May 2009

Monthly Archive

Stagnation at Turners Falls

Posted by on 23 May 2009 | Tagged as: Connecticut River, Nature

An shorter version of this piece appears in the spring 2009 issue of Sanctuary Magazine as “Turners Falls Turnaround”

Stagnation at Turner Falls © 2008 by Karl Meyer

“It will not be forgotten by some memory that we were contemporaries,” Thoreau, on shad blocked by a dam.

I first watched a riot of migrating American shad nervously school in the fishway windows at the Holyoke dam over a quarter century ago. That Connecticut River was brimming with life: agitated blueback herring, slithering sea lamprey, fidgeting American shad. It so inspired me, I have scarce missed a season since, visiting three and four times annually from mid-May to June. Sadly, that great migration is coming undone. Each spring sees less fish. From the first half million shad tallied there in 1984 and 720,000 witnessed in 1992, to just 153,000 arriving in spring 2008. From the 630,000 blueback herring counted at Holyoke in 1985, to just four score and nine last year.

In 1955 the nation’s first fish passage success saw 4,899 American shad lifted past the Holyoke dam, 86 miles from the sea. A simple, bucket-type elevator had restored a spawning run blocked since 1849. From Holyoke it was just 36 river miles to the next dam, Turners Falls—a barrier that would surely fall quickly to this elegant solution. An 1872 Supreme Court ruling against Holyoke mandated fish passage at dams. It recognized shad runs as a rightful resource of hungry upstream citizens. It meant hope for the suite of fish that had used the Connecticut’s spawning highway to and from the sea for millennia. They included federal trust fish—the endangered shortnose sturgeon, the shad, and the blueback herring, plus migrating eels and sea lamprey.

Today, shad runs at Holyoke are half what they were in the 1990’s; herring are gone. The most recent 5-year average for shad has dropped 42% compared to 1999-2003—from 267,000 to 155,000 fish. Thirty-six miles upstream at Turners Falls dam, the center of linked to hydro facilities including Northfield Mountain and Cabot Station, passage has plummeted over 80% since 1999, when energy deregulation came to those sites. Passage there hovers near 1%, yet the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission listed the Connecticut’s shad population as “stable” in 2007

To understand you have to look to the 42 year-old bureaucracy emphasizing the reestablishment of an extinct salmon run on the Connecticut. It began in 1967 on the heels of the 1965 Anadromous Fish Conservation Act, when the US Bureau of Sports Fisheries and Wildlife, the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries and fish commissioners of CT, MA, VT and NH assumed responsibility for the restoration and preservation of migratory fish here. That mission–extended by Public Law 98-138 in1983, recognized the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, CRASC, as the agency of record. CRASC has a Shad Studies Subcommittee and a Fish Passage Subcommittee.

Driven by sport fishing interests, that agency focused on the Connecticut’s only missing species—the restoration of a leaping, but extinct strain of cold-loving salmon to a warming Connecticut. Though shad and herring naturally range from Labrador and Nova Scotia south to Florida, they received poor step-child status. Market research for 1967 projected a yearly harvest of 9,600 salmon–bringing $120 per fish from high-end anglers. Two foot long shad were a bargain at $3 each, with a projected harvest of 150,000 annually. After 42 seasons, 82 salmon returned past Holyoke in 2008.

Despite millions spent on research, hatcheries, genetics, and Byzantine stocking programs, more American shad were lifted at Holyoke in 1955 than all the salmon returned there in the program’s history. The Connecticut’s salmon strain was extinct by 1815. A pioneering species, it was a recent transplant–its southward spurt the result of an all-too-current phenomenon: climate change. Salmon biology and archeological data point to an arrival on the changing Atlantic currents of a brief, northern hemisphere climate aberration, the Little Ice Age, 1400 AD – 1800 AD.

In 1992 Catherine Carlson said this in a dissertation in the Anthropology Department at University of Massachusetts. Carlson was doing masters archeology work at the University of Maine when she was surprised by the absence of salmon bones in digs at coastal, estuarine, and inland-river fishing sites. Her work impressed professor emeritus Dena Dincauze, head of UMass, Amherst’s Anthropology Department, who recruited her to continue that research at UMass.

