Copyright © 2011 by Karl Meyer        All Rights Reserved

This article first appeared in the Pioneer Valley News, www.pioneervalleynews.com, on November 9, 2011.  Hard copies of the free Pioneer Valley News are available at many locations from Holyoke, MA through Brattleboro and Bellows Falls, VT.

DESPERATE MEASURES: salmon program a grave threat to the CT River

TURNERS FALLS, MA.  “Didymo is not going to drive our decisions,” said Dr. Caleb Slater, Anadromous Fish Project Leader for the MA Div. of Fish & Wildlife and Tech Committee Chair of the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC) at a hastily convened CRASC meeting September 23, 2011.  Their 44 year-old federal/state salmon restoration program was in crisis, having again produced just nine-dozen returning fish on the year.  Now, their main hybrid salmon hatchery had been reduced to rubble by rampaging White River waters from Tropical Storm Irene.  But moving out the surviving salmon at the White River National Fish Hatchery (WRNFH) in Bethel, VT, posed a big problem: it could potentially increase the spread of river-bottom smothering “didymo” throughout the Connecticut River basin.

CRASC and its US Fish and Wildlife Service partners were scrambling at the Conte Anadromous Fish Lab, trying to figure out how best to lobby federal representatives to get $10 – $14 million in “emergency Congressional funding” to “completely rebuild” USFWS’s White River hatchery.  They’d even brought back Jay McMenemy, recently retired from VT Fish & Game, and CRASC’s Tech Committee, and seated him at the members table.  CRASC’s Steve Gephard of Connecticut’s DEP was worried officials might not be willing to again resuscitate this facility to produce its main product: 5 million salmon fry released to the Connecticut River each spring, “You guys have to do that lobbying,” said William Archambault, USFWS Region 5 Deputy Assistant Regional Director of Fisheries.  A week prior his boss, USFWS Region 5 Director Wendy Weber sent a letter to Washington outlining the giant funding request.

But first, WRNFH would have to be completely “de-populated,” then “disinfected,” according to Archambault.  There were also other significant risks involved in doling-out it’s surviving fish beyond spreading didymo–a bottom-smothering algae known as Rock Snot that New England states have been working hard to contain.  Nonetheless Archambault was encouraging CRASC members from VT, CT, MA and NH to quickly find a way to parse-out the 900 surviving “broodstock” salmon left at the hatchery to a handful of federal and state hatcheries–and also to find places to release remaining excess “stock” into lakes and basin streams.  Caleb Slater remarked on how stocking spawned-out hatchery salmon to Bay State ponds “gets a real PR boost” from anglers.  Once the $ millions in emergency public funds were in hand, CRASC and USFWS could start all over.

“As a Service we’re uncomfortable with the risks,” Archambault said as disclaimer, “It (the decision to accept potentially tainted fish) will have to be done on a state-by-state basis.  We can’t be 100% sure that didymo won’t be taken out of the facility.”  Spawning the survivors at White River was out of the question.  Those salmon had been newly-exposed by the dace, white suckers and other fish–living and dead, which had mixed into the crippled facility when Irene sent them upstream infected waters where didymo had been found in the White River four years prior. “Our focus is on rebuilding, not spawning right now,” said Archambault.

Alternatively, they’d have to again destroy all surviving hatchery fish and eggs—an extreme procedure that had been employed twice recently at White River facility.

But fall breeding season was arriving.  Full hatchery production—“stripping” salmon females of eggs and mixing in the milt of surviving sea-run males (who’d be injected with stimulating hormones a week prior), could not wait long.  They could delay injections a week or two, tricking the hybrids.  But then staff would have to get down to fish production—mixing the genetic fish fluids by hand, careful that computer-matched genes of certain fish were mingled into the correct plastic eggs tubs; then placing fertilized hybrid eggs on industrial racks to be washed over by an endless stream of water.

