SHadFalls2MtTom
HG&E’s Holyoke Dam with Mt. Tom in background(click to enlarge)

No “Springtime for Sturgeon in Holyoke…” Unenforced FERC License continues the woes for the Connecticut’s only federally endangered migratory fish

Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer

For endangered shortnose sturgeon on the Connecticut River this year has been the best thing and the worst thing to happen to them since 1849. In an infinitely promising development over a dozen sturgeon(13 thus far)have found their way into the retooled Holyoke Fish Lift this spring—and all were lifted 30 feet toward upstream spawning habitats at the facility. However, in a most ugly turn of events for a creature listed under the Endangered Species Act since 1967, every one of those sturgeon was subsequently dropped back downstream by humans working there. They literally gained ten yards… after 167 years. Sorry kids, wait ‘til next year–or maybe the one after that.

In 2002 Holyoke Gas and Electric was issued a FERC license under which they were required to complete construction of a fish lift providing up- and downstream access for endangered sturgeon by 2008. FERC, responsible for enforcing those license requirements as well as the tenets of the ESA, failed to enforce their requirements, leaving those improvements unconstructed, year after year. The National Marine Fisheries Service, US Fish & Wildlife Service, and MA Division of Fisheries & Wildlife sat on their hands respecting their responsibilities to act. Nor did any so-called “watchdog” group fulfill their role–to make the enforcers enforce.

This was just the latest failure in a foundering Connecticut River ecosystem steered by money and politics rather than legal obligations, science, and enforcement of the public trust. Just consider that one of the Connecticut River Watershed Council’s Board Members has worked for Holyoke Gas & Electric at their fish lift for a decade… Then consider the resounding silence on enforcement.

This year–a full 9 springs beyond their license obligations, HG&E finally completed that mandated construction at the Holyoke Fish Lift. That says a mouthful about FERC, their licensing process, private industry, and whether anyone is actually protecting the public’s fish and river.

Grimly this spring, when the most sturgeon embarking on upstream spawning runs since the building of the railroads made it to the top of those South Hadley Falls, all were captured and “released downstream” of Holyoke Dam. This bit of brilliance comes via the orders—or lack thereof, of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service. Their failure to act again denies any new genetic input into the tiny upstream population keeping this species’ flickering spark alive across the centuries up at their sole natural spawning site, the Rock Dam in Turners Falls.

Below Holyoke, generation after generation of these long-lived fish have been relegated to simply growing to maturity, repeatedly attempting to return upstream, and ultimately expiring without ever having the chance to pass on their genes. That goes back to the time of President Zachery Taylor.

In one very cruel act of fate, any shortnose sturgeon finding themselves downstream of the newly constructed Holyoke Dam in 1849, were forever barred from reaching their sole natural spawning site in the river system—that ancient Rock Dam pool in Turners Falls. What that has meant is that hundreds upon hundreds of these fabulously evolved fish–across more than a century and a half, have been relegated to the status of “reproductive nulls,” unable to spawn in their natal river system.

Pick your favorite bad actor in this failed scenario–there are a half-dozen choices.