, sea lamprey, shad, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Geological Service’s Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Lab, Vermont, Vernon Dam Fishway, Walpole

© Copyright 2012 by Karl Meyer   All Rights Reserved

The following Opinion piece appeared in publications and media sites in CT, MA, VT, and NH.  It is a reply to writing in support of the status quo on the Connecticut River fisheries restoration, emphasizing extinct salmon.  The writer, Mr. Deen, is a river steward, flyfishing guide, and VT representative.  This piece appeared mainly in a shorter, Letter to the Editor format.  Here it appears in an expanded OpEd, this version from The Vermont Digger.  Find them at www.vtdigger.org. 

                        It’s about the river, AND the fish…

The Connecticut River Watershed Council’s Vermont River Steward David Dean asks the public not to judge the 45 year-old Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission’s fisheries restoration by numbers of returning fish, while 74 salmon reached the CT’s first dam at Holyoke, MA in 2011.  As someone advocating rededicating funds away from an extinct salmon strain, I found the piece well-intentioned but short on fact.

After decades and hundreds of millions spent on the science, genetics, and hatcheries dedicated to a centuries-extinct, cold-water salmon on the southern-most river it ever briefly colonized, the public has a right to a return on investment in this time of demonstrated climate warming.  I agree that that return should be an improving river ecosystem.  Useless dams should be eliminated; hydro operations damaging rivers and skirting regulations protecting fish should be prosecuted.

But Mr. Deen cites as salmon-program benefits “growing populations of other anadromous fish,” specifically shad and lamprey.  Science is, and should be, about measurable results.  Yet in results coming back from a hatchery program dedicated to elite angling, salmon represented less than three-hundredths of 1% of this year’s fish returns, while devouring 90% of funding for all migrants.  As to the 244,000 American shad and 19,000 sea lamprey he touted as reaching Holyoke–that’s a 66% plunge from the 720,000 shad counted there two decades back; and 19,000 lamprey?—only 4 years have seen lower numbers since tallies began.  Personally, I’d note 138 blueback herring–a might shy of the 410,000 Holyoke counted in 1992.

It is time for an ecosystem restoration.  Turn this upside-down species pyramid back on its base–rededicate funds to bedrock species of this ecosystem.  River groups could contribute greatly by opening public discussion about desperate river conditions just below Turners Falls, the second dam on the CT.  Migratory fish there are funneled into an ecosystem death trap: Turners Falls power canal.  Meanwhile the adjacent Connecticut is strangled in its own bed by pummeling and parching flows–deeply impacted by pumping operations at Northfield Mountain just upstream.

Today, the only shad regularly reaching VT/NH waters are a few hundred sometimes trucked there from Holyoke.  However, in 2010 Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station choked on its own silt.  Its mile-long intake tunnel and turbines became massively clogged.  From May 1st to November, it did not add a single watt of energy to the grid.  Few noticed.  There was no energy interruption—even while Vermont Yankee was down for refueling in early May.

Yet something amazing happened: shad numbers passing Turners Falls skyrocketed over 600% to levels not seen in 15 years.  Without Northfield pumping–and with river levels kept steady and artificially high at TF dam as FirstLight Power tried to conceal a 65,000 ton mountain of silt it was dumping in the river, the miserable conditions in the riverbed below the dam actually improved.  With May and June rains arriving, artificially brimming river levels behind the dam meant more steady flows were released directly downstream to the oft-parched and pummeled “dead reach” of river below the falls.  Shad got their ancient migration route back—swimming upriver, rather than being deflected into the punishing currents and turbines of the Turners Falls power canal.

Even with suspect tallies and FirstLight’s counting equipment inoperable for parts of 37 days, 16,768 shad were counted passing toward VT–the most since 1995.  Vermont salmon expert Jay McMenemy expressed surprise when all eight free-swimming salmon also used the ancient riverbed to shoot directly upstream to the ladder at the dam.  Since 1967 over 11 million shad have passed Holyoke.  All but a whisper of them ever made it to the Green Mountain State, while they once spawned to Bellows Falls and Walpole, NH.  Ironically, federal studies show 17,000 shad is a shadow of the run that should be passing: at least half of all shad passing Holyoke eventually attempt to pass Turners Falls–95% get deflected into the meat-grinder of currents and turbines of the Turners Falls power canal, never to emerge.

The main reason for no Vermont fish runs: no regulated flows in the riverbed; no easy-access fish lift built upstream at TF dam.   The ecosystem dies in the 2 miles of river directly below Turners Falls—due in large part to floodgate manipulations to accommodating Northfield’s pumping.  There is no working fish passage at Turners Falls.  It is legally required and should have been in place over a decade back.

Northfield Mountain is a reserve energy source that can produce a large amount of energy, 1,000 megawatts, in a very short time.  But it can only run for 10 hours, and then its reservoir is depleted.  It is dead in the water.  Owners must then go out on the market and buy electricity to divert the Connecticut’s flows uphill to its 5.6 billion gallon reservoir again.  Then, they sell our river back to us as expensive energy.  Northfield’s efficiency is just 67%.  Add in its profound river impacts and you have to question: Why is no one talking publicly about this ecosystem-killing elephant in the room?

Karl Meyer is an environmental journalist and award-winning non-fiction children’s author who writes frequently about Connecticut River issues from along its shores at Greenfield, MA.

THE “BIG GAME” PROSECUTION of RYAN MCCULLOUGH: another red herring in a failing Connecticut River restoration

Posted by on 19 Jan 2012 | Tagged as: American shad, Atlantic salmon, Bellows Falls Fishway, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River ecosystem, Conte, CRASC, Dead Reach, didymo, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Endangered Species Act, ESA, federal trust fish, FERC license, FirstLight, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, Pioneer Valley News, Rock Dam, salmon, salmon hatchery, shad, shortnose sturgeon, The Pioneer, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Service’s Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Lab, USFWS, Walpole

© Copyright 2012 by Karl Meyer    All Rights Reserved

The “big game” prosecution of Ryan McCulough: another red herring in a failing Connecticut River restoration

(NOTE: the following article first appeared in The Pioneer, January 5, 2012, available now on free newsstands from Springfield, MA to Bellows Falls, VT.   Find it online at: www.pioneervalleynews.com )

Legend has it a reporter once asked career criminal Willy Sutton, aka Slick Willie, to explain his long history of thefts, “Willy, why do you rob banks?”  Sutton, a master of disguise, purportedly answered in terms as honest as a crisp January day: “Because that’s where the money is.”

At criminal proceedings in a jtrial scheduled for January 12, 2012 in State Superior Court at Windsor, VT, accused Atlantic salmon poacher Ryan McCullough will likely be asked why he was fishing downstream of the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s White River National Fish Hatchery(WRNFH) last July 25th.  With the Connecticut River and a failed migratory fish restoration looming as backdrop, I’m hoping McCullough replies with a similar bit of direct irony: “Because that’s where they make the fish.”

Last August a hatchery-bred Atlantic salmon created in controlled environs at the White River hatchery in Bethel, VT, was traced via a receiver to a radio-tag blipping away in the freezer of a nearby home.  That tag, hidden inside a 31-inch, 9-1/2 lb. salmon, landed the 22 year-old fisherman in hot water.  McCullough, an aspiring fishing guide, contended he mistook the fish for a huge brown trout.  He’s now charged with taking a “big game species” under Vermont fish and wildlife statutes.  Conviction carries a $1,500 fine and a possible 3-year suspension of his hunting and fishing license.

That big game fish McCullough caught was not even remotely connected to a healthy river system.  It was homing back from the sea to an artificial environment only a factory fish would recognize as habitat—the climate-controlled conduits of WRNFH.  That aqua-culture facility is part of a 19th century industrial idea: factory production substituted for a working ecosystem under the 44-year old banner of the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRACS)’s Connecticut River migratory fish “restoration.”

The fly-fishing community was abuzz about this incident.  Yet the only “wild” thing about that salmon was its public perception.  It had been conceived at the hands of humans.  The egg and milt (sperm) that spawned it had been matched up by computer models, those genetic fluids were mingled together in plastic tubs, swirled by human hands.  In that immaculately-sterile conception a tiny fish was produced—one of ten million “fry” that were later flushed into Connecticut River tributaries to swim to the ocean.  Every tiny fish produced and released that year along with the one McCullough was to catch two years later was at least two generations removed from any salmon that had ever tasted the salt sea.

In the months just prior to McCullough’s apprehension fisheries personnel at the Holyoke, MA, fish lift on the Connecticut had intercepted the entire spring salmon “run” from the decades-old, half-billion-dollar-plus effort—still politely referred to as a “restoration.”  They trapped all 107 returning fish.  Of those, all but nine were put in trucks and rushed to sterile, hatchery-lab settings where they were weighed, genetically profiled, vaccinated, quarantined, had their fins clipped, and tissue samples taken.  All would ultimately be needed as breeding “stock” for next years dump of millions of “state-farmed” salmon babies into Connecticut River tributaries.

However, ensuing developments at White River will make it interesting to see if Vermont Fish & Wildlife continues in its attempt to make an example of Ryan McCullough.  Tragically and ironically, WRNFH was all but washed away by Tropical Storm Irene just weeks after he was brought up on poaching charges.  A storm surge of White River water entered pools, conduits, wells and buildings throughout the facility—overwhelming well-water fed fish ponds and carrying in the seeds of didymo, aka Rock Snot.  Didymo is an easily-spread invasive alga that was discovered upstream of the hatchery 3 years back.  It smothers river bottom habitats.

Suddenly, tiny salmon fry and over a half-million surviving hatchery fish had become potential carriers of a Rock Snot plague–if they were to be spread in the annual truck-and-dispersal system into Connecticut tributaries and the lakes and streams of four New England states.  Annual production costs alone for five salmon hatcheries around New England can reach a million bucks per facility.  Mistakes and the necessity for new “bio-security” protocols and upgrades repeatedly send costs skyrocketing.  And, after 44 years of trying to create a new strain of cold-loving salmon on the southern-most river it ever colonized, the number of hybrid salmon returning to a warming Connecticut River averages between 40 -100 fish.

A quick damage estimate by USFWS for White River was put at between $10 – 14 million.  But the hatchery would have to be “depopulated;” then sterilized, before any rebuilding could start.  They’d likely have to kill and landfill half a million fish, including hatchery trout and salmon.  Desperate to put a good spin on this second million-dollar disaster at WRNFH in 3 years, USFWS and CRASC scrambled to find a feel-good PR angle.

Ultimately they “reached out” to federally-recognized Native American tribes, inquiring if they would like a “gift” of expensive hatchery salmon—some 8,000 of the table-sized fish were still swimming on site.  Some tribes immediately accepted.  CRASC convened quickly to take a unanimous vote legalizing the “donation.”  They then began killing, gutted and icing the largest salmon, happy to pass them along to indigenous peoples of the Northeast.  Within hours of that vote, CRASC’s feel-good ‘fish-to-the-Indians’ story hit the media via the Associated Press.

