Rundown on the run–three fishways by bicycle: Holyoke, Turners Falls, and Vernon; a.k.a., Thousands, a Handful, and None…

© 2010 by Karl Meyer

May 24, 2010

For a little ground truth this late May, the height of this year’s Connecticut River migratory fish season, I undertook some field work.  On May 21st, I bicycled from Greenfield, MA, south to the Holyoke dam and fishway; then back north to the Turners Falls dam and fishway.  The next afternoon, Saturday, May 22nd, I biked from Greenfield to the Vernon Fishway in Southern Vermont.  On these visits to the three lower-most dams on the Connecticut River, here’s a report on what I found:

At Holyoke, on a Friday morning at 9:15 a.m., the fish viewing windows are full—jam-packed with fidgeting, agitated American shad, nearly two-feet long.  The silvery fish shimmer in nervous schools, veering to and fro–anxious to be set free and upstream of this rectangular trap.  At times the shad literally form a wall of glistening bodies and fish scales pushed against the glass.

The visiting adults and children here are all mesmerized by the life–the seeming plenty, in these windows.  There are many ooohs! and aahhhs!   The fishway guides note that there were a few even blueback herring were in the windows minutes ago.  None are visible now.  But, mixed in, is a good compliment of ghoulish-looking sea lamprey.  Nearly three feet in length, they blindly snake along the fishway glass.  The kids whoop at the sight of them.  A lone smallmouth bass lingers at the bottom of the tank.  There are no salmon in the windows, though one was counted yesterday.  They sent a truck over from Farmington, CT to pick that salmon up and haul it away to one of the hatchery farms for breeding.

The total fish numbers counted here as of May 21st are written on a tally board: American shad 103,216; sea lamprey 9,737; blueback herring 55; Atlantic salmon 23.   Today, I watch as two trucks are loaded with American shad—to be taken to either New Hampshire or Vermont because of the fish passage failures at the Turners Falls-Northfield hydro complex and further up at Vernon dam.  Some of these Connecticut River shad are also be trucked as seed-fish for runs that have failed or disappeared on rivers in Rhode Island and Maine.  This day, with the river temperature nearing 60 degrees and flows low, but steady at peak season, the guides say they may get 10,000 shad today, maybe more.  I head back north, cycling along the east bank of the river past the Holyoke Range.

I reach Turners Falls Fishway in late afternoon.  At 3:40 p.m. the fishway windows are a pale, blank screen, filled with the streaming gold current sent down the Turners Falls Canal via this Northfield Mountain-Turners Falls hydro complex.  Looking closely I pick out the shadows of a few American shad treading water in that current, hovering dimly in the background.  I count five shad, nothing that could remotely be termed a “run.”  They shad try and keep pace with the current, but are soon pushed downstream out of view.

Fully half of the shad that pass the Holyoke dam reach this Northfield Mountain-Turners Falls hydro site.  Studies show that only about two shad out of a hundred make it through these grinding currents of the two salmon ladders built here three decades back.  Those numbers were slightly better here before the site was deregulated a decade ago.  Back then, 5 or 6 fish of every 100 shad might make it through.  Still, these are all terrible odds if you are a shad trying to spawn successfully upstream.  It’s such a poorly designed system–built for the non-existent salmon here (less than 10 salmon came through Turners in 2009), that it’s a bit like water boarding for American shad.  The shad deplete all their oxygen and float back downstream, spent; exhausted.

This is why The US Fish and Wildlife Service traps a few thousand shad at Holyoke and drives them upstream for release above Turners Falls in New Hampshire and Vermont each season.  Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC) officials try to lay claim to that as a “run” or “restoration”—but in truth those are terms that shouldn’t be used anywhere but in the stretch downstream–between here and Holyoke dam to the south.  From Turners Falls north to Vernon and Bellows Falls, restoration is an abject failure–over a half century after success was achieved at Holyoke with simple fish elevators in 1955.  Today, with just 2% of the shad reaching Turners Falls successfully passing–and with just 19 shad passing Vernon dam in 2009, dismal is the only word to describe the “restoration” in this–the still remaining 60% of main stem Connecticut River habitat that should have become shad-accessible decades back.  Vermont and New Hampshire would have had something to invest in.

At FirstLight’s Turners-Northfield complex you find a massively failed system that fisheries and power company people have tried to keep quiet for decades.  For ten years the public has had the right to get a new design installed here, but fisheries folks have essentially stayed quiet, with little word to the media or outreach to the public.  Their record of advocacy and effort these past decades on behalf of shad and herring here has been as lifeless as the runs here.  If these were hybrid salmon, millions would be spent on them—millions are spent hatching tiny hybrid salmon to be dumped in the Connecticut annually.

But, as to these runs of native shad and herring—a shadow of what they were twenty years back, our public fisheries guardians appear content to wait another decade to address the failures of restoring federal trust runs upstream here.  No wonder it’s now years since there has been a Massachusetts “public representative” on the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission–the federal-state entity responsible for the federal trust shad and blueback herring.  People have just stopped believing them, as they’ve watched numbers flatten and wind backward–while hearing tales of promised salmon.  It seems Bay State fishermen have stopped buying the myth Connecticut River salmon.  They’ve been extinct since 1809.

