On “false attraction” at Turners Falls

No, this is not about sex—well OK, maybe a little. But it’s different than how you might see someone 200 yards up the trail and think, “Wow, looking good!”—only to discover on a closer pass that they are a different sex than the one that drives you, or they are decades older or younger than the person you were expecting to see. This is about spawning though—about squashing the spawning efforts of migratory fish.

False Attraction Flow is a phenomenon where migratory fish follow flows upstream that lead them to impassable barriers. These flows are created by flood and head gate releases at dam and canal sites, and they keep wild fish expending precious energy that would otherwise be used to swim to upstream river reaches to spawn.

5/24/2015 Today, FERC Relicensing Study test flow releases to the riverbed at Turners Falls Dam are set at 2,500 cubic feet per second. The weather is clear, warm.
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At 1p.m. I visit the ancient Rock Dam site on the Connecticut, where three people are fishing—a woman and two young men. The woman has just landed a shad. She has not been here long.

One young guy is just upstream. He says he’s been getting some hits, but nothing landed. He notes that he’s also a recent arrival.

I clamber up the cliff that looks down on the Rock Dam Pool. Shad are looping by in a constant stream, visible just to the outer edge of the bubbly rip. The light is so good I can see them almost straight down beneath me, as they are only five feet out from the cliff face at times. What is also apparent is that some turn back after making the approach to the whitewater that would take them through notches they must best to pass this natural falls. I see many turn in the current–cutting back against the school, then milling for a bit in the current.
(Below, is the flow downstream, away from Rock Dam–two people with fish poles are in kayaks)
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All the while, the stream of shad beneath me trying to find a way upstream is constant. Always a run of more fish—ten, twenty–hard to get a count as they spurt along. The spectacle is reminiscent of the old medieval representation of the ocean’s fish in constant circulation around the globe. Here, they simply keep appearing in an endless line. There is no telling if the 2,500 cfs is just too low for them to risk the rough, rocky edges of the Rock Dam’s clefts to move ahead. They get lost from view in the bubbly current. What it appears like, overall, is that these fish are stuck—streaming in, agitated to move upstream, but not finding a clear path forward at this flow.

I toss a question over to the furthest guy upstream near the headwaters over this basalt rock face. He says he’s seeing plenty of fish, but hasn’t brought in one yet.

On the way out I ask the woman if she’s going to cook up the good-sized shad she has laid out in the shallows. “Will you slow cook it?” I ask, “Or do you know how to dress them?” She is going to cook it up, but describes a method of cutting through center, just to get out some of those hundreds of delicate bones, and then toasting it up. “After it’s done, you can just get in there and get at the meat with a spoon.”

She asks me where my rod and reel are, and I tell her I’m really here to document flows—so that maybe someday we can all count on fish being here. I continue up the beach. “I’m hoping when I open this one there are some eggs in there,” she says, motioning over at her catch. She’d be delighted to fry up some roe. “Yea, that’s a pretty big fish,” I say, “I’m guessing it’s a female.” I bid her good luck for the day.

I get back on my bike and follow the Turners Falls Power Canal all the way upstream through The Patch section of Turners, and then down past Station 1–FirstLight’s small hydro generating site located on a dog-leg off the main canal. There’s a lone car down the paved drive that leads to the fishing access. When I scoot down to look over, the tailrace at Station 1 is charged with current. FirstLight is generating at this site, despite the test flow requirement that water only be released from the Turners Falls Dam at the 2,500 cfs level today. This will corrupt and skew fish passage study results.
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I walk down and meet the young guy fishing just off the edge of Station 1’s frothy spillway. James is from Greenfield, and “yup,” he fishes the site pretty regular. He’s just finished landing one. It’s unceremoniously laid out in the sandy silt. Smallish. “When there’s water here there are always fish,” he notes. I ask him if he wouldn’t mind my snapping a few photos and he’s fine with it, “You’re not in my way.” He points to the water, not a few feet out from where he is, “You see them all there?” I look, but don’t see much but shadowy, sun-dappled water. I stare a bit more, then start snapping pictures of the flows.
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When I come back down from near the tailrace I look again in the current. This time my angle to the sun is better. There are the shad. Dozens of them, stacked up in the current facing upstream into an endless, impassable sheet of water. “Now I see them,” I say, “Too bad they aren’t going anywhere.” “Yea,” James notes, “they are just stuck here.” I snap a photo of his dusty catch and wish him luck for the day.
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As I come up to the road from Station 1 there are two young boys, maybe eleven or twelve years old, walking along with poles and fishing tackle. They appear to be headed further on, to try their luck in the canal dog-leg. “Hey, what are you guys going after, shad?” “Anything!” they both say in concert. “If you head just down there,” I say, pointing, “There’s a guy just caught one. There’s dozens of fish waiting in the current—you can look right down and see them.” A quick glimmer passes between them, and they say thanks, heading down the driveway. “There’s a bit of poison ivy on the path. Watch for it.” I call, riding away.