Carlson’s thesis, The Atlantic Salmon in New England History and Prehistory: Social and Environmental Implications, showed the salmon’s importance in colonial New England had been largely over-stated by sport fish minded interpreters. My own research at Antioch New England University in 1995 bore that out after extensive examination of the Sylvester Judd (1789-1860) Manuscript at the Forbes Library in Northampton, MA. Judd is a primary source for colonial history, natural history and genealogy of Connecticut River towns from northern Connecticut to Turners Falls. His records and interviews with men who had fished opposite Holyoke in the 1750s and 1760s led him to conclude salmon “were always few in number compared to the shad.”

Carlson surveyed seventy-five digs across the northeast in which fish bones had been identified at least down to their genus. A 5,000 year record revealed regular use of shad and river herring as a food source at many locations. But just a single salmon bone from Maine was positively identified. At one Turners Falls site, 590 fish bone fragments were uncovered. All were shad or river herring.

Carlson outlined the Little Ice Age here—showing the salmon’s migration this far south was driven by that brief climate oscillation. Dams and pollution were minor factors in its Connecticut demise–as salmon still survived further north on Maine’s long-dammed Penobscot. Her findings were not welcomed at CRASC. Their 25 year-old effort—annually hatchery-raising millions of salmon fry from eggs; fattening smolts, and stocking it all in tributaries was languishing. Carlson had noted the taxpayer costs, $80 million by 1989, and that “One Fish and Wildlife study has predicted that costs between $120 million and $450 million will be spent between 1989 and 2008 to make the restoration effort successful.”

“Some of them were quite hostile to me,” Dr. Carlson recalls sixteen years later. After leading departments at two universities she’s now a consultant in her native Vancouver, B.C. “No amount of manipulating is going to change the environmental conditions for the reintroduction of that fish,” she says. Climate science agrees. Asked why her work didn’t receive its full due, she cites several factors, “First, it was archeology, not biology; you are trying to prove a negative—that salmon weren’t there.” Being female in a male dominated field wasn’t helpful, “It was all political. It didn’t have much to do with the actual science. My sense is that they were just so heavily invested in it.”

But Carlson’s findings couldn’t be rejected out of hand, particularly since Dr. Boyd Kynard, fisheries biologist at the USGS’s Conte Anadromous Fish Lab in Turners Falls was on her committee. An associate UMass professor, Kynard had a reputation as an expert in migratory fish behavior and fish passage. Today he consults with governments on fish passage and rare sturgeon species on major rivers in China, Europe and Brazil. His credentials couldn’t be impugned. Carlson’s work remains largely unchallenged today. In 2002, her “absent-salmon” conclusions received note in John McPhee’s shad tribute,” The Founding Fish.”

This spring thousands of Connecticut Valley kids will raise salmon eggs in school–guided by USFWS personnel, trout organizations, teachers and college instructors who recruit many for fry stocking. Programs like Adopt a Salmon and the Atlantic Salmon Egg Rearing Program (ASERP) are neatly tailored to classroom math and science requirements. It’s an easy fit for teachers and has great PR value for a restoration program always lobbying for funds. The USFWS Connecticut River Coordinator sometimes dresses as a salmon at these programs, which reach into167 watershed schools. In Maryland today, kids are hatching shad and raising American eels in their classrooms—learning, at least, about the real problems of viable species on local rivers.

Adult, spawned-out hatchery salmon are stocked to lakes, ponds and rivers in watershed states here. This agency PR gives weekend fishing families and trophy anglers a taste for big introduced fish, but no context for understanding faltering native stocks. But, complexities are mounting. Didymo, an introduced, smothering algae, a.k.a. “rock snot”, was recently found above the federal salmon hatchery on the White River in Bethel, Vermont. Didymo carpets river bottoms, choking off oxygen. Since the White River is used as a direct hatchery water source, its operations were temporarily shut down–lest didymo be transported via stocking.

This spring none of the eggs; six-million fry, and hatchery smolts seeded into Connecticut River tributaries will come from “wild” salmon stock. All the “wild” sea-run salmon had to be destroyed a year back because a highly contagious virus, IPN, was found in salmon at federal hatcheries. Infectious Pancreatic Necrosis, deadly to fry and smolts, is a by-product of fish farming. Farmed salmon are escaping ocean pens and infecting North Atlantic strains. IPN got into the new salmon hybrids migrating back to the Connecticut—fish that are recaptured for breeding. “Biosecurity” programs are now deployed at all hatcheries, as stocking programs are potential vectors for new disease.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that CRASC has known for 30 years that some of the biggest restoration problems center at the fishways and generating facilities linked at Turners Falls dam. They helped create them. In the late 70’s, those state fish commissioners and federal officials insisted Northeast Utilities install fish ladders there based on Pacific salmon runs on the massive Columbia River—this, despite evidence those ladders might not work for shad and herring. Two ponderously-long ladders and a narrow gatehouse exit were installed at Turners Falls in 1980. Millions were spent. The few arriving salmon passed easily, but just 10% or less of arriving shad succeeded.