Ironically, the 600 largest of those choice “gift” salmon were near replicas–in size and weight (30 inches, 9 lbs), to the fish Ryan McCullough sits accused of poaching months earlier.  But at this point it appears the angler can mount a pretty decent defense.  Back in July he’d actually let a local paper photograph him holding his prize “brown trout” prior to placing it in that freezer.  Though the photo showed a fish appearing to have the slightly hooked lower jaw of a “cock” salmon–that PR move would have been a hugely naïve bit of bravado, something a knowing, and aspiring, fishing guide would never do.  His supporters, including fish and game people, contend he simply may have made a rookie mistake.

Curiously, if he’d purchased a MA fishing license and landed a tagged salmon there, the Bay State penalty would have been akin to a parking ticket: $50 – $100.  Why??  MA doesn’t have a hard classification for exactly what these hybrid fish are.  They aren’t considered a native Connecticut River migratory fish in MA, where the Connecticut’s minor salmon strain has also been extinct for over 200 years.  This is also likely the reason there isn’t a federal prosecution looming for McCullough.  Connecticut River Atlantic salmon are officially classified as “extirpated” by the US Fish & Wildlife Service.  To prosecute him they’d have to hold a monkey trial with a hybrid fish at its center, a spectacle Darwin himself would shake his head at. Considering the fish give-away status at the WRNFH–and the endlessly-failed Connecticut River salmon restoration program, Vermont is going to look foolish if they don’t let young Ryan McCullough off the hook.

But the Green Mountain State has long had a blind spot about all other native migratory fish on the Connecticut save for extinct salmon.  Fisheries officials there long-ago staked Vermont’s idea of pristine environments and elite sport fishing on the creation of a new salmon strain to replace one not seen since 1809.  Decades later, Vermont anglers, as well as those just across the river in New Hampshire, are left without a nifty shad run anglers could be tapping into all the way to Bellows Falls and Walpole.  They get no fish at all, save spawned-out hatchery lunkers dumped into local lakes as salmon program PR (*USFWS Region 5 put out an official advisory on consuming hatchery salmon way back in 2004).  Meanwhile, their rivers and tributaries face the ongoing specter of new and potentially-catastrophic emerging fish diseases being spread through hatchery operations in a time of warming climates.

The full ironies of last summer’s comedy of errors become even more apparent looking just south of the Vermont/New Hampshire border to the federal Conte Fish Lab where CRASC meetings are held beside the dead stretch of Connecticut River in Turners Falls, MA.  CRASC and USFWS are responsible for all the “federal trust” migratory fish on the Connecticut including blueback herring, American shad, and federally endangered shortnose sturgeon.  Yet there, state and federal fish guardians continue to ignore the river’s most-critical 2-1/2 mile chasm—one that’s been key to migratory fish restoration to Vermont and New Hampshire for decades.

Thirty years ago VT and NH should’ve begun crying foul due to the lack of accommodating flows and a fish elevator (still yet to be built) directly upstream at Turners Falls dam.  Implementing those proven remedies–required under federal and state license regulations for migratory fish to reach upstream waters, would long ago have revived those “dead reach” flows during spawning season—concurrently providing easy upstream passage for very fishable runs of American shad all the way to Walpole, NH and Bellows Falls, VT.  Today, the Connecticut’s federal trust run of American shad expires in the dead reach below Turners Falls dam, deflected into the treacherous environs of a power canal.  For decades now VT and NH anglers have been denied fishing for what would’ve amounted to millions of 3 – 6 lb. shad, a tasty catch that makes for excellent fishing in anyone’s book.

Today, funded in part by FirstLight-GDF-Suez, (the global power company manipulating pulses sent downriver from their Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, and flows diverted into their Turners Falls Power Canal) USFWS, CRASC, and federal Conte lab researchers continue ignoring the devastation to migrating and spawning river fish from company flow regimes.  In deference to FirstLight’s preferences, annual agency studies continue emphasizing sending migrating fish into miserable habitats, cross currents, and slicing turbines of the Turners Falls Power Canal.  Meanwhile, virtually next door to the federal Conte Fish Lab, federal trust American shad runs and whole season’s production of eggs and young from the river’s only spawning population of federally-endangered shortnose whither in a dying reach of river annually.

Perhaps most shameful of all is that there is virtually no federal enforcement or prosecution for the year-in, year-out, damage to those federally endangered sturgeon.  US Endangered Species Act protections are wholly ignored for this population, which measures only in the hundreds.  The beleaguered two-mile reach behind the federal Conte Lab has served as their historic mating ground for untold centuries.

Annually, successful shortnose sturgeon spawning in this reach occurs less than half of the time.  Much of the loss is preventable, and could be stemmed in large part by enforcing environmental statutes that would quell the punishing effects of the water pulses and parching trickles sent downstream by Northfield Mountain/Turners Falls dam operators toward an ancient, low escarpment in the river known as the Rock Dam.  Shortnose sturgeon have spawned at this site since before well before Columbus sailed.

More losses arise from the company’s spawning-season water diversions into—and out of, the Turner Falls Power Canal.  That flow can be, alternately, either so strong, or so halting, that it can stop an entire season’s worth of sturgeon mating dead in its tracks.  Or, those same vacillating pulses will either wash downstream, or strand, a season’s worth of tiny sturgeon embryos–leaving them to decay beneath the silt, or desiccate on barren riverbanks.  Either way, a year’s worth of endangered shortnose sturgeon production regularly gets sideswiped to oblivion.

The penalty to an individual for catching, killing or interfering with a federally endangered shortnose sturgeon is up to a year in jail, and a $100,000 dollar fine per instance.  That penalty is increased to $200,000 for corporations, which seems a bit out of balance.  Right at Turners Falls–adjacent to the US Geological Service’s Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Lab and just downstream from the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s Great Falls Discovery Center, there is documented evidence of annual damage to the Connecticut River’s only spawning population of endangered shortnose sturgeon, yet here no one is being dragged into court…

At the November 10, 2011 CRASC meeting in Turners Falls, USFWS’s Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle announced the outlines and some preliminary observations from a multi-year American shad migration study he’s begun.  With assistance, Sprankle caught and radio-tagged over a hundred shad, some at the mouth of the Connecticut, some at the Holyoke fish lift.  This allowed him to track their movements via receivers placed along the river as they made their upstream runs.  Partly funded by FirstLight Power, federal Conte Lab researcher Dr. Ted Castro-Santos partnered on the Sprankle study.  Castro-Santos was the point person responsible for siting receivers along the river from downstream of the Turners Falls Power Canal up to the Vernon dam in Vermont.

Sprankle termed the undertaking a “whole river study for shad,” one that would help in understanding how they use the river in migration.  He further noted that Dr. Castro-Santos had placed radio receivers throughout FirstLight’s Turners Falls Power Canal.  At that point I asked how many receivers had been set up in the “actual river bed”—referring to the Connecticut’s embattled, 2-mile “dead reach” just beyond Conte Labs west windows.  As expected, he answered that none were in place to monitor that section or river.  It’s remains the river’s missing link.

Thus, from the foot of the Turners Falls canal to the base of Turners Falls dam, Sprankle and Castro-Santos will have no data on shad movement in a critical river reach.  I pointed out to Sprankle that the undertaking could not then be considered a bona fide “whole river study for shad.”  This is decidedly a broken river study—missing the miles of streambed where a river’s ocean-connected ecosystem dies.  I further observed that the section Castro-Santos has chosen to monitor promotes a power “canal restoration”—a configuration that has failed for the past 40 years, and one that let’s the power company wholly off the hook in terms of sustainable flows for federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon and working, direct, upstream fish passage for federal trust American shad.

Ryan McCullough is scheduled to appear on Thursday, January 12, 2011, in Room 1 of Vermont Superior Court in Windsor at 9:00 a.m.  He is pleading not guilty to the charge of knowingly taking a “big game species” and has chosen to be tried by jury, represented by attorny Jordanna Levine.

Mirror to the Past: a legacy of failure at Turners Falls

Posted by on 21 Dec 2011 | Tagged as: American shad, Anne Makepeace, Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, Captain William Turner, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, CRASC, Daily Hampshire Gazette, Dead Reach, didymo, federal trust fish, Jessie Little Doe, Narragansett, Pilgrims, Rock Dam, Rock Snot, Rutland Herald, shortnose sturgeon, The Greenfield Recorder, Times Argus, Turners Falls dam, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Wampanoag, William Pynchon

The following essay appeared on the November OpEd pages of the Rutland Herald, Times Argus, Greenfield Recorder, and Daily Hampshire Gazette.

December 21, 2011

Copyright © 2011 by Karl Meyer     All Rights Reserved

A Mirror to the Past: the legacy of failure at Turners Falls

Some history is worth repeating.  In Deerfield, MA on November 9th I listened as independent filmmaker Anne Makepeace introduced, “We Still Live Here” in a church at a place once called Pocumtuck.  There in 1638, Springfield’s William Pynchon bargained with the Pocumtuck for 500 dirt-cheap bushels of corn—selling it at inflated prices to Connecticut colonists who’d run out of food while warring against the Pequot.  The Pequot massacre at Fort Mystic, as well as Pynchon’s low-ball trading, established a posture toward Native Americans that overran a continent.

But Ms. Makepeace’s documentary displayed a clear sensitivity in depicting the 18-year odyssey of a Wampanoag woman, Jessie Little Doe.  Through vision and genius, a seemingly-everyday working mom has begun reviving the spoken Wampanoag language, last heard over a century ago.  At Mashpee and Gay Head, MA, a bedrock tongue of indigenous North America is again being taught and spoken, where starving Pilgrims first encountered it.

The next evening the Associated Press published a story: ‘Rock Snot’ Fear Means Salmon For Native Tribes.  It told how the disaster of an invasive alga picked up by thousands of hatchery salmon at the US Fish &Wildlife Service’s flooded White River National Fish Hatchery during Tropical Storm Irene was turning into a curious windfall for Native Americans.  The USFWS and Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC) had just unanimously voted to give free fish to the Indians.

The headline was unfortunate, sounding like the tribes were being used.  CRASC’s half-billion-dollar CT River salmon restoration had had another dismal year—returning just 106 fish.  The Irene flood was the second million-dollar disaster befalling the White River VT hatchery in 4 years.  Giving a tiny portion of the facility’s half-million surviving fish might play better in the media than advertising a likely fate for most—killing and burying the lot to avoid releasing rock-snot-infested salmon and trout to New England rivers and Great Lakes habitats.

Filed from Montpelier, VT, the story sketched that morning’s CRASC meeting at Turners Falls, MA, once known as Peskeomscut, just 7 miles from Pocumtuck.  It missed some substance an attending reporter might’ve caught–that CRASC Chair Bill Hyatt had become chairman that day; that it was his first meeting ever.  Hyatt’s quotes hit the media so quickly—hours after the meeting, it might appear someone had been spoon fed a cheery “salmon-for-the-Indians” pre-Thanksgiving tale.  But an editor made a good call on its content: rock-snot-means-gift-to-tribes.

On-the-ground reporting might also have uncovered that—just beyond the federal Conte Lab where CRASC meets, sits two miles of beleaguered Connecticut River identified on colonial maps as Peskeomscut.  It’s a delicate place to fashion an ‘Indian-fish-rescue’ story from.  Here on May 19, 1676, Captain William Turner and Hadley-based soldiers surprise-attacked hundreds of sleeping Wampanoags, Narragansetts, Pocumtucks and Nipmucks–largely women, children, and elders. They’d come to rest, plant, and dry-harvest massive blooms of migrating shad, herring, and a knot of spawning shortnose sturgeon.  If time allowed, they’d tap a small, later-arriving salmon run.

