March 2010

Monthly Archive

Salmon eggs in school: a few things schools, teachers, and students should be questioning if they intend to raise salmon in their classrooms

Posted by on 14 Mar 2010 | Tagged as: Connecticut River, Nature, salmon, Salmon eggs, teachers

Salmon eggs in school: a few things schools, teachers, and students should be questioning if they intend to raise salmon in their classrooms

In the last three years, Connecticut River hatchery fish have been found to harbor deadly diseases that could be tragically dispersed through egg, fry, and smolt stocking programs:

Didymo was discovered two years back in the White River’s waters above the White River National Fish Hatchery—water that the hatchery used to grow salmon eggs and fry.  Didymo smothers river bottoms like a gooey sponge and suffocates aquatic habits.  Hatchery eggs and fish can easily be didymo carriers, schools a volunteers could have unknowingly spread this disease far and wide.

Infectious Pancreatic Necrosis: in 2007, IPN—a deadly salmon disease spread to salmon populations mixing in rivers and at sea, was discovered at the Cronin National Salmon Station in Sunderland, MA.  Tests confirmed that Atlantic salmon broodstock used in the Connecticut Migratory Fish Restoration Program tested positive for a viral disease.  Dr. Jaime Geiger announced that 718,000 eggs were destroyed at the White River National Fish Hatchery, in Bethel, Vt. The eggs were collected in the past month from wild salmon, known as “sea-run” salmon, at the Cronin National Salmon Station in Sunderland, Mass., where infectious pancreatic necrosis was discovered in two fish on Nov. 16.  Scientists believe the salmon tested at the Cronin station may have picked up the virus in the Atlantic Ocean.

Hatchery fry are half as likely to survive to reach the ocean as wild-spawned fish that grow with all the environmental influences, signals, and genes they received from evolving in a natural environment over time.

Cataracts: In 2009 a sampling of one of the groups among the thousands of one-year old hatchery salmon raised for stocking each year were examined at the White River hatchery.  Sixty percent were shown to be developing cataracts.  This cripples their ability to feed.  Thousand of fish had to be destroyed.

Dying spawning specimens: Also in 2009, ten of 21 returning adult hybrid salmon recaptured at the Holyoke turned a blood-red and were found to be dying by the time they reached the North. Attleboro hatchery station.   There, they were to be “reconditioned”—bulked up and pampered, before being used for spawning new salmon.  Hatchery managers had no explanation for this deadly turn.

Below, from CRASC Meeting minutes,  July 11, 2007

Cold water disease: Roger Reed State Fish Hatchery experienced an outbreak of cold water disease this spring. The hatchery lost 250-300,000 salmon fry to these bacteria. Losses were curtailed when the hatchery obtained an INAD permit for the use of Chloramine-T and then treated the fish. It is unknown whether the Roger Reed broodstock are carriers of the bacteria.

“Time to redirect the effort”: a point-by-point reply to the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission response to my OpEd by CRASC’s Technical Committee Chair Dr. Caleb Slater

Posted by on 13 Mar 2010 | Tagged as: American shad, blueback herring, Connecticut River, CRASC, federal trust fish, salmon

© 2010, Karl Meyer                                                                             March 10, 2010

All Rights Reserved

“Time to redirect the effort”: a reply to the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission response by CRASC Technical Committee Chair Dr. Caleb Slater

In rebuttal to my OpEd in the Greenfield Recorder on the shortcomings of the salmon program and migratory fish restoration on the Connecticut, Dr. Caleb Slater, of CRASC, chipped in a defense of his program in a piece entitled: “Not time to abandon effort: What’s working with the salmon restoration”

Since I was not accorded a chance to respond in the paper, I will reply to Dr. Slater’s assertions here:

To open, I must mention that Dr. Slater and CRASC did not respond to the central argument of my OpEd: how many millions of public dollars go into creating a few dozen hybrid salmon annually while the other federal trust fish on the Connecticut founder?; how much, total, has been spent by taxpayers on salmon to get to this point after 43 years?

CRASC offers the public good-news tidbits about salmon, but turns away from informing people of a now-extinguished blueback herring run that returned a half million fish just twenty years back.  Dr. Slater today describes a blocked shad run as “stable,” though it’s half of what it was just ten years back.  It should be noted too that CRASC did nothing when an already-hobbled shad run past Turners Falls virtually tanked by 85% beginning in 1999, and has continued to bleed along at that level to this day.

