© 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.