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.