The tens of thousands of shad that reach Turners Falls will try to pass here for days–sometimes weeks, lingering in pools where the pulsing currents of the ladders exhaust them, pushing their oxygen-deprived organs to the limits.  Only the toughest and the luckiest of the lucky make it through Turners Falls.  And it’s impossible to know the damage that exhaustion and all those expended resources will have on their spawning success—for those few thousand that may squeeze upstream here over the course of a season–or those tens of thousands that will be repulsed and pushed back downstream.

In the half hour I’m at Turners Falls, seven shad–after trying, and trying again, actually do appear to make it out the up-side of the “fishway.”  We give them a cheer.  They don’t so much swim through as finally appear to float upwards and out.  I’m on the river deck talking to the fishway guides when a man–the lone visitor at the moment, comes back up from the viewing windows.  He’s puzzled, “Which way are the fish trying to go?”  “Oh,” I say,”actually it’s accurate to say most are heading downstream.  Only about two out of a hundred that try can get by.  They built the wrong ladders 30 years ago, based on salmon.  It doesn’t work.”

The man is surprised and interested–just as the young boys and two moms were when I stopped by here yesterday.  The kids kept trying to cheer the flagging shad up-current, groaning when they got pushed backwards repeatedly.  I offered an honest answer to one’s question, “Why are the fish going backwards?” telling them this system doesn’t work for the fish–a new one is needed, “You should tell your teachers, and write a letter to the newspaper.”  Most often kids have this question deflected here, going without a direct answer, offered instead a ready-tale of excuses and promises of what the future will bring.  I tell this gentleman today about the thousands of shad in the viewing windows at Holyoke this morning, “Check it out tomorrow.  They’ll still be coming through.”  He intends to, saying thank you, “Hey, I live right near there, in South Hadley.”

Reading the Turners Falls tally-board for fish the guides have spotted here is a very short story: American shad today, 28; for the season, 82; sea lamprey today, 12; for the season 23.  Eighty-two shad does not a “fish run” make. None of the nine salmon released upstream at the Holyoke dam have been spotted here, a mere 36 miles upstream.  They have counted six carp however.  Later, someone gets around to viewing the fish videos–used to make full counts here when no one is around evenings and Mondays and Tuesdays.  As of Friday, May 21st, the total numbers of federal trust fish that have passed Turners Falls as of this mid-season point: 303 American shad.  No blueback herring, and not a single salmon–in a fishway built for salmon 30 years back.

The next afternoon I’m back on my bike, heading from Greenfield to the Vernon dam and fishway, just below the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant.  It’s a bit over 40 miles round trip.

I reach Vernon Fishway at 1:50 p.m.  It’s a late-May Saturday; you’d think the site would be bustling.  The place looks derelict.  The gate is padlocked.  A sign on the chain-link fence reads: GATE WILL BE CLOSED AT 3 PM.  I take a picture with my watch in the foreground–1:54 p.m.  I’m left with the feeling nobody gives a damn.  Honestly.  I’d imagine after passing a total 19 shad last year, they are not anxious to have the public see what’s going on here.  Back in the early 1990s they passed 37,000 shad in one season.

Last year I bicycled to this Vernon site a half a dozen times between early-May and late June.  On all but my last visit, the gates were open.  And I did not see a single fish in the viewing windows on those trips.  They were empty–save for swirls of tiny, rising, bubbles.  Below me this day three fishermen are strung out along a sandy stretch of downstream beach.  One, a shirtless guy at the base of the dam, notices me, “You getting anything?” I ask.  “Nah!  The guy down there caught a smallmouth though, about an hour back.”  And that man’s fishing report seems about as good a snapshot of this migratory fish “runs” and “restoration” prospects in May 2010–anywhere from Turners Falls north to here, and beyond, along the Connecticut.

But that’s not completely true…  Sea lamprey—a fish that nobody eats and nobody fishes—and most find them repulsive, do quite well moving upstream past the Connecticut River’s perilous fishways.  Sea lamprey are ancient jaw-less, fish—native migrants here.  They’ve changed little since the time of the dinosaurs.  Though not a named species in the federal trust mandate, they are this river’s accidental restoration success, returning annually in the tens of thousands.

This shouldn’t be embarrassment to public fisheries officials, who are always claiming they’ve turned straw into gold with a couple dozen, million-dollar, hybrid salmon showing up.  Tough as old tow-rope and built for the ages, sea lamprey are one fascinating and integral part of this river’s restored biology.  Though incidental and mostly-unmentioned, lamprey do seem destined to survive and thrive despite the track record of this restoration program and its myopic fixation on an extinct salmon.  So, lamprey–that’s one down!  Now, how about a lift for those shad and herring?

How about it CRASC, FirstLight, Conte–USFWS??  The kids would love cheering on real fish runs at Turners Falls and Vernon.  Kids in Bellows Falls and Charlestown, NH would love that too.  It’s their river, and their future.  It’s time to recognize that, and stop squandering resources on yesterday’s ideas and yesterday’s Connecticut River.