That came almost a decade after an incomprehensible silence when, just upstream, the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant gained permission to by-pass its cooling towers and dump thermal effluent into the river just upstream of Turners Falls at Vernon, heating the river up a full five degrees.  Just another in a long line of disasters for the living, native fish runs, while CRASC led the salmon charge.  Vermont Yankee is now trying to dump still-hotter water in the river, and fish passage at the Vernon dam is hovering close to zero.

Why isn’t CRASC educating the public on these developments?

None of this is in keeping with a mandate for the protection of federal trust fish.

My reply to Dr. Slater’s assertions:

1. “The fact that we have regular annual returns of sea run salmon is a testament to the success of the core strategy of the program.”

Response: the most recent five-year returns for hybrid salmon at Holyoke dam, the first dam upstream from the sea on the main stem Connecticut are: 2005—132 fish; 2006—115 fish; 2007—107 fish; 2008—86 fish; 2009—60 fish.  There seems to be a pattern.  This is after four decades and at least a half billion dollars of stated expenses to create a run to replace an extinct native strain, gone since 1809.

The founding goal of the state and federal restoration partners in 1967 was a run of 38,000 salmon.  If 60 fish making it to the river’s first dam is considered success after four decades, what constitutes failure?

2. “These fish were not bred in test tubes or designed by computers—the program allows natural selection to act on the fish that are stocked;”

Response: today’s “Connecticut River” salmon are manufactured from eggs fertilized in the sterile environments of hatcheries, by mixing the genes of the few dozen returning hybrid-salmon trapped at Holyoke dam in as mathematically complex a way as they can–in the hopes of not creating inbred-hybrids.  This “natural selection” is guided by computers.  Hatchery fish have been plagued by diseases.  The survival rate of hatchery fry in the real world of rivers and the ocean is half that of wild, naturally-breeding salmon.  Hatcheries are stirring in weak fish, with poor survival traits.

You could liken hatcheries to giant “test tubes” but I didn’t use the term.  I wouldn’t argue with fish factory, or fish farm—a term I did use.

3.  “Salmon returns to the Connecticut are following broader North American population trends.”

Response: since these are hybrids and not a true species that evolved naturally over the course of centuries in Connecticut River tributaries, it is disingenuous to compare these fish with the native salmon strains further north that are hanging on by a thread.  Dr. Slater never mentions the one factor agreed upon by all: native Atlantic salmon are a COLD WATER SPECIES, and the planet is getting hotter.  CRASC won’t use the term “global warming,” it’s just one more third rail for this program.

The southern-most runs in northern New England are all endangered, and more than half are extinct.  The further north into Canada you go, the more viable the native salmon runs are.  In the North Atlantic, the footprint of the prey species salmon feed on are shrinking northward, closer to the cold waters of now-melting polar ice flows.

The Connecticut River’s runs disappeared first because this is one of the southernmost rivers they ever briefly colonized.  Hence, from a basic, common sense standpoint, this river is among the poorest choices for “restoration”—one where there were no fish to start with.

* Below, is what NOAA–the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, predicted for those endangered salmon runs further north in Maine, via research published in 2006.  NOAA is a member of CRASC:

“Even with current conservation efforts, returns of adult Atlantic salmon to the Gulf of Maine DPS rivers remain extremely low. The 2006 status review [pdf] [2.8 MB] reports an estimated extinction risk of 19% to 75% within the next 100 years for the Gulf of Maine DPS even when current levels of hatchery supplementation are considered.”

4. “Research has implicated large scale changes in ocean current and sea surface temperatures that correlate with the observed declines in marine survival.  Scientists believe that these changes are cyclical and we can only wait for ocean conditions to change and again become favorable for salmon.”

Response I: This is called Global Warming.

