© 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.