But there was another big catch: the ever-present and growing risk of centralized hatcheries spreading emerging fish diseases.  Before any surviving WRNFH salmon could be moved they’d have to be tested; quarantined for 28 days.  Hatchery salmon can spread a variety of plagues deadly to river systems and new fish populations—including angler-beloved native brook trout and still-wild salmon populations clinging to survival in rivers up north.  All WRNFH fish would have to be quickly screened for Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA), Furunculosis, and Infectious Pancreatic Necrosis (IPN)–a disease discovered infecting salmon downstream in 2007 at the Cronin National Salmon Station in Sunderland, MA.

From there, federal biologists had ferried that deadly virus 140 miles north to the Vermont’s WRNFH–through the salmon eggs Cronin Station sent them for winter incubation. Both WRNFH and Cronin Station were subsequently depopulated; chemically disinfected.  Personnel at Cronin had to kill all 121 “sea-run” salmon on-station that fall.  It was the public’s seasonal return on 40 years and over a $ half-billion spent on hybrid efforts to create a substitute fish for a strain extinct here since 1809.  Ten dozen fish were the Connecticut’s entire salmon “run” back from the ocean in 2007; when their program began in 1967 they’d predicted 37,000 salmon annually.  WRNFH staff also incinerated all 718,000 salmon eggs it had begun nursing for the following year’s stocking.  Of the millions of fry delivered into Connecticut River tributaries the next season–by school kids, trout groups and fisheries technicians, not a single baby salmon would come directly from a fish that had arrived back from the ocean.  All fry stocked into the ecosystem from Cronin and White River that spring were at least two industrial generations removed from anything that natural.

Following that 2007 disaster over $500,000 in emergency-funded “bio-security” upgrades had to be put in place at the USFWS’s Cronin Station in Sunderand, MA.  A similar mix of costly hardware and complex chemical protocols were installed at WRNFH.

But just months after the IPN debacle of 2008, disaster again struck WRNFH.  Upstream in the same White River waters the hatchery used to nurture its eggs, didymo was discovered choking the bottom.  WRNFH now risked spreading this algal plaque through the Connecticut River basin via hatchery salmon.  They could no longer use the very river water they were expecting their hybrid salmon to be restored to.  No water, equals no hatchery.  Again, CRASC and USFWS put out an SOS for emergency public funds for White River —and, again, millions in public funding was procured to design, dig and computerize a segregated system of wells and piping to water their fish, eggs, and fry.

In 2010 yet another disaster befell WRNF.  A sampling of young salmon groups being raised from eggs for CT River stocking programs revealed that 60% of those hatchery fish were developing cataracts, crippling their ability to feed.  Again, thousands had to be destroyed.  No publicly-disclosed disasters were known to befall WRNFH or Cronin National Salmon Station in 2010, yet White River infrastructure consumed $723,000 in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) cash for “upgrades”—the bulk of it funneled to corporations far from New England.  Over $590,000 in contracts for electrical upgrades and new “chillers” went to two firms: one in Missouri and the other Washington State.

THIS DAY, just four years after the IPN outbreak; just three years after the didymo crisis and new well fields, one year after cataracts—and a year after a yet another WRNFH Recover Act cash infusion, the USFWS, CRASC and the White River National Fish Hatchery are going to the mattress to save their foundered hatchery at all costs.  Didymo, and the millions of dollars spent to protect against its spread throughout the Connecticut River watershed, are being downplayed as just the price of doing business.

The plan coming out of this emergency CRASC meeting at Conte Lab, is to disease-test the White River salmon ASAP; then quickly get them dispersed and “bred” at other sites including Sunderland’s Cronin National Salmon Station.  In another unprecedented move, they would then transport, hatch, and feed several million salmon fry until spring at hatcheries in river basins across New England: North Attleboro National Fish Hatchery in the Ten Mile River basin in North Attleboro, MA, the Berkshire National Fish Hatchery in the Housatonic basin in New Marlboro, MA,  Cronin National Salmon Station in the Connecticut basin in Sunderland, MA, the formerly-mothballed Whittemore Salmon Station on the Farmington at Barkhamsted, CT, and Eisenhower National Fish Hatchery in the Otter Creek/Lake Champlain drainage basin in North Chittendon, VT.  Come spring, those baby hybrid salmon fry would get re-dispersed again—stocked-out by trout groups, school children, and fish and wildlife staff to a vast network of Connecticut River tributaries.

