May 11, 2010

The myth of Atlantic salmon

I was a preschooler when I teased apart the whacky logic of an Easter bunny delivering eggs–a little absurdity all kids eventually figure out.  Today a different mythology is being offered in dozens of Massachusetts schools.  It’s ASERP, the Atlantic Salmon Egg Rearing Program.  Fertilized hatchery eggs are brought into classrooms.  Kids feed them as they hatch and grow to tiny, hybrid salmon.  Those that survive are released into streams.  ASERP teaches that salmon are the key to restoring migratory fish populations here; that salmon hatcheries are critical to a healthy ecosystem.

Hatcheries are potential dispersal points for diseases that can spread to other river fish and onto ocean populations.  Since 2007, Connecticut River salmon hatcheries have had these emergencies: IPN, a deadly, highly-contagious virus discovered in Sunderland—all breeding salmon plus 700,000 hatchery eggs destroyed; station flushed with disinfectant.  In 2009, 10 of 21 salmon adults captured at Holyoke turned blood red and were dying when they reached North Attleboro for “reconditioning” prior to breeding: cause unexplained.  Cold Water Disease discovered at Palmer, 300,000 salmon fry destroyed; station “disinfected.”  At White River, cataracts discovered in 60% of a sampling of 1 year-old salmon, thousands destroyed.  Rock Snot, an easily-spread, habitat-smothering, alga was found in the White River upstream of the hatchery; a new water source had to be found.

After 43 years and over a half billion dollars spent on salmon, 60 adult hybrids returned to Holyoke Dam last year.  Yet students are told humans will evolve a new, self-sustaining salmon hybrid—to replace a minor strain that died out here 200 years ago.  Kids think it’s the river’s most important resurrection.  ASERP was first leveraged into classrooms 13 years ago.  Many students are now adults, perhaps wondering: what happened?  While kids may be buying the program, fish clearly are not.

Begun in 1997, ASERP is a partnership formed by angling groups and federal and state salmon hatchery operators, biologists, and research employees to reach into schools.  It offers a tidy niche for teachers, incorporating basic science principals, but its message is self-promotion.  The science and math paints a stilted river picture—salmon, and more salmon.  Teachers are encouraged to submit PR photos and stories; even advised how to stall difficult media inquires asking more than a one-fish tale.

What kids aren’t learning is that 97% of all the Connecticut’s federal trust fish reaching Turners Falls dam today are stuck there–where they’ve been pinched-off since 1798 when John Adams was President.  Virtually none are salmon.  They are American shad and blueback herring, the very foundation of the Connecticut’s migratory ecosystem.  Literally millions of fish have been turned back there in the past 40 years alone, while dam owners reap their own millions.

Its clear teachers aren’t offered the big picture either.  Still, if it’s about science and math guidelines, the same concepts can be conveyed raising aquarium fish.  Or study vernal pools where native amphibians and eggs can be experienced in the field.  Kids get all the concepts without coming away thinking hatcheries and classroom “chillers” are keys to evolution and healthy wildlife populations.  Native blueback herring passing Holyoke dam have plunged from 65,000 in 1997 to 39 last year; 620,000 passed in 1985.  It’s important to know 720,000 shad crowded Holyoke in 1992, while in 1997 just 300,000 returned.  That run dropped to 160,000 fish last year.

I’m all for spending on native, wild fish.  But five dozen hybrids–after decades and millions of fry fertilized at the hands of humans dumped in, is a myth gone terribly wrong.  Each spring government staffers and kids release clouds of tiny fish, and the same rabbit remains stuck in the same hat.  Spend that money, and teaching effort, saving the still-living shad, blueback herring and alewives—fish runs disappearing today.  Don’t shackle kids and the river to a coldwater fish lost centuries back when a briefly-colder climate warmed here.

Meanwhile, kids should know that Turners Falls-Northfield Mountain hydro owners are mandated to get fish safely upstream, and that fish elevators are ten years overdue there.  Tell them the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission and the New England Cooperative Fisheries are responsible for protecting those runs since 1967. And FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, is mandated to enforce license requirements.  Kids deserve to know too that the river is being unnaturally warmed by effluent from the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, just upstream.  Just 19 shad swam past Vernon dam there last year, compared to 37,000 in 1991.  Most importantly teach them that those fish–and this river, belong to them, not the corporations.

Award-winning children’s author Karl Meyer of Greenfield taught preschoolers at Northampton’s Vernon Street School for five years.  He is following this years fish runs at www.karlmeyerwriting.com.