Time did not.  This was King Phillips War, their fight for sovereign lands.  Dawn brought the Turners Falls massacre.  Just past Conte Lab’s windows warriors encamped at the ancient fishing-island today called Rock Dam counterattacked–routing and killing 37, including Captain Turner.

This day, 335 years later, it was noted that half the hatchery’s 8,000, two-to-four year old salmon, the small ones, could likely be released to already didymo-infected rivers.  Regulations would prevent any sale.  Still, all remaining baby salmon, plus 500,000 didymo-infected lake trout still faced a quick landfill burial before the hatchery could be flushed with chlorine.  They could not be released for anglers—and way back in 2004 the USFWS Region 5 actually issued a consumer advisory on eating hatchery salmon.  Those remaining 4,000 larger salmon, some to 9-1/2 lbs., might also have had to be killed and land-filled–had they not found someone to take them…

CRASC, charged with protecting all of the river’s migratory fish species, unanimously voted to donate those big fish—killed, gutted and iced, to any federally tribe who’d take them.  It might be a PR coup for the disastrous restoration, buffering perceptions away from the millions lost producing ten dozen salmon returns annually.  As with the Pilgrims, Pynchon and William Turner, the Indians had not come calling: USFWS had.  Region 5’s William Archambault noted, “We reached out to the federal tribes.” Ironically, that included the Wampanoag and Narragansett.

I hope all fully understood that in accepting fish they did USFWS a huge favor.  They should also know the embattled 2-mile reach of river they know as Peskeomscut remains today a desolate place.  There, USFWS and CRASC have abandoned spawning federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon and beleaguered American shad to the excesses of a for-profit power company.  Certainly they know that Jessie Little Doe was awarded a MacArthur genius grant in 2010.  “We Still Live Here” premiered nationwide on November 17th, funded in part by WGBY in Springfield, MA.

#          #          #

DESPERATE MEASURES : salmon hatchery program a grave threat to the Connecticut River

Posted by on 13 Nov 2011 | Tagged as: alewives, American shad, Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River ecosystem, CRASC, didymo, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, Rock Snot, salmon, Salmon eggs, salmon hatchery, shortnose sturgeon, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS

Copyright © 2011 by Karl Meyer        All Rights Reserved

This article first appeared in the Pioneer Valley News, www.pioneervalleynews.com, on November 9, 2011.  Hard copies of the free Pioneer Valley News are available at many locations from Holyoke, MA through Brattleboro and Bellows Falls, VT.

DESPERATE MEASURES: salmon program a grave threat to the CT River

TURNERS FALLS, MA.  “Didymo is not going to drive our decisions,” said Dr. Caleb Slater, Anadromous Fish Project Leader for the MA Div. of Fish & Wildlife and Tech Committee Chair of the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC) at a hastily convened CRASC meeting September 23, 2011.  Their 44 year-old federal/state salmon restoration program was in crisis, having again produced just nine-dozen returning fish on the year.  Now, their main hybrid salmon hatchery had been reduced to rubble by rampaging White River waters from Tropical Storm Irene.  But moving out the surviving salmon at the White River National Fish Hatchery (WRNFH) in Bethel, VT, posed a big problem: it could potentially increase the spread of river-bottom smothering “didymo” throughout the Connecticut River basin.

CRASC and its US Fish and Wildlife Service partners were scrambling at the Conte Anadromous Fish Lab, trying to figure out how best to lobby federal representatives to get $10 – $14 million in “emergency Congressional funding” to “completely rebuild” USFWS’s White River hatchery.  They’d even brought back Jay McMenemy, recently retired from VT Fish & Game, and CRASC’s Tech Committee, and seated him at the members table.  CRASC’s Steve Gephard of Connecticut’s DEP was worried officials might not be willing to again resuscitate this facility to produce its main product: 5 million salmon fry released to the Connecticut River each spring, “You guys have to do that lobbying,” said William Archambault, USFWS Region 5 Deputy Assistant Regional Director of Fisheries.  A week prior his boss, USFWS Region 5 Director Wendy Weber sent a letter to Washington outlining the giant funding request.

But first, WRNFH would have to be completely “de-populated,” then “disinfected,” according to Archambault.  There were also other significant risks involved in doling-out it’s surviving fish beyond spreading didymo–a bottom-smothering algae known as Rock Snot that New England states have been working hard to contain.  Nonetheless Archambault was encouraging CRASC members from VT, CT, MA and NH to quickly find a way to parse-out the 900 surviving “broodstock” salmon left at the hatchery to a handful of federal and state hatcheries–and also to find places to release remaining excess “stock” into lakes and basin streams.  Caleb Slater remarked on how stocking spawned-out hatchery salmon to Bay State ponds “gets a real PR boost” from anglers.  Once the $ millions in emergency public funds were in hand, CRASC and USFWS could start all over.

“As a Service we’re uncomfortable with the risks,” Archambault said as disclaimer, “It (the decision to accept potentially tainted fish) will have to be done on a state-by-state basis.  We can’t be 100% sure that didymo won’t be taken out of the facility.”  Spawning the survivors at White River was out of the question.  Those salmon had been newly-exposed by the dace, white suckers and other fish–living and dead, which had mixed into the crippled facility when Irene sent them upstream infected waters where didymo had been found in the White River four years prior. “Our focus is on rebuilding, not spawning right now,” said Archambault.

Alternatively, they’d have to again destroy all surviving hatchery fish and eggs—an extreme procedure that had been employed twice recently at White River facility.

But fall breeding season was arriving.  Full hatchery production—“stripping” salmon females of eggs and mixing in the milt of surviving sea-run males (who’d be injected with stimulating hormones a week prior), could not wait long.  They could delay injections a week or two, tricking the hybrids.  But then staff would have to get down to fish production—mixing the genetic fish fluids by hand, careful that computer-matched genes of certain fish were mingled into the correct plastic eggs tubs; then placing fertilized hybrid eggs on industrial racks to be washed over by an endless stream of water.

But there was another big catch: the ever-present and growing risk of centralized hatcheries spreading emerging fish diseases.  Before any surviving WRNFH salmon could be moved they’d have to be tested; quarantined for 28 days.  Hatchery salmon can spread a variety of plagues deadly to river systems and new fish populations—including angler-beloved native brook trout and still-wild salmon populations clinging to survival in rivers up north.  All WRNFH fish would have to be quickly screened for Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA), Furunculosis, and Infectious Pancreatic Necrosis (IPN)–a disease discovered infecting salmon downstream in 2007 at the Cronin National Salmon Station in Sunderland, MA.

From there, federal biologists had ferried that deadly virus 140 miles north to the Vermont’s WRNFH–through the salmon eggs Cronin Station sent them for winter incubation. Both WRNFH and Cronin Station were subsequently depopulated; chemically disinfected.  Personnel at Cronin had to kill all 121 “sea-run” salmon on-station that fall.  It was the public’s seasonal return on 40 years and over a $ half-billion spent on hybrid efforts to create a substitute fish for a strain extinct here since 1809.  Ten dozen fish were the Connecticut’s entire salmon “run” back from the ocean in 2007; when their program began in 1967 they’d predicted 37,000 salmon annually.  WRNFH staff also incinerated all 718,000 salmon eggs it had begun nursing for the following year’s stocking.  Of the millions of fry delivered into Connecticut River tributaries the next season–by school kids, trout groups and fisheries technicians, not a single baby salmon would come directly from a fish that had arrived back from the ocean.  All fry stocked into the ecosystem from Cronin and White River that spring were at least two industrial generations removed from anything that natural.

Following that 2007 disaster over $500,000 in emergency-funded “bio-security” upgrades had to be put in place at the USFWS’s Cronin Station in Sunderand, MA.  A similar mix of costly hardware and complex chemical protocols were installed at WRNFH.

But just months after the IPN debacle of 2008, disaster again struck WRNFH.  Upstream in the same White River waters the hatchery used to nurture its eggs, didymo was discovered choking the bottom.  WRNFH now risked spreading this algal plaque through the Connecticut River basin via hatchery salmon.  They could no longer use the very river water they were expecting their hybrid salmon to be restored to.  No water, equals no hatchery.  Again, CRASC and USFWS put out an SOS for emergency public funds for White River —and, again, millions in public funding was procured to design, dig and computerize a segregated system of wells and piping to water their fish, eggs, and fry.

In 2010 yet another disaster befell WRNF.  A sampling of young salmon groups being raised from eggs for CT River stocking programs revealed that 60% of those hatchery fish were developing cataracts, crippling their ability to feed.  Again, thousands had to be destroyed.  No publicly-disclosed disasters were known to befall WRNFH or Cronin National Salmon Station in 2010, yet White River infrastructure consumed $723,000 in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) cash for “upgrades”—the bulk of it funneled to corporations far from New England.  Over $590,000 in contracts for electrical upgrades and new “chillers” went to two firms: one in Missouri and the other Washington State.

THIS DAY, just four years after the IPN outbreak; just three years after the didymo crisis and new well fields, one year after cataracts—and a year after a yet another WRNFH Recover Act cash infusion, the USFWS, CRASC and the White River National Fish Hatchery are going to the mattress to save their foundered hatchery at all costs.  Didymo, and the millions of dollars spent to protect against its spread throughout the Connecticut River watershed, are being downplayed as just the price of doing business.

The plan coming out of this emergency CRASC meeting at Conte Lab, is to disease-test the White River salmon ASAP; then quickly get them dispersed and “bred” at other sites including Sunderland’s Cronin National Salmon Station.  In another unprecedented move, they would then transport, hatch, and feed several million salmon fry until spring at hatcheries in river basins across New England: North Attleboro National Fish Hatchery in the Ten Mile River basin in North Attleboro, MA, the Berkshire National Fish Hatchery in the Housatonic basin in New Marlboro, MA,  Cronin National Salmon Station in the Connecticut basin in Sunderland, MA, the formerly-mothballed Whittemore Salmon Station on the Farmington at Barkhamsted, CT, and Eisenhower National Fish Hatchery in the Otter Creek/Lake Champlain drainage basin in North Chittendon, VT.  Come spring, those baby hybrid salmon fry would get re-dispersed again—stocked-out by trout groups, school children, and fish and wildlife staff to a vast network of Connecticut River tributaries.

It was desperate, seat-of-the-pants, industrial fish science policy-in-the-making by the USFWS and CRASC’s various state fish and wildlife officials.  And it was fraught with opportunity for miscalculations, mistakes and dire consequences for the web of linked ecosystems they are charged with protecting.  As with all bureaucracies, USFWS’s Bill Archambault quietly mentioned a Plan B to procure public funds if Congress balked at this latest hatchery cash pitch.  WRNFH had recently done a bit of branching out into work other than just salmon production for the Connecticut.  They were now hatching “Klondikes,” lake trout for stocking in Lake Michigan.  It might be possible to “use Great Lakes money” to resurrect White River, Archambault said.