Response II: below is the cycle that Dr. Slater may be referring to.  Until recently the only substantive science on when, and why, Atlantic salmon colonized the Connecticut River for a few centuries landed solidly on the colder temperatures of the Little Ice Age in New England.  Today there is some new science reexamining archeological fragments that support a cyclical southern migration of salmon into the New England region of North America.  From what has been pieced together that migration appears to occur about every 4,000 – 5,000 years.  The salmon visit for a few hundred years before retreating to more northerly haunts.  So, according to Dr. Slater’s own statement of intent, it appears CRASC will be spending public money on this restoration until the climate changes for salmon again.  That could be a very long time.  This is available through your library:

“Atlantic salmon, archaeology and climate change in New England”

From Brian S. Robinson et al, at the Univ. of Maine, Orono, in The Journal of Archeological Science, October 2009.

Abstract

A paucity of archaeological remains of Atlantic salmon in Northeast North America has been cited as evidence that the species may have been present in the region only during and after the Little Ice Age (ca. 1450–1850 AD), one of coldest periods of the Holocene. However, significant problems of preservation, recovery and identification remain. Here, improved methods of identification use vertebra structure to distinguish salmon from trout, and strontium/calcium ratios to differentiate sea-run from landlocked salmon. In addition to the Little Ice Age, Atlantic salmon is identified in tightly dated contexts at 7000–6500 and 3500–3000 calendar years BP, during climate periods that were comparatively warm and wet.

Keywords: Atlantic salmon; Calcined bone; Strontium; Northeast; Climate change

5. “The salmon restoration program was designed to benefit all migratory fish in the Connecticut River.  Far from being ignored, the American shad has been the greatest beneficiary.”

Response: Well before there was even a fish lift at Holyoke, a million or more shad were spawning every spring in the lower Connecticut, and knocking their heads on the base of Holyoke dam.  The main “vein” of the Connecticut River is virtually blocked at Turners Falls–to a point that could be compared to a time just prior to the patient having a stroke.

* Fact: American shad is the first fish mentioned in the federal and 4-state partnership’s 1967 Statement of Intent.  Without those living shad as impetus—and fishermen catching them, no one ever could have come up with the misguided concept of creating a new salmon strain out of whole cloth on a river this far south.

6. “Fish passage built as part of the salmon restoration program now allows free access from the Atlantic to above Bellows Falls in Vermont.”

Response: Patently misleading!–98 % of the American shad swimming up the Connecticut River can proceed no further on their own than Turners Falls dam, the site they reached back in 1956.  The idea that this constitutes “free access all the way to Bellows Falls” is patently ridiculous.  The salmon proponents demanded, and got, fish ladders built for salmon at Turners Falls in 1980.  They are a disaster for the other public trust species slated for upstream restoration in CRASC’s mandate.  CRASC receives money and in-kind assistance from the power company operating Turners Falls/Northfield Mtn. for its salmon work.  Is it possible this is why they have never demanded the fish elevators that would benefit the other public trust species at the site?  According to contractual agreements, those changes could have been implemented over ten years ago, in 1999.

CRACS’s own partnered research (USFWS Conte Lab research, Alex Haro, et al) at Turners Falls unequivocally concluded that only about 1% of the American shad that reach there–sometimes less, are able to make it past Turners Falls dam.  They exhaust themselves trying to ascend salmon ladders.  Most give up, though the few that make it often languish for weeks in the Turners Falls canal, unable to exit upstream.

This is one of the key reasons why the failed shad and blueback herring runs into Vermont and New Hampshire are generally not discussed today.  In the past dozen years they have all but disappeared; the public has nearly forgotten them.  That’s convenient, since it’s only salmon that CRASC talks about upstream of Massachusetts.

7. “Meyer’s contention that we should ignore salmon and concentrate on shad perpetuates a discredited single species model of mismanagement that lead to the sort of myopic approach that, ironically, he accuses us of.”

Response: in fact, American shad are the ONLY remaining fish in CRASC’s “public trust fish” mandate that still exist in numbers large enough for people to actually SEE.

But by and large they must encounter them at Holyoke, because so few succeed past Turners Falls.

There are today no blueback herring making it even as far as Holyoke.  They are today all but extinct above that site.   And the public doesn’t see any salmon because returns are in the dozens.

OK: CRASC does host a “salmon day” for people to see a salmon each May at Holyoke dam, and sometimes Turners Falls.  But the public is shown a captive salmon, in a tank.  It’s a fish on leave from artificial spawning from the hatchery program.

So–why the upside-down logic?