Kept quiet, that single-species blunder effectively locked meaningful runs out of Vermont and New Hampshire habitats for at least the next twenty years. Completion of those prescribed fishways prevented any revisit of the issue for two decades under the site’s 40-year FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) license, which expires in 2018. FERC regulates operations at mainstem facilities and is tasked with enforcing protections for federal trust fish. Licenses can be reopened and FERC can halt operations if conditions injure runs. FERC receives information from CRASC–which recently characterized the Connecticut’s shad population as “relatively stable.”

Incredibly, a 5-year, CRASC partnered study begun in 1999 by the USGS’s Conte Fish Lab found that half the shad passing Holyoke “attempt but fail” to make it past Turners Falls: “Passage of American shad through the fishway complex at Turners Falls is poor (less than 1% in some years), and may be having a substantial limiting effect on the Connecticut River population as a whole.” This profound development—shad had plummeted from over 10,000 shad annually to around 2,000, was also left below decks. That drop was on the heels of energy deregulation at the hydro facilities owned by Northeast Utilities throughout the study. Some 70,000 shad were likely turned away at Turners Falls last spring.

What changed to cause the drop between 1999 and 2000 that continues to this day? Possibly something to do with the newly-deregulated, electricity “spot market” generation at the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, sister operation to the Turners Falls dam and canal. Just five miles upstream, Northfield generates upwards of 1,000 megawatts of electricity by pumping water out of the Connecticut’s bed and into a 5.5 billion gallon mountaintop reservoir, and sending it back through turbines in downstream surges according to demand and spikes in the market price. Turbines for the 300 acre reservoir can reverse from sucking up water to sending millions of gallons downstream in minutes.

Water level fluctuations in that Turners Falls “pool” average 3.5 feet daily, but can range to 9 – 10 feet in the course of weekly operations. Those pumping and flushing effects through Turners Falls are felt by migrating shad and the river’s only breeding population of endangered shortnose sturgeon–slugs of water that must be reacted-to by operators at the Holyoke dam, 36 miles downstream.

Whatever the cause of the new Turners crash, urgency isn’t apparent at CRASC’s public meetings. Annually there is tinkering at the fishways; and a few truckloads of shad are dumped upstream to maintain a biological pulse for the run. But the partnership–the USFWS, Conte Lab, the National Marine Fisheries Service, reps from CT, MA, NH, and VT, watched this new disaster unfold and never brought it forward as their public trust. They left the public ignorant about the fish; the river. In fact they chose to “throttle back” shad monitoring at Turners, later stating in an April 3, 2008, discussion of failed herring returns, “There is less concern about the shad population since it has been relatively stable, though at a lower level than historic peaks.”

CRASC didn’t press FERC to intervene. FERC–who could reopen the license, shut down operations, or force a return to conditions that recently squeezed 10,000 shad through Turners, didn’t enforce. The eroding shad migration on the Connecticut can apparently wait for 2018.

Recently Dr. Raymond Bradley spoke on climate change here at Greenfield Community College. Decades back Bradley partnered in groundbreaking science–using polar ice core data to substantiate early signs of climate change. Included in those findings was a now-notorious “hockey stick graph,” vividly depicting spikes in greenhouse gases and temperatures. The Bush Administration tried to quash those findings. In 2007 Bradley, who directs the UMass Climate Research Center–along with Al Gore and other partnering climate scientists, received the Nobel Peace Prize.

This night Bradley, my “Climatology” instructor in the late-70s, has more sobering news—that Massachusetts and Vermont temperatures will likely align with the climate of today’s North Carolina and Virginia in just two generations. It’s a cold comfort message to deliver–one that would be small solace to Catherine Carlson, I’m sure. Still, basic biology shows that American shad would be at home in those climates; and, with help, herring could be at home there too.

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Karl Meyer is author of Wild Animals of North America, winner of a 2008 Teachers’ Choice Award for Children’s Books. His latest, Dog Heroes, is out from Storey Publishing.

Towards a new Connecticut River; or, how to keep a dead fish alive

Posted by on 23 May 2009 | Tagged as: Connecticut River, Nature

This essay first appeared in early May 2009 in several Connecticut River Valley newpapers, as well as the Worcester Telegram.