CRASC members and the hatchery personnel in attendance left the Tech meeting that afternoon with one big, gnarly question sitting fat and unanswered on the table: would their plan disperse didymo?  You can’t vaccinate against an algae spread via tiny plant bits carried in fish gills or transported in hatchery fry or egg-nurturing waters.  Yet almost to a one, they’d expressed a blind willingness to risk spreading that plague.  Even if all emergency disease tests proved negative, no one stepped-up to guarantee there wouldn’t be the seeds of didymo hiding in fish transported to new river basins, or in the necessary waters required for shuttling those live fish and eggs.  To his credit CRASC’s Matt Carpenter from New Hampshire Fish & Game kept returning to worries about spreading didymo.  After a pause, long-time CRASC leader Steve Gephard from CT DEP offered, “We’re using salt solutions,” but it came across sounding like soft science, and he too added his disclaimer, “No guarantees can be made.”

In the group-think being employed to save the program and sway Carpenter, Gephard then went on to restate the PR value of dispersing spawned-out salmon to swim in the basin’s rivers for casual anglers.  But, there was nothing eco-system-natural in his language, it was purely industrial, “If we’re going to save this program we’re going to have to come up with a way to keep fish in production.”  Of the decades-old system created to produce a new stand-in fish for a cold-water species centuries-extinct on today’s climate-warmed Connecticut (now classified a ‘warm water fishery’) Gephard warned, “If we get down to the point where we get back 10 fish a year–its like death from a thousand cuts, the public isn’t going to accept this program.”

These were the plans and decisions USFWS and CRASC’s Tech Committee took away with them at the end of a four hour meeting on September 23, 2011.  It was expected they’d be discussed and accepted at a full, semi-annual Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission meeting just six days hence.  However, without explanation, an emergency notice went out from CRASC’s Executive Secretary Ken Sprankle at his office in Sunderland, MA, just days later, September 27, 2011: “I have just been directed by CRASC Vice Chairman Wayne MacCallum to POSTPONE the September 29th CRASC meeting until further notice.”                  #          #          #

Author’s addendum: Upon finishing this writing as the Nov/Dec. issue of Pioneer Valley News was set to go to press, no official notice had been made of when that postponed CRASC meeting would reconvene.  Yesterday (10/25/11), I learned it will likely take place November 10, 2011, but that was still unofficial.  What, if any, of these decisions have been implemented in the interim five weeks is unknown at this time.  More about CRASC plans, changes and decisions may be revealed at that next meeting.  However, when I recently noted the Public’s Right-to-Know, and asked for specifics and notes from backroom negotiations between USFWS’s John Warner and FirstLight Power/GDF-Suez to divert more migratory fish out of the Connecticut River and into the treacherous Turners Falls power canal, Warner refused to give a direct answer.  His colleague at that CRASC meeting, USFWS Region 5 Deputy Assistant Director of Fisheries Bill Archambault, then pointedly stepped in and referred me to the Freedom of Information Act.  CRASC is a Congressionally-authorized public entity that tends to share little upfront information with the public (costs, budgets, open-meeting dates, disease threats, etc.) beyond what is self-promoting for their salmon program.

This story comes directly from an emergency CRASC Technical Committee meeting.  There should be no mistake that these decisions–and the gambles being advocated with the Connecticut River ecosystem, were being promoted by key federal and state decision makers at CRASC and USFWS.  Dr. Caleb Slater is Anadromous Fish Project Leader for the MA Div. of Fish & Wildlife; Dr. Steve Gephard is Supervisor of Inland Fisheries for CT DEP, CRASC’s Genetics Subcommittee Chair, liaison to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, and former international representative to NASCO (North Atlantic Salmon Commission); Wendy Weber is Region 5 US Fish & Wildlife Service Regional Director, William Archambault is USFWS Region 5 Deputy Assistant Regional Director of Fisheries; John Warner of the USFWS’s New England Field Office is CRASC’s Fish Passage Subcommittee Chair; Jay McMenemy (retired, but somehow again seated at that CRASC table) of VT Fish & Wildlife was CRASC’s Salmon Studies Subcommittee Chair, and a key long-time promoter of the Atlantic Salmon Egg Rearing Program (ASERP) in VT’s schools.   Matthew Carpenter, CRASCs lone voice of question and potential dissent that day, attended the meeting via speaker phone.  He is Anadromous Fish Program Coordinator for New Hampshire Fish & Game.

What is clear is that this program and its insular decision-making process represent an ongoing danger to the Connecticut River ecosystem.  As long as the public remains unaware of the costs and consequences of continuing to spend tens of millions of dollars on a coldwater fish strain that went extinct on the southern-most edge of its historical footprint over 200 years ago, the USFWS and CRASC will continue to dump 6 million factory fry into the Connecticut River system each spring.  In turn, we’ll continue to see a return of 10 dozen or so fish from the sea, ad infinitum, if our representatives continue funding a program with hybrid salmon at its core.

Conservatively calculating that the basic salmon restoration effort—in a year without new disease or disaster, costs taxpayers a minimum of $10 million annually (salaries aside)–the cost for the 91 “wild” sea-run salmon returning from the Atlantic this year was $110,000 per fish.  Add to that any number of “bad” years with an emerging disease or disaster–pitch in say another $14 million from public coffers, and the price of one returned hybrid salmon goes to $264,000.   Each of these then must be ferried right back to the hatchery for next year’s production.

And that doesn’t begin to calculate the huge “what-ifs?”…didymo, ISA, IPN gets shipped out of the salmon factories…

In recent OpEds from Holyoke, MA to Bellows Falls and Montpelier, VT, I’ve taken the position that the Connecticut River desperately needs a well-funded restoration program.  But it should be an ecosystem restoration program, not one based on a failed 19th century idea that substitutes fish hatcheries for functioning river systems, and prioritizes an extinct species ahead of a still-living pyramid that includes native alewives, American shad, blueback herring, endangered shortnose sturgeon, sea lamprey and American eels.  With less than half the $14 million USFWS and CRASC hope will rescue their program you could build a state-of-the-art ecosystem laboratory.  It would an excellent fit for the Five College area—where advances in upstream ecosystem restoration remain stalled behind Turners Falls dam, as they have since its construction in 1798.

With such a facility in place, you could easily attract endowment funding—and start producing independent science.  CRASC, and Conte Lab’s state and federal scientists and studies are now regularly contracted with, and supported by, money from power companies operating on the Connecticut—companies concerned with maximizing profit.   Corporations have little interest seeing independent science come to light that would quantify for the public their true impacts on New England’s River.

At minimum, it’s high time to stop the losses the Connecticut River ecosystem is sustaining from propping up a dangerously failed hatchery program.  Invest in keeping the Connecticut’s remaining half-dozen, naturally-breeding migratory species alive and moving upstream.

Karl Meyer, Greenfield, MA, October 26, 2011.

Desperate Measures: portrait of a CRASC Meeting

Posted by on 09 Nov 2011 | Tagged as: American shad, Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River ecosystem, Conte, CRASC, didymo, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, Rock Snot, salmon hatchery, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service

The PIONEER VALLEY NEWS will be out on news stands beginning tomorrow, November 10th.  Right now you can read about the last meeting of the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, aka CRASC, on-line at:  www.pioneervalleynews.com ,

Or simply type in the link below.

http://www.pioneervalleynews.com/main-1/environmental/desperate-measures

The Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, aka CRASC, meets tomorrow, November 10, at 10 a.m. at the USGS Silvio Conte Anadromous Fish Lab in Turners Falls.  Though the meetings are not publicly announced, this is the federal/state public entity responsible for protecting migratory fish and the Connecticut River ecosystem–fisheries officials responsible for protecting runs of blueback herring, American shad, and the Connecticut’s only spawning population of federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon.

The public can attend these meetings, and should be made aware of them.  To attend tomorrow, take the 11th Street Bridge across the Turners Falls Power Canal, go left at the first stop sign, and follow down along the widened power canal until you see Conte Lab on the right.  Parking is right there.

USFWS requests $14 million in “emergency” funds for hatchery as native fish runs founder

Posted by on 31 Oct 2011 | Tagged as: American shad, Atlantic salmon, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River ecosystem, didymo, Rock Snot, Salmon eggs, salmon hatchery, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS

The following OpEd appeared in MA and VT publications, including at: www.gazettenet.com; www.recorder.com , www.rutlandherald.comwww.timesargus.com; www.commonsnews.org;  and The Montague Reporter, www.montaguema.net .  My apologies go to USFWS Region 5 Director Wendy Weber for incorrectly spelling her name and noting her as “Acting” Director in the original.  They are here-in corrected.

Ms. Weber formally replied to my piece in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on Friday, October 29th .  I appreciate her thoughtful response, and welcome the prospect that an evaluation of the 44 year old salmon-creation effort might lead to real USFWS policy change here on the Connecticut.  A true restoration effort desperately needs to focus on the living migratory species still diverted into the debased habitats at the Turners Falls power canal.  The Connecticut River itself remains all but dead as a river system for the two miles immediately below Turners Falls dam.

I stick by my characterization that this group of ranking federal/state fisheries officials were indeed ready to “play fast and loose” with the Connecticut’s ecosystem as they left their Sept. 23rd emergency CRASC Tech Committee meeting.  The “ask”–noted at that meeting, was indeed stated as $14 million in “emergency” Congressional funding.  I put together my OpEd, to denote the dangers of spreading didymo,  and get the issue into the public record.  Days later an emergency dispatch went out cancelling the scheduled Sept. 29, 2011 meeting of the full CRASC, where the proposed emergency fish-dispersing measures would have presumably been adopted.  That meeting has been rescheduled for November 10, 20011, 10:00 a.m., at the federal Conte Anadromous Fish Lab in Turners Falls.  CRASC is a public entity, thus the public may attend.

I would love to see USFWS hold an open public forum on the future of the Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration program.  I would be happy be a part of such a panel.  My original OpEd is below.

Karl Meyer, Greenfield, MA, Oct. 31, 2011

ORIGINAL OpEd text below

Oct. 5, 2011                                                       Copyright © 2011 by Karl Meyer

 

USFWS requests $14 million in “emergency” funds for hatchery as native fish runs founder

Wendy Weber, Region 5 Director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Hadley, MA, and Deputy Assistant Regional Director of Fisheries Bill Archambault, want a boatload of pork for the failed Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission’s (CRASC’s) salmon program.  Now!  Through an Act of Congress they are seeking $10 – $14 million in emergency funding to rebuild the White River National Fish Hatchery (WRNFH) in Bethel, VT, wiped out by Tropical Storm Irene in August.  Webber sent out a letter requesting the Congressional funds in mid-September.  The primary product of WRNFH is salmon eggs—six million annually for our river’s longest running failure, the 44 year attempt to recreate an extinct salmon strain here: 107 fish returned this season.  What will Senators Kerry, Brown, Leahy and Sanders do with this request in a time of paper-thin budgets and collapsing native herring and shad runs?