Why is CRASC NOT sounding the public alarm about herring runs going extinct, nor the languishing shad runs essentially blocked anywhere upstream of where they could reach 55 years ago—the Turners Falls dam.  And these fish do have the same ocean problems Mr. Slater claims prevent the success of a non-existent salmon run.  Common sense would lead anyone to the conclusion that you fix the river first–and prioritize the still-viable, age-old, native, “public trust” runs.  That’s where you start.

8. “We continue working toward the resolution of the fish passage issues at the Turners Falls Dam.  In fact, the poor performing Cabot ladder will be replaced with a fish lift (like the very successful one at Holyoke) when the project gets a new federal hydroelectric license in 2017 and the fisheries agencies are working with the utility to get this project completed well before then.”

Response: this is parroting the response FirstLight officials made at a CRASC meeting in December.  I attended the meeting.  The meetings are full of promises.  CRASC and FirstLight representatives seem to have a comfortable relationship.  FirstLight finances some of CRASC’s salmon work. Before that ,Northeast Utilities–the long-time owners of the Turners/Northfield complex, did the same.

Mr. Slater is saying, de facto, that the other public trust fish—including the 98 % that can’t pass today, can languish in the river at the base of Turners Falls dam where they have been stuck since 1956.

Also, Dr. Slater knows that the license expires in 2018, not 2017.  If you read the public notes on CRASC meetings over the last decade (www.fws.gov/r5crc ), you’ll see again and again where CRASC deferred pushing for fish elevators at Turners Falls—while they continued accepting money and in-kind donations for salmon research from the dam’s owners.  CRASC’s excuse was always that they were waited for “new ownership.”

The Turners Falls/Northfield hydro operations have changed hands three times in the last decade.  CRASC, as always, has stood up for little more than protecting their salmon experiment throughout these changes.  The power company, which makes millions upon millions of dollars using the public’s river, tinkered a bit recently with the canal and dam.  They spent a nominal sum in an attempt to pass a few more fish through the dam without spending money on elevators and a real fix.  The power company chose their own engineers for the study, and then applied a band-aid to a deep, decades-old, wound choking off the river’s runs.  It came to naught.

CRASC’s shad/herring subcommittee–under the guidance of Dr. Slater, has not held a meeting in years.  Under the name of FirstLight, the Turners Falls/Northfield Mtn. hydro complex is now owned by GDF Suez, the world’s second largest utility company. What’s the excuse for not getting fish elevators and a working canal exit built today?

Dr. Slater well knows that fish elevators and exit fixes are already overdue by ten years under the CURRENT federal license.  The idea of making fish elevators part of the NEXT 40-year license continues the ongoing theft from present and future generations of their biological heritage.  It’s been acknowledged at the CRASC table that on-the-ground changes negotiated in new licenses often take years to implement.  Power companies are motivated to use the public’s river in a way that maximizes shareholder profits.  This comes at the expense of migratory fish.  CRASC’s current “wait, and maybe” position with the power company is a repudiation of their own mandate to safeguard the public trust and the living fish runs.  This is not demanding a contractual public right, it is capitulation.  This lack of resolve further robs the Connecticut and its native migratory fish of desperately-needed relief at Turners Falls.  Vermont and New Hampshire have paid a price for this for far too long.

Foibles of the $47,000 fish: the Connecticut River Atlantic salmon restoration, a poor return on investment

Posted by on 01 Mar 2010 | Tagged as: Connecticut River, Nature

© Karl Meyer 2010

Foibles of the $47,000 fish: the Connecticut River Atlantic salmon restoration, a poor return on investment

(Note: edited versions of the following OpEd appeared in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on February 6, 2010, and in the Greenfield Recorder on February 3, 2010.)

“There will always be a hatchery component to the program.” That statement came at the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission’s December meeting.  Hatchery production must continue forever in order to produce a few returning salmon—74 fish this year.  The restoration program is now admittedly fish-farming.  This prompted the USFWS Region 5 CRASC representative to ask about hatchery costs: “How much are we spending per year?” Answer: “$ 3 – 4 million, for personnel and supplies alone.” ”How much does that amount to per fish?” That answer was left hanging.