It was desperate, seat-of-the-pants, industrial fish science policy-in-the-making by the USFWS and CRASC’s various state fish and wildlife officials.  And it was fraught with opportunity for miscalculations, mistakes and dire consequences for the web of linked ecosystems they are charged with protecting.  As with all bureaucracies, USFWS’s Bill Archambault quietly mentioned a Plan B to procure public funds if Congress balked at this latest hatchery cash pitch.  WRNFH had recently done a bit of branching out into work other than just salmon production for the Connecticut.  They were now hatching “Klondikes,” lake trout for stocking in Lake Michigan.  It might be possible to “use Great Lakes money” to resurrect White River, Archambault said.

CRASC members and the hatchery personnel in attendance left the Tech meeting that afternoon with one big, gnarly question sitting fat and unanswered on the table: would their plan disperse didymo?  You can’t vaccinate against an algae spread via tiny plant bits carried in fish gills or transported in hatchery fry or egg-nurturing waters.  Yet almost to a one, they’d expressed a blind willingness to risk spreading that plague.  Even if all emergency disease tests proved negative, no one stepped-up to guarantee there wouldn’t be the seeds of didymo hiding in fish transported to new river basins, or in the necessary waters required for shuttling those live fish and eggs.  To his credit CRASC’s Matt Carpenter from New Hampshire Fish & Game kept returning to worries about spreading didymo.  After a pause, long-time CRASC leader Steve Gephard from CT DEP offered, “We’re using salt solutions,” but it came across sounding like soft science, and he too added his disclaimer, “No guarantees can be made.”

In the group-think being employed to save the program and sway Carpenter, Gephard then went on to restate the PR value of dispersing spawned-out salmon to swim in the basin’s rivers for casual anglers.  But, there was nothing eco-system-natural in his language, it was purely industrial, “If we’re going to save this program we’re going to have to come up with a way to keep fish in production.”  Of the decades-old system created to produce a new stand-in fish for a cold-water species centuries-extinct on today’s climate-warmed Connecticut (now classified a ‘warm water fishery’) Gephard warned, “If we get down to the point where we get back 10 fish a year–its like death from a thousand cuts, the public isn’t going to accept this program.”

These were the plans and decisions USFWS and CRASC’s Tech Committee took away with them at the end of a four hour meeting on September 23, 2011.  It was expected they’d be discussed and accepted at a full, semi-annual Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission meeting just six days hence.  However, without explanation, an emergency notice went out from CRASC’s Executive Secretary Ken Sprankle at his office in Sunderland, MA, just days later, September 27, 2011: “I have just been directed by CRASC Vice Chairman Wayne MacCallum to POSTPONE the September 29th CRASC meeting until further notice.”                  #          #          #

Author’s addendum: Upon finishing this writing as the Nov/Dec. issue of Pioneer Valley News was set to go to press, no official notice had been made of when that postponed CRASC meeting would reconvene.  Yesterday (10/25/11), I learned it will likely take place November 10, 2011, but that was still unofficial.  What, if any, of these decisions have been implemented in the interim five weeks is unknown at this time.  More about CRASC plans, changes and decisions may be revealed at that next meeting.  However, when I recently noted the Public’s Right-to-Know, and asked for specifics and notes from backroom negotiations between USFWS’s John Warner and FirstLight Power/GDF-Suez to divert more migratory fish out of the Connecticut River and into the treacherous Turners Falls power canal, Warner refused to give a direct answer.  His colleague at that CRASC meeting, USFWS Region 5 Deputy Assistant Director of Fisheries Bill Archambault, then pointedly stepped in and referred me to the Freedom of Information Act.  CRASC is a Congressionally-authorized public entity that tends to share little upfront information with the public (costs, budgets, open-meeting dates, disease threats, etc.) beyond what is self-promoting for their salmon program.