Last year, the WRNFH got $723,000 in federal stimulus funds for a makeover–over $420,000 went to a refrigeration manufacturer in Missouri for an egg-chiller.  Ironically, a $100,000 egg chiller has sat useless at the Cronin National Salmon Station in Sunderland, MA for years.  Upon delivery, it simply never worked.  Four years ago White River spent millions in taxpayer dollars to build a well system to supply its hatchery salmon—upstream the White River had become infected with the invasive, bottom-smothering algae didymo, which could be transported via eggs and fry they disperse to tributaries and sent to school programs. They want to start again.

Meanwhile, state/federal CRASC Commissioners seem willing to play fast and loose with the potentially-disastrous dispersal of didymo to CT River tributaries through hatchery fry.  Right now they are devising a rush plan to parcel out the surviving 900 “broodstock” hatchery salmon at White River to hatcheries in MA, VT, and CT—though they admit they can’t be “one hundred percent certain didymo won’t be taken out of the (White River) facility.”  They’d jeopardize an ecosystem for their program.

All this was revealed at an emergency CRASC Tech Committee meeting on September 23, 2011.  This capital-intensive, million dollar system of four federal and two state hatcheries, floats a small number of well-benefitted government jobs, while ignoring native migrant fish and the lessons of a river ecosystem.  It’s a PR machine reaching into public schools, assisted via a few hundred, spawned-out hatchery salmon dumped into lakes and streams to mollify anglers duped into believing it will work.

With $14 million you could do a lot of good for the Connecticut.  With just a fraction of that money, independent scientists could conduct investigations and get real answers about why millions of migratory American shad have remained blocked from getting upstream to Vermont and New Hampshire on the main stem Connecticut at Turners Falls for decades, abandoned to a treacherous power canal literally behind the federal Conte Fish Lab.  A tiny share of those dollars could begin getting real answers to why a flood of 630,000 blueback herring passing Holyoke dam in 1985 collapsed like the September Red Sox to a “run” of 138 fish here in 2011.

Less than half of $14 million could easily build an independent, Five College-based river ecology lab that would advance our understanding of native fish, the food web, and the mix of seasonal life cycles critical to sustaining a healthy ecosystem.  MA is the crossroads of the Connecticut—where migratory fish have remained blocked from VT and NH waters since 1798.  Once built, a sustaining endowment could surely be found for such a facility.  New England’s River would finally have a think tank worthy of its critical importance.

Today, just a few hundred thousand could easily get an answer to the simple question that’s left New Englanders in the dark for generations: Why hundreds of millions of dollars spent on an extinct, cold water fish is never going to sustain anything but pork production for the 44 year old Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission–on a warming  river in the era of climate change.

In 1967, New Englanders from Enfield, CT to Walpole, NH, and Bellows Falls, VT were promised great fishing and a bounty of seafood by the New England Cooperative Fisheries Restoration Program, today’s CRASC.  The chief objective of this federal/state amalgam: “provide the public with high quality sport fishing opportunities in a highly urbanized area as well as to provide for the long term needs of the population for seafood.”   Runs of a million American shad, commercially harvestable blueback herring returns—and a hypothetical run of fishable (though centuries extinct) salmon were promised.  Instead, we’re left with an endless conveyor of salmon pork, no seafood–and damned poor fishing.

It’s time to stop this recklessness and waste on the Connecticut–time for accountability from the USFWS.  Jettison the Age-of-Aquarius salmon scheme; refocus the program on still-living native runs.  A new name, the “Connecticut River Migratory Fisheries Commission” would help; all new commissioners and an ecosystem focus would be a real start.

END

USFWS Region 5 Director Wendy Weber’s piece from the Gazette can be found at:

http://www.gazettenet.com/2011/10/28/wildlife-official-differs-on-fisheries-management

IT’S THE DEAD REACH STUPID: the selling of the Connecticut River ecosystem

Posted by on 24 Jul 2011 | Tagged as: American shad, Atlantic salmon, Bellows Falls Fishway, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River ecosystem, Conte, CRASC, Dead Reach, EPA, federal trust fish, FERC license, FirstLight, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, MA Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, New Hampshire, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, salmon, salmon hatchery, Sanctuary Magazine, shortnose sturgeon, The Greenfield Recorder, The Springfield Republican, Turners Falls power canal, USFWS, Walpole

Copyright © 2011 by Karl Meyer                                   All Rights Reserved.

* The following article first appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of the Pioneer Valley News.

                          IT’S THE DEAD REACH, STUPID: the selling of the Connecticut River ecosystem

If you think the Connecticut River is worth saving for your children and their grandchildren, you’d better act fast.  New England’s River is dying in the two-mile stretch directly below the dam in Turners Falls, MA.  Go take a look.  It’s a section subjected, alternately, to channel-starving flows and punishing deluges caused by manipulations at the dam from the Northfield Mountain-Turners Falls hydropower operations.  Look just to the left, where roiling water churns and hurtles down the Turners Falls Power Canal.  That’s where most of the river’s water goes—into an unnatural conduit that’s the final stop for most of the Connecticut’s migratory fish.  It’s killing this ocean-connected ecosystem, which once stretched north to Walpole, NH and Bellows Falls, VT.

For decades US Fish and Wildlife Service agents, federal scientists at the Conte Fish Lab in Turners Falls, and MA Fisheries & Wildlife officials have ignored this “dead reach” where the river’s only breeding population of federally endangered shortnose sturgeon spawns; and migrating “federal trust” American shad and blueback herring are turned out of their ancient river highway two miles downstream.   That power canal has hydro-turbines slicing through the current at three sites, and warming, silted-in habitats along its middle stretch.  Few fish emerge from that habitat to swim to Vermont and New Hampshire.  An ecosystem dies at Turners Falls.

Yet federal and state fisheries officials don’t monitor the flows, releases and river levels coming down past the Turners Falls dam.  They leave it to the complex’s owners, global giant FirstLight, to police themselves on this critical reach.  They then use what little data the company deigns to give them, often months late—about flow and numbers of migrating fish, in the fisheries science that’s been supposed to restore New England’s migratory fish here these past last 40 years.  Boy is that smart.

Last year, FirstLight surreptitiously dumped 65,000 tons of silt into the Connecticut here after it got clogged in its massive turbines–also fouling the entire, mile-long intake tunnel to its sprawling 5-billion gallon Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir.  They were mucking the sludge out of the reservoir for the first time in 20 years; that’s supposed to happen every five.  On May 3rd FirstLight manager John Howard grossly under-represented the extent of the pollution to the US EPA when he notified them that “silt was entering the river.”   From May 1 – August 4th, FirstLight pushed at least 45,000 cubic square yards of muck into the Connecticut at Northfield.  Daily, between 40 – 50 dump truck loads flowed in.

On June 23, 2010, boater Bruce Miriam called the EPA’s hotline reporting piles of silt in the river.  Yet EPA didn’t make its initial inspection until 3 weeks later, and it wasn’t August 4th that EPA finally ordered them to cease and desist “polluting the navigable waters of the United States.”  Fisheries agencies didn’t pursue the critical matter of that oxygen-and-light-robbing silt.  It was visible from Northfield to the mouth of the Deerfield River.  Silt is known to affect the spawning, eggs and young of endangered sturgeon and federal-trust shad—struggling here in the upper-most stretch that ocean-going migrants can reach in any meaningful numbers.

FirstLight was belatedly ordered to dredge up the mess they’d largely kept from the public by hiding it underwater–keeping the river’s levels at maximum height behind their TF dam gates for months.  Ultimately they sucked out just a third of it, 15,000 cubic square yards.  They were also ordered to come up with a future plan on how they would deal with the sludge clogging their reservoir.  Last November, when EPA Council Michael Wagner was asked who will monitor FirstLight’s actions in the future he replied, “Most compliance happens from the company.  We just expect the company will comply.”   In another river-pollution non-sequitur, FirstLight quietly agreed to spend a few thousand dollars to fund a study of dragonfly larvae, far downstream from their pollution.  That backroom deal was cut with MA Dept. of Environmental Protection, and agreed to by EPA.  It was the public’s recompense.

Though the Connecticut belongs to the United States, Massachusetts, and all New Englanders, it appears its ownership and control has been ceded to FirstLight—who could sell their hydro complex here tomorrow.   The EPA, US F&WS, the US Geological Service’s Conte Anadromous Fish Lab, the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC), MA DEP and MA Div. of Fisheries & Wildlife–agencies charged with protecting this river system for all time, have offered up our river ecosystem to the short-term, profit desires of FirstLight’s shareholders.

What’s more, they are about to concede this river’s ecosystem disaster to the power company for all time–decades after they should have conducted the independent science and required that changes be instituted here that would have taken the river off life-support.  That should have been in 1998–the halfway point in the current federal operating license.  If they succeed, it will ensure the ecosystem remains comatose for generations.

In behind-the-scenes negotiations that should be subject to open-meeting laws and public input, federal and state fisheries officials are talking with FirstLight owners about permanently accepting the diversion of the bulk of the river’s flow and fish out of the riverbed–sending the mass of migratory fish into the trap they co-created with Northeast Utilities back in 1978: the treacherous currents and warming muck that’s the Turners Falls Power Canal.

An ample flow of natural seasonal current left in the river–leading fish directly upstream to a fish elevator at the dam would instantly revive the Connecticut’s dead reach.  That’s what they’ve done downstream at Holyoke since 1955.  It’s the East Coast’s most successful fish passage.  Between 40 – 60% of the fish would quickly be able to pass Turners Falls, according to statements from US Conte Lab fish scientist Alex Haro at a 2010 fish passage symposium held at the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s Region V Headquarters in early 2011.  That passage would send meaningful numbers of American shad upstream toward VT and NH for the first time since John Adams was president.  No honest fish scientist disputes this.

But instead, federal fish scientists including Haro’s colleague at Conte, Ted Castro-Santos, are prioritizing building a fish lift at the foot of the Turners Falls Power Canal—continuing to sentence embattled fish into a migratory limbo few emerge from.   Both Haro and Castro-Santos are salaried federal employees, but up to half the money they’ve accepted for doing fish passage studies that center on keeping fish in the power canal comes from FirstLight.  If federal and state fisheries officials sell-out the dead reach once more, it will be the fourth time in as many decades that watchdog agencies have failed our river here.

That power canal fish diversion was put in place by forerunners of these agents in 1978.  It’s the Roach Motel of fish passage: millions of shad have checked in, but hardly a fish checks out the other side.  A 1988 study conducted by John O’Leary of the Massachusetts Cooperative Fisheries Unit and supervised by Dr. Boyd Kynard, spelled out the failure of using that canal for fish passage.  Successful passage that year came in at a whopping 5.4% at the Turners Falls Gatehouse–after years of tinkering with the hopeless system.  The study’s summary sized-up the situation succinctly, “Remarks:  “Upriver Passage: None.”

But FirstLight makes electricity along this 5-mile reach in a deregulated market, and works to maximize profits for shareholders.  Conversely, it sends pulses of water downstream from its giant Northfield generators through this industrial reach into critical spawning and migratory habitats while taking advantage of price spikes the energy “spot market.”   Ironically, the Northfield plant actually requires more energy to run than it produces.  But when prices and demand climbs, they quickly spill punishing flows downstream at the dam; while at other times their hydro gates close and the river is left treacherously de-watered.  Migrating shad and (formerly) blueback herring swim to this reach in numbers of at least 100,000 fish annually.  But just a few get beyond Turners Falls dam, in place here since 1798.  Whole seasons of just-spawned shortnose sturgeon eggs and young have been washed out of the riverbed by surges in this broken stretch—where most migrating shad are conveniently shunted out of the river into miserable canal habitat.  US F&WS and MA Fisheries & Wildlife leaders sit on their hands.

