The following appeared January 30th, in the RutlandHerald

Karl Meyer

                              Towards a true refuge

The Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge is currently accepting public comment on the direction the Refuge should take in its preservation work for the next 15 years.  Here’s one suggestion: preserve what’s here.  This is not a flip answer.  As a FISH and wildlife refuge they should take their mandate seriously.  Preserve the FISH.

I don’t’ want them chasing ghosts—continuing down the failed 40-year path of farm-raising hatchery Atlantic salmon and tossing them in the river to replace a run that’s been extinct since 1815.  Just 140 return per year. 

I want the Refuge to include plans to preserve the 300,000 American shad that came upriver in 1997–the year the Refuge was founded.   I want a plan that shows what the Refuge has done, and what it will continue to do, to nurse and nurture the 64,000 blueback herring that also swam upstream in 1997.  Part of the Refuge’s mandate is “watershed education” to create an informed public “that supports and understands anadromous fish restoration.”  The shad run is withering; the blueback herring is all but extinct since Conte arrived.  There is little evidence the public understands this tragedy.

The first three species in the Refuge’s conservation mandate are “Atlantic salmon, American shad, and river herring.”   It’s unconscionable that the public is unaware the shad run up the Connecticut River has been virtually reduced by half since Conte began.  Just 159,000 fish swam past Holyoke dam this year, compared to twice that many a decade back.  Blueback herring are now scarcer than sub-prime loans—just 69 swam past Holyoke in 2007, while there were 64,000 in 1997, and 310,000 five years before that.  As a FISH and wildlife refuge, that’s failure.

Another failure is what the public is being left to believe.  Many think salmon is an endangered species here.  It is not.  The Connecticut River’s native salmon strain became extinct two centuries back.  And though it is widely believed that dams put the final nail in that salmon-run’s coffin, it is likely that a short-term climate aberration called the Little Ice Age (1300 – 1850 A.D.) brought cold Atlantic currents–and Atlantic salmon, south to the Connecticut at that time.  When cold currents receded, so did salmon.  They were visiting the southern-most major stream in their fluctuating footprint.  When currents warmed, detouring runs withered—at the same time dams blocked the last spawners.

Salmon is a mythical fish.  It’s big.  It leaps.  Fishermen moon over it like hunters who want to believe in wolf packs and cougars in the woods.  These are ghosts.  The extinct salmon run is simply extinct.  Global warming will not favor a cold water species on a warming river.  Shad were never extinct.  The river teemed with them a decade back.  Why this fish was never prioritized is a tragedy.  It’s been salmon first.  Salmon in grade schools; salmon studies at Conte Fish Lab; and preserving “salmon” streams.  The return on this has been misled school kids and 140 hybrid fish produced at huge expense in energy-sucking hatcheries.

Isn’t it time for change?  Studies left quietly under the radar show that American shad are virtually blocked at Turners Falls dam.  The number of shad passing successfully through fishways there is hovering at 1% since the year 2000.  That was the first season after deregulation allowed hydro-operators–at Turners Falls and just upstream at Northfield Mountain, the unencumbered ability to pump the Connecticut up and down according to spikes in hourly prices on the electricity “spot market.”  Since that change shad passage has plummeted by 85% at Turners.   The river population of shad has dropped a full 17% since 2000.  New Hampshire and Vermont no longer have shad runs. 

A main Refuge artery is blocked—adjacent to a Refuge Visitor Center and the Conte Fish Lab.  The public hasn’t a clue.  No clamor is raised by researchers and the Connecticut River Coordinator’s Office because the handful of salmon that reach Turners fishways pass there easily—all SEVEN this year.  The facilities were designed for salmon, not hoards of two-foot long, green-gold shad, or shiny, foot-long herring–this river’s living fish.  These are not sexy enough, apparently.  So grade school teachers offer kids myths.

Sadly, decades of failed marine fisheries policy may have doomed herring runs to extinction due to wildly fluctuating populations of predatory striped bass.  But the Refuge could keep its name as a true FISH refuge if it prioritized saving the eminently preservable, arguably magnificent, American shad.  The public—in classrooms, in Vermont and New Hampshire; along the entire River, could have an enduring refuge symbol.  But that recently blocked artery at Turners Falls dam would have to be unstopped—fisheries experts would have to speak honestly; committees charged with preserving fish runs would have to stand up; FERC regulators would have to regulate; lawmakers litigate.  That would lead to a real refuge, one with an informed public and real fish—one with an honest future.  Preserve what’s here. 
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 Karl Meyer lives in Greenfield, MA.  His book Wild Animals of North America has been given a 2008 Teachers’ Choice Award for Children’s Books.