This story comes directly from an emergency CRASC Technical Committee meeting.  There should be no mistake that these decisions–and the gambles being advocated with the Connecticut River ecosystem, were being promoted by key federal and state decision makers at CRASC and USFWS.  Dr. Caleb Slater is Anadromous Fish Project Leader for the MA Div. of Fish & Wildlife; Dr. Steve Gephard is Supervisor of Inland Fisheries for CT DEP, CRASC’s Genetics Subcommittee Chair, liaison to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, and former international representative to NASCO (North Atlantic Salmon Commission); Wendy Weber is Region 5 US Fish & Wildlife Service Regional Director, William Archambault is USFWS Region 5 Deputy Assistant Regional Director of Fisheries; John Warner of the USFWS’s New England Field Office is CRASC’s Fish Passage Subcommittee Chair; Jay McMenemy (retired, but somehow again seated at that CRASC table) of VT Fish & Wildlife was CRASC’s Salmon Studies Subcommittee Chair, and a key long-time promoter of the Atlantic Salmon Egg Rearing Program (ASERP) in VT’s schools.   Matthew Carpenter, CRASCs lone voice of question and potential dissent that day, attended the meeting via speaker phone.  He is Anadromous Fish Program Coordinator for New Hampshire Fish & Game.

What is clear is that this program and its insular decision-making process represent an ongoing danger to the Connecticut River ecosystem.  As long as the public remains unaware of the costs and consequences of continuing to spend tens of millions of dollars on a coldwater fish strain that went extinct on the southern-most edge of its historical footprint over 200 years ago, the USFWS and CRASC will continue to dump 6 million factory fry into the Connecticut River system each spring.  In turn, we’ll continue to see a return of 10 dozen or so fish from the sea, ad infinitum, if our representatives continue funding a program with hybrid salmon at its core.

Conservatively calculating that the basic salmon restoration effort—in a year without new disease or disaster, costs taxpayers a minimum of $10 million annually (salaries aside)–the cost for the 91 “wild” sea-run salmon returning from the Atlantic this year was $110,000 per fish.  Add to that any number of “bad” years with an emerging disease or disaster–pitch in say another $14 million from public coffers, and the price of one returned hybrid salmon goes to $264,000.   Each of these then must be ferried right back to the hatchery for next year’s production.

And that doesn’t begin to calculate the huge “what-ifs?”…didymo, ISA, IPN gets shipped out of the salmon factories…

In recent OpEds from Holyoke, MA to Bellows Falls and Montpelier, VT, I’ve taken the position that the Connecticut River desperately needs a well-funded restoration program.  But it should be an ecosystem restoration program, not one based on a failed 19th century idea that substitutes fish hatcheries for functioning river systems, and prioritizes an extinct species ahead of a still-living pyramid that includes native alewives, American shad, blueback herring, endangered shortnose sturgeon, sea lamprey and American eels.  With less than half the $14 million USFWS and CRASC hope will rescue their program you could build a state-of-the-art ecosystem laboratory.  It would an excellent fit for the Five College area—where advances in upstream ecosystem restoration remain stalled behind Turners Falls dam, as they have since its construction in 1798.

With such a facility in place, you could easily attract endowment funding—and start producing independent science.  CRASC, and Conte Lab’s state and federal scientists and studies are now regularly contracted with, and supported by, money from power companies operating on the Connecticut—companies concerned with maximizing profit.   Corporations have little interest seeing independent science come to light that would quantify for the public their true impacts on New England’s River.

At minimum, it’s high time to stop the losses the Connecticut River ecosystem is sustaining from propping up a dangerously failed hatchery program.  Invest in keeping the Connecticut’s remaining half-dozen, naturally-breeding migratory species alive and moving upstream.

Karl Meyer, Greenfield, MA, October 26, 2011.