Caleb Slater, from MA Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, Technical Committee Chair and fish passage subcommittee leader at the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC) is one of those talking to FirstLight.  With Massachusetts personnel negotiating on behalf of our interests, “open meetings laws” should apply.  But there’s no public input or access.  There’s been an unfilled MA “public sector” seat at the CRASC table since 2008.  It’s a rubber stamp position anyway, really concerned with keeping money flowing for CRASC’s massively-failed, half-billion-dollar salmon restoration and hatchery program.  After 40 years, a few dozen hybrid salmon return.  The other federal officials charged with representing our interests include John Warner of the US F&WS Field Office, Julie Crocker of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, and NOAA attorney Kevin Collins.  All are charged with protecting the ecosystem for our grandkids, not the power company of the day.

FirstLight only leases the use of some of our river’s water—subject to conditions in the current federal operating (FERC) license, in place until 2018.  That license requires them to protect and improve passage for the migratory federal trust fish impacted by their facilities and operations.  By law they must maintain conditions and construct new fish passage that protects the public’s migrating and spawning fish—or they can be ordered to cease generating.

But the company has a powerful incentive to keep as many fish as possible out of the river–as it would be inconvenient to shareholders not to maximize profits by having to tailor flow regimes in the river at certain seasons to the needs of the ecosystem’s fish.  If this backroom deal gets made it offers FirstLight–or the power company-of-the-moment, carte blanch to continue profiting from free-wheeling, unmonitored operations on the dead reach–where FirstLight and its predecessors have been notably out of compliance with respect to pollution, flows, fish passage and federal trust species.  Those activities go unchallenged.

Federal fisheries leaders and scientists at the nearby $12 million dollar Conte Anadramous Fish Lab, located on that canal, also have a powerful motive for wanting the fish to continue to be shunted into that debased canal habitat. It’s where their lab is and where they do their fish science, though the bulk of it involves studying baby, hatchery-produced, hybrid salmon.  The results after 20 years of lab operations are abysmal: 100 returning adult salmon this year—in a program that has cost taxpayers hundreds of millions.  The public won’t be willing to fund this white elephant forever.

Which sort-of leaves the federal Conte Lab scrambling for a reason to exist.  They’ve now even begun studying freshwater fish that are non-migratory–to fill the rather large hole in their failed collective purpose here.  Just like FirstLight, it would be best to keep those formerly-ignored shad coming up into that canal and past their lab.  They can then look like they are doing something.  So, with renewed energy, they are once again conducting studies remarkably similar to ones done in past decades–to answer a question that seems more like a children’s riddle at this point: Why can’t fish taken out of their true riverbed habitats find their way through the labyrinth and roiling waters of a warming power canal—and then jump up into flows from a higher pond at the dam to swim to Vermont and New Hampshire?   Like the power company, there’s a money motive here to.  It’s a co-dependency that’s developed over decades.

At a 2010 meeting of the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Vermont CRASC Tech Committee Member Jay McMenemy expressed surprise that four hybrid Atlantic salmon—the season’s entire free-swimming crop at Turners Falls, had reached the site by swimming directly up the dead reach of river, by-passing the power canal.  With Northfield shut down, it shouldn’t have surprised anyone.  I’d first noted the looming disaster at Turners Falls in print a dozen years prior, and in 2007 had written a front-page story about the impacts of the Northfield plant’s operations on dying shad passage in the Springfield Republican.  I’d put shad and Northfield impacts on the cover of Massachusetts Audubon’s Sanctuary Magazine again in 2009.

With FirstLight keeping river levels behind the dam as high as possible to cover their silt piles upstream, they tried to divert the rest of the river’s water into the canal—their preferred route for struggling fish.  But a canal is a finite conduit: it can only carry just so much water.  It started raining really hard here in late-May; and flows from heavy late-spring rains kept coming downstream through June.  That forced FirstLight to spill water over their dam–releasing substantial and steady flows to the river’s natural bed: the dead reach.  Apparently even million-dollar, hatchery-hybrid salmon can tell a true river current from a by-pass trick.  They followed their noses straight upstream to use the rarely-accessed fish ladder at the dam to pass Turners Falls.

So did the American shad.

When I enquired of FirstLight’s Bob Stira about the already 600-800% increase in shad passing Turners Falls at a June 22, 2010 CRASC meeting—trying to find out how many had been recorded swimming directly upstream to the dam and ladder at the top of that dead reach, he was hesitant, downplaying his answer, “Oh, maybe three or four thousand.”  In fact, allowing that 4,000 American shad had likely passed upstream by this route alone was hugely significant: yearly averages had dropped to a paltry 2,000 – 3,000 fish making it through the fish passage system at Turners Falls in the past decade.

Yet in 2010, with Northfield down–and FirstLight’s releasing public fish tallies lagging weeks behind the daily figures available from Holyoke, 10,000 shad had already made it past Turners Falls dam.  When I pointedly noted the relationship between the Northfield outage and record shad passage at Turners Falls, commissioners at the CRASC table had little in the way of response.  Ultimately it was months before FirstLight released their final fish tallies for shad passage, which included numbers swimming up the dead reach, and ascending the ladder directly at the dam.  In 2010, some 16,768 fish passed Turners Falls—the most fish recorded since 1995.

But even that number is highly suspect and likely low.  FirstLight’s fish counting equipment failed on 35 different occasions—with 17 of those failures occurring at the dam’s spillway ladder.    Those cameras record the fish that swim up the riverbed when they have ample flow through their natural migration corridor—that mostly-dead reach of river ecosystem.  FirstLight’s figures are the data Conte Lab and federal and state fisheries biologists use in their science.  As I first noted about these instititutions to the Greenfield Recorder’s Gary Sanderson last June, “Do you think they’re hiding something?”

FirstLight and Conte researcher Ted Castro-Santos appeared anxious last year to attribute the huge increase in shad passage at Turners Falls to experiments they’d done changing the exit opening for shad in their preferred upstream fish passage route—the canal.  But that new hole had first been cut three years prior, with the subsequent results admittedly “poor.”

To me it seemed obvious they were trying to steal the credit and credibility that belongs to nature: water in the actual riverbed, and a large population of American shad that has wanted to follow the river upstream to Vermont and New Hampshire for centuries now.

Managers and engineers at the Northfield-Turners Falls complex have been operating dam gates and manipulating flows along this five-mile stretch for decades.  They operate their gates day and night.  Federal and state fisheries managers and scientists don’t monitor the impacts.  Operating with few constraints, it’s certainly possible to create conditions that move struggling fish in any direction you want them to go.  For the fish, that’s usually a trip through the power canal.  Rarely–when flows vary, it can be something else…

Way back in the early 1980s hundreds of shad found enough current in the riverbed to follow it straight upstream to the dam.  But operators wanted more water elsewhere—to fill their mountaintop reservoir upstream, and the power canal flowing just east of the river.  They closed the dam’s gates and shut off flow.  Without flow and water left in the river to find a path downstream, hundreds of shad perished in the warming, oxygen-starved pools they got trapped in.  Needless to say, that visible configuration was never seen again.

Today, both FirstLight and federal Conte Fish Lab scientist find themselves in a bit of a bind over the choked ecosystem and fish passage.  It’s important to each to show that the best thing for those migratory fish is to be shoved out of the riverbed and into the power canal.  They want to build a fish lift there first–at the foot of the canal, to keep that system in place.  And it’s today’s paltry flows coming downstream through the dead reach that allow this to happen.  That status quo solution would keep everybody comfortably remunerated.

But with the anomaly of record numbers of shad passing Turners Falls while Northfield Mountain was down last year, you can’t just return to business as usual.  With those parching or punishing flows through the dead reach now a matter of public record–through recent news articles and OpEds, what you can do is try and optimize conditions that get a few more fish through that dismal system.  This season there has been a dismally small, but consistent, current spilling downstream at Turners Falls dam, noted by the public.  It seems mainly for show.

But downstream at Holyoke there has been a full 33% increase in American shad passage this year.  Sadly for Mr. Castro-Santos and the canal-route proponents–the corresponding increase that should have followed at Turners Falls if their new exit strategy was indeed the savior of those migratory runs, has not occured.  The numbers at Turners Falls were flat this year—actually down by a few hundred from last year.  They are below the shad numbers passing Turners Falls dam a quarter century back, when John O’Leary’s study characterized similar failing fish passage the “Remarks” section of his 1988 study as: “Upriver Passage: None.”

Sending fish into a power canal won’t fix the Connecticut River’s broken ecosystem—the ocean connection and its shad and herring runs that once swam north to Vermont and New Hampshire.  Only real flows in the dead reach and a single fish lift directly upstream at the dam will make that possible.  That needs to happen today–should’ve happened a decade back.  It remains a debt under requirements in the current license.

But that would require integrity, determination, leadership—even a bit of courage, something citizens have come to no longer expect from the people charged with protecting their river.  And some of the folks making deals on the river today may be the same people in charge when a new federal license—also ostensibly designed to improve the river ecosystem, comes up for retooling in 2018.  It’s the recipe for a failed ecosystem for your great-grandchildren.

I recently spoke with the US F&WS’s Ken Sprankle, the Connecticut River Coordinator and fish researcher who works from a Sunderland office.  Ken seems to have some integrity.  He’s trying to do some of the catch-up science that was left a decade in arrears at the federal Conte Lab.  Last year he spent months cobbling together grant monies that enabled him to pay for a study that electronically tagged 100 American shad this year, to follow document their upstream migration patterns.  He says he’s getting lots of data.

But, when I questioned Ken about whether he is getting the critical independent data about flows, levels, and releases into the dead reach at Turners Falls dam—the ancient route for fish up the river, he said he is not.  He’s asked FirstLight’s Bob Stira for that information.  It’s been promised, but he doesn’t know when he’ll get it.

This is virtually the only real independent data and science that matters.  It’s the stuff that measures the damage to endangered shortnose sturgeon spawning populations and migrating federal trust fish that have always required a Connecticut River with water in it.  I was disheartened to hear this.  As other fisheries people tell me, however dedicated Ken might be, his work will only get as far as his US F&WS Region V supervisors allow him to go.

So, it appears the task of saving the Connecticut River ecosystem has been left up to New England citizens.  You and me.  Environmental groups have remained largely mute for decades.  Most accept power company funding, and many have boards of directors littered with former power company managers.  Though it would take just one with the courage to stand apart to perhaps change the course of this river’s history, I wouldn’t bet on it.

But you can act.  Contact your Congressmen and state representatives.  Ask them about open meeting laws and to hold hearings on protecting the federal trust and the river’s ecosystem at Turners Falls.  Ask them about the wisdom of spending $10 million a year on a failed salmon program that produces a few dozen fish—while endangered sturgeon go unprotected and federal trust shad runs remain dead to Vermont and New Hampshire, stuck behind Turners Falls dam since 1798. Write a letter to the paper. And, where’s the independent environmental watchdog that’s publicly going to go to bat for the river’s dead reach?  That might begin with you.