I continue up to the Turners Falls Dam, where the flow is still at 2,500 cfs, the lowest test flow setting. There were not supposed to be any other intervening flows confounding these tests all the way downstream to the end of the power canal. The only time Station 1 is supposed to be operating during test flows is when dam releases ramp up to 6,300 cfs. The Fisheries and Aquatics Studies Team had worked out the schedule with FERC, and FirstLight agreed to it. This appears to be a clear violation of study protocols, and it throws into question fish passage results here.
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I cross the road on the Turners Falls Bridge, and peer over the side just downstream of the dam. A few people are fishing in the flow next to the Spillway Fish Ladder. I yell down to the closest angler. He’s fairly close to where Bascule Gate 1 is pouring down those 2,500 cfs. He doesn’t hear me over the rush of water. I yell again; he looks all around—then, on the third time, he looks up. I’m maybe 80 feet above him and we can’t really converse. “How is it?” yell, mimicking with the thumbs up/thumbs down gesture. At first he doesn’t pick it up, but when I do it again, he gives the thumbs down.

I’m not surprised. With all the false attraction flow at the Rock Dam Pool from the added water released by FirstLight at Station 1, there is little flow here in the broad reach of the Connecticut that would temp fish away from treading water at those sites into these thin upstream currents. The fish are basically being tricked; they are expending precious energy that could be used to get upstream to Vermont and New Hampshire just running down their batteries downstream. Imagine treading water on an aquatic, industrial treadmill that’s trying to lure them into a power canal. If you are a Vermont or New Hampshire angler, just understand that these swam their little fins off trying to spawn up on your stretch of river. The lure of false attraction just got the better of them.
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When I take a look at the head gates at the head of the Turners Falls Canal they appear all but quiet, save for the bubbling attraction currents that help lead fish into the Gatehouse Fishway —the place where the public will see them passing. The main and only place where these fish are getting a substantial upstream current that leads to this site is…yup!—2-1/2 miles downstream at the tail end of the power canal at Cabot Station. That’s likely where these fish are really being attracted–and tallied, as some that are actually radio-tagged for these studies are being registered. Humn! That would certainly skew study results toward fish “preferring” the canal…

There’s a long tradition among American shad themselves–and the fisheries biologists that have studied fish passage at Turners Falls over the decades. Study results sometimes show a remarkable uptick in fish passage at the Turners Falls Fishway on holiday weekends when the public is most likely to visit. The fish just seem to just know exactly when it’s Memorial Day Weekend. Even in those years when passage is poor for most of the month of May, those shad seem to just love to appear in the fishway windows at the holiday weekend. It’s uncanny how the fish know. Ironic, really. Not like they are being manipulated…

What would also be uncanny would be if FirstLight had their “most successful canal passage year” ever–right at the time when the studies that impact relicensing flows are taking place. Last year, when 370,000 shad were lifted past Holyoke Dam, just 39,914 made it out of the canal and upstream past Turners Falls Dam. Not a great number. In 2013, when 381,436 shad were passed upstream at Holyoke, just 35,124 made it out of the canal and upstream past Turners Falls. A slightly worse number.

For the last 15 years the canal route for migratory fish has been studied and “improved” for fish passage. Today’s numbers are still pretty much junk.

As a final testament to the lack of progress let’s go back almost a quarter century: in 1991 the Holyoke Fish Lift passed 520,000 American shad upstream. Of those, 54,656 shad managed to emerge, alive, upstream of the Turners Falls Canal and dam, to swim toward Vermont and New Hampshire spawning site.

Thus, a quarter-century later, migrating American shad here are still “partying like its 1991.” False attraction–and false solutions, are very closely related here at Turners Falls. Study results are compromised.

Vermont, New Hampshire, sorry but as an ecosystem, we are still broken up. Just know this: “It’s not you, it’s US!”