Towards a New River; or, How to keep a dead fish alive

© 2009 by Karl Meyer

Charles Darwin was born in 1809, the year the last wild fish from a minor strain of cold-loving salmon died out on a warming Connecticut River. Half a century later, On the Origin of Species placed evolutionary theory and reasoned science at the forefront of how we perceive our place among the world’s plants and animals. For 42 years now over half a billion public dollars has been spent turning the Connecticut into a four-state science experiment to create a new strain of “wild” Atlantic salmon from hatchery spawned fish. It has failed. It’s time for a new idea on the Connecticut River.

Predictions in 1967 from the bureaucracy that became today’s Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC) promised an annual angler’s dream of 9,600 returning salmon. Returns average 140 fish. Einstein said insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Today, without the six-million hatchery fry dumped into tributaries annually by fisheries biologists, trout interests, scout leaders, teachers and school kids, the few fish that limp back each year would die off in an evolutionary heartbeat.

For decades CRASC has been responsible for the Connecticut’s age-old runs of American shad and blueback herring—part of a suite of “federal trust” fish that include the shortnose sturgeon. The herring run is essentially dead—from 630,000 fish passing Holyoke in 1985, to 89 fish returned in 2008. In 1992, Holyoke hoisted 720,000 shad at its lift. A decade back runs averaged 300,000 fish. Just 153,110 American shad returned in 2008.

Two hundred years after Darwin’s birth its time to stop thinking we are smarter than rivers; smarter than fish. The Connecticut was the southern-most river in the salmon’s biological footprint. In 1992, Dr. Catherine Carlson’s UMass anthropology thesis revealed a gaping absence of salmon in the region’s archeological record. Thousands of bones covering a 5,000 year sweep were identified as shad or herring. Across all sites–including 590 bones from two sites at Turners Falls, MA, just a single bone from Maine was positively identified as salmon.

Scores of Connecticut River town histories record 17th, 18th and 19th century farmers crowding riversides each May, confident in leaving with a supply of shad. But salmon was a new visitor. It arrived with the Little Ice Age–a period of cold winters and brief, chilling summers which lasted in New England from the mid-1600s to the early 1800s. When cold conditions warmed, salmon runs died out, helped off the stage by the first dams across the Connecticut. They persisted on the colder, dammed rivers in Maine.

The salmon limping back today are evolved in tanks, their genetics guided by computers. They are not what are best for our river. Hatchery fish mask the real problems of rivers—foundering native populations, warming currents, deteriorating habitats, and blocked access upstream and down. Hatcheries are now potential dispersal points for exotic plagues like deadly IPN and smothering didymo—which recently caused closures at federal sites in Sunderland, MA and Bethel, VT..

The historic significance of salmon here has long been overblown by lobby interests wielding clout far in excess of their numbers. In 2008 CRASC representatives from the US Fish & Wildlife Service scheduled “outreach” visits to Congressional offices at a rate of more than one per week. State fisheries managers annually dump fat, spawned-out hatchery salmon in lakes to whet angler appetites for big, exotic fish. Teachers bring salmon eggs into classrooms, where thousand of kids participate in mini-hatchery programs tailored to math and science goals. Shad and herring losses go unexplored.

It’s time to stop holding the Connecticut hostage to this experiment–conducted largely without public input, published budget data, or notice of public meetings. All but 1% of migrating shad are now blocked at Turners Falls–virtually next door to the Dept. of Interior’s million-dollar Conte Fish Lab created to protect runs of “federal trust” fish. That information never reached the public.

In October, Dr. Ray Bradley, Director of the UMass Center for Climate Studies, spoke at Greenfield Community College. I had Ray for “Climatology” in 1979. He is one of the team of scientists awarded the 2007 Nobel Prize for documenting unprecedented climatic warming—information the Bush Administration suppressed. Our new President believes in evolution, science, and eliminating programs that don’t make sense. Dr. Bradley illustrated his talk that night with a graph showing Vermont and Massachusetts mirroring the climates of Virginia and North Carolina just two generations hence—hardly salmon country. Ages ago shad and blueback herring evolved to spawn in rivers as far south as central Florida. Its time we evolved too.

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Karl Meyer’s Wild Animals of North America won a 2008 Teachers’ Choice Award for Children’s Books. His “Turners Falls Turnaround” is in the spring issue of Sanctuary.