As research, take a ride to the Turners Falls dam and look south into the dead reach, then to the left at that churning canal.  Then, beginning around September 10, 2011, go south in Turners Falls and cross the canal on the 11th Street Bridge.  Head downstream along the public roads following the canal to where the paved road is called Migratory Way.  That’s where our federal fish lab is.  You may have to walk; they sometimes close the gates to cars.

But, beginning September 12th, that canal is set to be dredged of its muck by FirstLight.  Take a good look–before and after, at the muck-filled expanse.  Then, decide for yourself whether this is a suitable place to send even a few of the future’s precious remaining fish.

Karl Meyer of Greenfield, MA writes on many topics as freelance journalist. He has written for national and regional publications and been featured on public radio’s MarketPlace. Meyer is also an award-winning non-fiction children’s author. He holds an MS in Environmental Science from Antioch New England University and writes often about Connecticut River issues. Read his blog at: www.karlmeyerwriting.com  Contact him about writing and school and environmental presentations at: karl@karlmeyerwriting.com .

 

 

The Devolution of a River Restoration: killing the Connecticut softly

Posted by on 31 May 2011 | Tagged as: American shad, Atlantic salmon, Bellows Falls Fishway, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Conte, CRASC, Farmington River, federal trust fish, New Hampshire, Rainbow Dam Fishway, salmon hatchery, Uncategorized, USFWS, Vernon Dam Fishway, Walpole

This article appears in the current(May-June) issue of the Pioneer Valley News, a small, bimonthly news-magazine available, free, at various Valley locations.

The Devolution of a River Restoration: killing the Connecticut softly

by Karl Meyer                                   Copyright © 2011 by Karl Meyer

May 5, 2010.  7:30 a.m:

THWACK!  Standing next to the pulsing waters of the Rainbow Fishway on the Farmington River in Windsor, CT, I’d just received a watery slap in the face from a 280 million year-old living fossil.  I was travelling by bicycle, heading to the Holyoke dam from Old Saybrook, CT at Long Island Sound.  I’d left the Sound the day before, with a final destination of Bellows Falls, VT, following the Connecticut River’s fish migration upstream.  But I just had to stop at this storied tributary.  Astonished, I stared at the frothy spot where a 2-1/2 foot sea lamprey had just been cemented to the concrete wall of a 34 year-old salmon ladder–its suctioning mouth holding it in the wild current.  Now, it was gone.

Wiping the spray from my cheek, I look upstream to the next frothing pool.  There, peeking just above the water like a spy-hopping whale is my lamprey.  Its snakelike body flutters in the current while its round, jawless-mouth keeps it fused to the concrete as if joined by Crazy Glue.  Two flooded basins downstream, three more lamprey do the exact same thing; in the pool beyond, another, nearly as thick as my arm, waves like a streamer in violent water.

THWACK!—another sprits of Farmington water hits me.  In a flash, the ropey, mottled-brown fish disappears, only to emerge a second later in the next higher pool, glomming onto the steep wall.  Its rudimentary gills writhe like bellows in the froth as they siphon needed oxygen.

I am witnessing a miracle of tenacity and evolution as these ancient fish scale an impossible fishway.  I’m also witnessing everything that is wrong with the Connecticut River basin’s failed 44 year-old federal-state migratory fish restoration here at the first dam on Farmington River–the longest tributary in the state of Connecticut.

This fishway is a trap.  It kills fish.  In fact, the Rainbow Fishway kills most of the fish the New England Cooperative Fisheries were charged with restoring way back in 1967—the American shad and blueback herring that once fed humans along 172 miles of the Connecticut River, as well as up tributaries like this one–all the way from Long Island Sound to Bellows Falls, VT.

In 1976, state and federal fisheries officials came up with the design here—a ponderously steep ladder with punishing flows charging through rasping, pebble-ridden concrete slots not much wider than a splayed hand.  It was based on West Coast ladders designed for Pacific salmon–here to be used for the Atlantic salmon, extinct in the Connecticut River since 1809.  From day one, Rainbow proved a killer.  For the past 35 years this ladder has drawn spawning-run shad and blueback herring upstream to its watery promise by the tens of thousands—only to flay them alive in repeated attempts to pass.  Those that succeed expire soon after reaching the top, their reward for tenacity.  In total, Rainbow Fishway has quietly killed more migrating shad and herring–classified as “federal trust fish,” than it has ever assisted.

Lacking scales, a’ la salmon, the scrappy sea lamprey is this fishway’s—and the Connecticut River restoration’s, single, unequivocal, unintended success.  By the end of the 2010 spawning season Rainbow had passed a grand total of 4 hybrid salmon.  But 3,090 sea lamprey made it out the top of Rainbow–exhausted, but otherwise uninjured.  Concurrently, those narrow, flaying, concrete slots injured and likely killed all 548 American shad and 25 blueback herring that were counted as “passing” the fishway.  That number is a trick.  The counting window is located in the bottom third of those 64 treacherous pools–where hapless, de-scaling migrants still have a wrinkle of life left in them when the staff checks them off.

By 1970, just three years after its start, fisheries officials had turned the basics of Connecticut River migratory fish restoration on its head–placing the extinct salmon as priority one, and relegating American shad and blueback herring to poor step-child status.  Their overarching federal mandate was to create “high quality sport fishing opportunities” in the Connecticut basin, and to “provide for the long-term needs of the population for seafood.”  The large, sporty American shad was the top fish named in that mandate; followed by the extinct salmon, and then those migratory herring.  Federal and state managers were entrusted with both river ecology and fish runs. At Rainbow, they crushed the possibilities of both.

Historically, for millennia, American shad fed Native Peoples and later European immigrants throughout the Connecticut Valley.  Herring were salted and eaten too, and used in livestock feed and fertilizer. Here, that extinct salmon had colonized the Connecticut River system just a few hundred years prior at the very southern edge of their cold-water range–during the Little Ice Age in New England, 1400 – 1800 AD, a time of shifting ocean currents and unusual cold for Northern Europe and Northeastern North America.

The salmon were large but few—amounting to perhaps one fish in five thousand in the annual runs of migratory fish.  Though tasty, they never fed the populace.  And, with warming Atlantic currents and the first dams on the Connecticut, the salmon run had died off by 1809.  Yet, in 1976, fisheries officials built this fish trap in the name of salmon, fueled by their trophy fish desires.  It flew in the face river ecology principals, and it has crippled fish restoration on the Farmington and depleted the Connecticut River’s migratory fish stocks for decades.  Four salmon used this ladder in 2010.  Four.

One biologist refers to Rainbow Fishway as “the world’s greatest shad de-scaler.”  That’s what it does–it rakes the scales off hapless two foot-long American shad, drawn into those narrow slots by the upstream current.  Thousand perish annually.  With bellies flayed raw in the effort, they either wash back down downstream, or expire after reaching the top of the dam.  The smaller, foot-long herring receive the same fate.  And the public hasn’t a clue.  Remarkably, Rainbow holds an “open house” each June, with smiling state fisheries personnel standing over a few listless shad, live-trapped at the base of the dam.  They politely explain how the system functions…  The place is a PETA protest waiting to happen.

Though few people admire this member of an ancient order of jawless fish, I’m watching a miraculous creature—one that does nearly everything a salmon restoration effort on the Connecticut never will.  The wonderfully adapted sea lamprey is ghoulish-looking.  They appear more eel-like than fish, but they are fish indeed.  They were thriving before the glaciers arrived here—indeed, living-well before even the molten rise of the Holyoke Range and the ancient layers of earth rose and parted to later become Turners Falls. Sea lamprey were making a good living 200 million years before dinosaurs laid tracks here in the fogs of Valley pre-history.

Lamprey are large, but hardly sexy.  They are writhers, not leapers.  Indeed, upon hatching they will spend well over half an unglamorous decade rooted and waving like worms in riverbed silts, growing slowly as they filter nutrients and detritus from the downstream current.  Then, in an amazing transformation, they head to the sea to spend the final two years of their decade-plus lifespan in the open ocean, maturing quickly into two- and three- foot fish who making a living as ocean parasites attached to larger fish–using their sucking-disc mouths full of hundreds of needle-like teeth to draw in nutrition.

Then, come spring– blind, fasting, and loosing those teeth, they return to the Connecticut River tributaries of their birth to spawn.  Using their powerful sucking jaws, the male and female will move fist-sized rocks to create a rounded rock nest called a redd– remarkably similar to one a salmon would make.  That rock-corral will catch the doomed couple’s fertilized eggs after spawning.  Their life-cycles complete, upon spawning all adult lamprey perish, leaving both their thousands of tiny eggs and their rotting carcasses to the clear-running reaches of Connecticut River tributaries.

In a 2007 study, Drs. Keith Nislow and Boyd Kynard of the UMass-Amherst Dept. of Natural Resources and Conservation surveyed the results of 20 years of sea lamprey spawning research on the Fort River–a Connecticut tributary in Hampshire County, MA.  Their findings show that the quick-rotting carcasses left by spawned-out adult lamprey contribute critical ocean-derived nutrients–including phosphorus and nitrogen, to freshwater systems at a time when other spring nutrient sources are largely unavailable to freshwater organisms.  In short, dead, unlovable, lamprey carry needed “seafood” to our streams—like salmon on the West Coast.

Though you can’t hook’em, sea lamprey were eaten in former times in Hampshire County, and also fed to the hogs, according to Sylvester Judd’s posthumous, 1863, History of Hadley, 1905 edition: “Lampreys came above the falls in great numbers, and entered the streams that run into the Connecticut, until the Holyoke dam was built in 1849.  They were very numerous in Fort River in Hadley, below Smith’s mills, and were caught by the light of torches, sometimes several hundred in a night.  Men waded into the stream, and grasped them with a mittened hand and placed them in a bag…  Some were eaten in a few towns in old Hampshire, but most were carried to Granby, Simsbury and other towns on the Connecticut.”

I’d actually left Simsbury, CT that very morning—biking the six miles to Rainbow Fishway.  It was still early, 8:10, but no one was around.  The gate, supposedly open at 8 a.m., was still locked.  I’d snuck in.  Special “salmon transport” trucks sat idle in a fenced-off area.  The thwack-splash of lamprey was ever present–but no sign of a single shad, herring or salmon, living or dead.  I backtracked over Hatchet Hill to the Farmington River bikeway as jets from nearby Bradley Airport roared above.  I’d make my way through Granby, then across Southwick and Westfield, MA on my way to the Holyoke dam, some 30 miles distant.  I’d told a friend I’d meet him by noon.

By 12:15, I was rolling through the streets of Holyoke, down to the Connecticut and the Holyoke dam at South Hadley Falls.  Grabbing my wallet, I left my loaded bike, and headed over the cement wall to the river near Slim Shad Point.  There, a dozen guys are waist deep in the river, flicking shad darts into an ample current.  My friend Tony is one of them.  They’ve had some luck this morning.  Upstream, the river makes a low roar rolling over the dam and through the spillway at Holyoke Gas & Electric’s generating plant.