In my dreams the Connecticut is as it was in 1991—a four-state river recovering its age-old biological connection to the sea.  May currents met a run of almost a million fish: 520,000 agitated American shad and 410,000 blueback herring lifted upstream at Holyoke dam.  There were 41,000 lampreys and a tiny return of 200 hybrid-Atlantic salmon.  Fifty-five thousand shad pushed past the dam at the Turners Falls-Northfield Mountain hydro complex; a record 37,000 shad wriggled up the Vernon ladder to Vermont and New Hampshire.  This was a legacy for coming generations.

The answer is $47,000 per salmon.  Federal hatchery expenditures alone came to $47,000 per fish in 2009.  Millions more went to genetic tests, smolt study, inoculations, electronic tagging, tracking and recapture—and state hatcheries cranking out salmon fry.  Add-in infrastructure and personnel and you can guess at a real cost per fish.

More questions arose after a presentation by USFWS researchers investigating if salmon returns would improve if hatcheries raised output–pouring millions more fry and smolts into the river.  Models predicted no more than about 50 additional fish would result from the different scenarios.  In no case would more than about 300 hybrid salmon return upstream.  The study also asked whether costs and low returns would continue to be acceptable to the public—and suggested public acceptance might be swayed if more spawned-out hatchery salmon were dumped in rivers for fishing.  “You are talking about a put-and-take fishery?” CRASC’s Chairman responded, incredulously.

“Put-and-take” is stocking fish in water bodies for anglers to yank out.  This is how the salmon program essentially works now.   Expenses aside, hatchery fish are massively disruptive to ecosystems and natural populations.  The difference here is there are no real returns to catch—though you could start charging $100,000 for a hybrid salmon license.  This led to another question: “What are the goals of this program?”  There was a lot of looking at shoes until the Connecticut representative offered, “Well, we didn’t have a specific number in mind.”

In 1967 this program set 38,000 as its goal for returning salmon–with an annual recreational catch of 9,600 fish.  The target for shad: one million at Holyoke, 850,000 at Turners Falls, and 750,000 passing Vernon dam.  Their objectives were clear: create “high quality sport fishing” and “provide for the long-term needs of the population for seafood.”  Despite its name CRASC remains responsible for all the fish in the herring family here–the core of the runs: alewives, blueback herring and the American shad, “founding fish” of this river’s restoration.  These fish fed people; an extinct salmon strain never anchored anyone’s larder.

But CRASC doesn’t stress accountability—laying claim instead to hatchery output and the latest low figures coming upstream as accomplishments.  A salmon-focused program with “no specific number in mind” costs our river dearly.  Today, two-thirds of that once-riotous shad bloom is gone; a scant 1 – 2 % of the tens of thousands of American shad that reach Turners Falls now squeeze through.  Just 16 passed Vernon dam in 2009–adjacent to warmed effluent poured in the river by Entergy’s nuclear plant.  Only 39 herring swam past Holyoke in 2009.  None have reached New Hampshire in a decade.

Occasionally I talk a little philosophy with Dr. Boyd Kynard of Amherst, MA.  Boyd’s a brilliant guy and a world-class expert on fish behavior, restoration, and the Connecticut’s migratory species.  This “retired” professor emeritus and USFWS biologist has his feet wet most of the year–consulting with China’s EPA-chief about Yangtze dams; fish passage on the Amazon; endangered sturgeon in Europe; or dam-disrupted ecosystems on the Columbia.  Something he once said about the resources going to lab study of juvenile salmon struck me, especially from someone not prone to generality, “I bet more money has been spent studying this single life-stage of this one species of fish, than the money spent on all the fish species in the world.”

It’s all about priorities.  There are bright, thoughtful people at CRASC too–people who say they would like to see a change of course.  I believe them.  The big problems are now acknowledged at the table: fish elevators 10 years past-due at Turners, with fluctuations from the Northfield plant scuttling passage at that dam; thousands of young shad killed when FirstLight drained its canal in September; thermal effluent dumped in at Vermont Yankee—with record low passage at the Vernon ladder.  These are all problems good on-the-ground science could begin turning around–on a path to a river we all could be proud of.

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Karl Meyer’s “The State of the Snake” appears in the spring issue of Sanctuary.  He tackles nighthawks and bald eagles for Birdwatcher’s Digest in May and November.