I was hoping to catch Tony for lunch, but he’s too involved.  Shad fever, they call it.  He greets me, can hardly turn around—so intent is he on the catch.  “Sorry, I can’t stop,” he says.

One of his compadres, getting that I’d biked from Long Island Sound just the day before, chides, “Geez, he won’t even leave the water to shake this guy’s hand.”  Tony does offer me one tidbit though, “Karl, you’ll never guess what a guy caught this morning.”  From his tone, it’s obvious, a salmon.  “Thirty-three inches,” he laughs, “tossed it back in.”

Though classified as “extirpated” by the USFWS, you still cannot catch or keep the Connecticut hybrid they’ve created through a series of $ million-dollar hatcheries across New England.  Just a few dozen from the millions of industrial-hybrid salmon fry dumped in Connecticut River tributaries each spring grow and survive to adulthood to swim back from the ocean each year.  “Too bad he didn’t keep it,” I say, “We could’ve had a barbeque!”  The fishermen laugh.

I grab my bike and walk the quarter mile back to the Holyoke Fishway next to the dam.  This fishway is the prototype for what should have been the Connecticut River’s successful fish restoration.  Built in 1955, it is the East Coast’s oldest and most successful fish passage facility.  Since 1848, all migratory fish here had been blocked by Holyoke dam.  In its first year, the lift installed here passed over 5,000 American shad–more than the total number of hybrid salmon that have returned over the entire 44 year salmon program—a hatchery based effort that has cost taxpayers well over a half billion dollars.

Simple, direct, elegant—over the last half century the elevators have successfully passed tens of millions of fish upstream here—all kinds, all species—including shad, herring, lamprey, salmon—even endangered shortnose sturgeon.  The design is common-sense-simple: a square, water-filled elevator with one swinging-door side that closes behind fish drawn to it by an ample flow of downstream “attraction” current.  You corral the fish; close the side door–and lift them over the dam.  Done.  A winner, this design is what they might have copied 21 years later, when they built Rainbow.  But they went for sexy, they went for salmon.  Today, they are left with a festering, open sore.

A public viewing site, this is opening day at Holyoke Fishway.  Two of the fishway guides greet me as an old friend, “They’re here,” they assure me.  I climb the stairs.  Scores of shiny blue-green shad are nervously milling in the windows.  A few lamprey are here as well–all waiting to be released upstream.  There are no herring, no salmon, but a lone white sucker lurks near the bottom of the tank.  Still, this window is full of promise–agitated, determined life.

It’s early in the run; the shad are mostly males—sleek, wiry, “bucks” about two feet long.  I check the bulletin board: already 15,000 have passed here.  By season’s end that number will be 164,000, hardly a record.  In 1978 this fishway was further improved by adding a second fish elevator.  The fish runs blossomed.  By the mid-1980s totals of shad and herring here averaged nearly a million fish passing annually.

In 1992, a record 720,000 American shad were lifted at Holyoke dam, as well as 310,000 blueback herring.  But it’s been downhill ever since.  The key reason: in 1978–two years after the Rainbow Fishway became operational, federal and state fisheries experts ordered a second fish trap built—this one at the Connecticut’s next upstream dam from Holyoke’s simple fish elevators: Turners Falls.  If Rainbow proved an ugly slap in the face for the Farmington, the design they insisted on for passing migratory fish blocked at Turners Falls since the time of George Washington proved a devastating blow to fish restoration throughout the Connecticut River basin.

Renamed the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC) in 1983, it was this same group of federal and state fisheries directors in 1978 that insisted Northeast Utilities build another system based on Pacific salmon and the Columbia River at Turners Falls.  NU was obligated to create and improve fish passage under federal environmental law and regulatory statutes.  It is an ongoing obligation of all owners of federal generating licenses on the Connecticut, including the current owner—multi-national FirstLight GDF-Suez, a mandate that operators must accept for being allowed to profit from use of the public’s river.  NU, and now FirstLight-GDF Suez, derive great profits from using our river’s power at their Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage-Turners Falls hydro generating complex along a 7-mile stretch of the Connecticut.  Once this new design was completed as requested, it was agreed that no major changes in fish passage would be advanced again until mid-way through the 40-year Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) license—1998.

Completed in 1980, the Turners Falls Fishway proved another day-one disaster—but on a much grander scale.  Federal-state studies from the 1980s quickly documented the failure.  But fisheries officials took little action.  Though the new Turners Falls fish passage complex didn’t kill fish outright, it essentially strangled this river migration’s ancient, upstream connection with the sea right where it had died when a dam was built here in 1798.  Rather than build a proven elevator at the dam suited to all species, they turned the migrating runs out of the ancient riverbed and forced them to attempt an upstream run through the punishing flows and the barren, silt-and-muck habitats of the Turners Falls Canal.

Annually, hundreds of thousands of shad would arrive, but 98 fish out of 100 fish would repeatedly attempt to pass that two miles of alien habitat and fail—met by the harsh pulses and quick-changing pond levels sent downstream from the unchecked operations at the upstream Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage facility.   That promised ocean-fish sport and seafood connection never reached Vermont and New Hampshire.

So intent was this group on resurrecting extinct salmon, that the pact they made with the power company to get their salmon ladders actually yanked the fish out of the Connecticut River.  They forced them up the impossibly treacherous steps of the “Cabot Ladder,” built at the downstream end of Turners Falls Canal.  The design proved so useless that–other than a handful of hybrid salmon and that ever-remarkable, unfishable, sea lamprey, it has crushed any hope for meaningful fish runs to Vermont and New Hampshire waters for these last 30 years.  That tragedy too, continues.

By utilizing the simple lift design achieved at Holyoke 23 years prior, fish officials would’ve restored the remaining 60% of historic upstream spawning reach for American shad and blueback herring all the way to Bellows Falls, VT, 172-miles from the sea, in a single stroke–a site unreachable since 1798.  Today, shad passage continues to teeter at anywhere between 0 – 5 percent at Turners Falls “fishway.”  Though it doesn’t de-scale shad, its series of ladders and jumbled currents so stresses and depletes shad energy reserves that they simply stall in the lower part of the system, and eventually wind back down to the bottom—only to begin the whole ugly gauntlet over again the next day.  The few that reach the top and enter the canal simply stop migrating at that juncture, languishing for weeks in mud-barren habitat that is nothing like a river.  The herring no longer arrive.

The Turners Falls boondoggle was such an embarrassment that CRASC has worked mightily to keep it quiet.  Responsible US Fish and Wildlife Service and state fisheries officials kept mum, partly because the system DID at least work for the few dozen returning salmon.  Costing taxpayers some $10 million per year via hatchery operations, salaries, and grant studies funded through NOAA, the National Science Foundation, state programs—and a byzantine money pipeline, the 44 year-old effort today known as the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC) restoration produced 51 returning hybrid salmon last year.  The numbers reaching Holyoke, the first dam on the main stem Connecticut remain startling: 2005—132 fish; 2006—115 fish; 2007—107 fish; 2008—86 fish; 2009—60; 2010—41 fish.  After decades and over a half billion public dollars spent.

The other federal trust fish included for restoration in their mandate—the shad, the herring, continue their inexorable drift toward eventual failure below Turners Falls dam.  CRASC partners at the $12 million federal Conte Anadromous Fish Lab adjacent to the power company’s canal at Turner Falls, continue to do experiment after experiment on the behavior and genetics of tiny hatchery salmon fry and smolts.  They’ve become quite cozy with the recent and current owners of Northfield/TF hydro operations—who donate a paltry tithing of $40,000 per year for fish counting personnel and a few dilatory experiments proving what we knew in 1980—turning fish out of the Connecticut River and into the Turners Falls Canal is a fatal restoration choice.

The ongoing failure of officials and environmental groups to demand the fish elevator owed to the public at Turners Falls dam these last ten years is a complete abrogation of responsibility.  The current flow regimes–ignored by fisheries and regulatory officials, and ramped-up by operators of the Northfield-Turners Falls hydro complex since deregulation in 1998, compounds the treachery of this fish trap with punishing downstream surges in violation of federal environmental laws license requirements.  When I visited the true riverbed at Turners Falls last April 23rd there was virtually no river flow in the stretch of basin utilized by the federally endangered shortnose sturgeon.

It appears that, for the annual price of a mini-van, corporate donations are enough to keep dithering fisheries scientists and CRASC partners quiet next to that canal–experimenting on an extinct hybrid of a cold-loving species on a warming river in a time of documented climate warming.  At a CRASC meeting last year it was revealed that, under a bit of pressure, CRASC representatives from the USFWS and MA Division of Fisheries were beginning to talk with FirstLight about making long-overdue improvements for fish passage at Turners.  They’d already had an initial meeting—one behind closed doors and without public input.

Astoundingly, the solution they are now talking about is replacing the Cabot salmon ladder with a fish elevator at the same site–they are again ready to continue to steer those fish out of the river and into the same treacherous power canal system they abandoned them to in 1980.   Heck, it works for FirstLight–who can then use all the water they please for their 5.6 billion gallon pumped storage operations at Northfield and power generation in the Turners Falls canal, while ignoring the water levels and flows essential to the Connecticut’s biological integrity in the two empty miles of parched riverbed downstream of TF dam.  If that decision comes to pass, the river will essentially remain as it was upstream of the Turners Falls when that barrier was built in 1798–no shad, no herring, no fishing–no ocean connection, no sea food.  A restoration denied.

I hopped back on my bike that May 5th at Holyoke dam, making the final 30 miles to Greenfield by mid-afternoon.  I’d spend a full day at Long Island Sound, and completed 250 miles of river riding in five days.  But it wasn’t until the Friday of Memorial Day weekend that I completed tracing the historic upstream migration route of American shad and blueback herring to Bellows Falls, VT.  That was a “century ride”—a 100 mile round trip in a single day.  I suppose you could say I could’ve saved the bother.  The gates at both the Vernon and Bellows Falls Public Fishways were locked tight.  The reason was simple: there literally are no fish to see.  By season’s end, just 396 fish had reached that Bellows Falls counting site—392 of them were blind, slithering sea lamprey.

Curiously, on May 1st last year, Northfield Mountain ruined its pumping facility in an attempt to clear two decades worth of silt from its giant reservoir.  The downstream impacts of Northfield’s operations on fish migration were silenced for an entire season, into early August.  Even though state fisheries officials have abrogated all fish counting responsibilities to FirstLight, they were hard pressed to explain this amazing outcome: shad passage jumped an astounding 800% at Turners Falls, with nearly 17,000 fish swimming by—the most shad moving upstream since at least 1996.

What fish officials also couldn’t quite explain was this puzzling outcome: only 290 shad were counted at the next dam, just 20 miles upstream at Vernon, VT.   I’m thinking it likely had something to do with that silt from FirstLight’s Northfield Mountain.  Between May 1st and August 4th, FirstLight quietly flushed at least 45,000 cubic square yards of that muck into the Connecticut just five miles upstream of Turners Falls dam—that’s equal to 40-50 dump truck loads of mud fouling the river daily for a period of over three months.  Tired, and faced with that curtain of darkness, you might stop migrating upstream too.

The EPA finally ordered FirstLight to “cease and desist” their polluting of “the navigable waters of the United States” on August 4–the damage already done.

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