P1000397

Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer

According to USFWS Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle on Thursday, May 12, 2016, the Holyoke Fishway lifted more fish—specifically 54,006 American shad, than on any single day in the fish lift’s 61 years of operation. In 1955, something simple and sensible came into being on the Connecticut. It was a fish passage set-up that brought shad directly upstream in the riverbed via upstream attraction flows, and drew them into an elevator that gave them a lift directly above South Hadley Falls. Once there they could head upstream toward open spawning habitat in Vermont and New Hampshire. For three generations, Holyoke has been the single largest fish passage success site and story for American shad on the entire East Coast.

Sadly, just 36 miles upstream, those shad met with the fish passage restoration boondoggle-disaster of all-time—a three-ladder fish passage puzzle that forced all fish into a 2.7 mile long power canal at Turners Falls. Steered out of the river, and forced to negotiate a turbine lined canal in order to make it upstream beyond the Turners Falls Dam, the average annual success rate was 4 fish out of 100. To focus in a bit more on the present, what Holyoke passed yesterday was nearly the equivalent of all the shad that made it past Turners Falls Dam last year: 58,000.

The Turners Falls Power Canal remains the dead end, adjacent to the Connecticut River’s Dead Reach, where the federal/state Connecticut River migratory fisheries program has lingered in a comatose—nearly frozen state, since those ladders were built in 1980.

Given the brief nature of spring spawning conditions, it’s likely—at minimum, 25,000 of yesterday’s shad from Holyoke will be attempting that torturous labyrinth in Turners Falls by midday today (Friday). Most won’t make it past, and most will expend over a week of their precious spawning energies in the attempt. A high, though poorly studied or documented percentage, will ultimately be cut up in the turbines of the Turners Falls Power Canal.

Such is the legacy of non-intervention on behalf of the public’s fish, and the 45 year focus on creating a hatchery strain of salmon on a river system where the species had been extinct since 1809. So, again, Vermont, New Hampshire, and northern Massachusetts—sorry, but your fish are stuck down here in the miseries of a power canal and the Connecticut’s Dead Reach lacking suitable flows and fish passage.

On that note: it’s now six weeks since we had the first fish passage numbers reported from Holyoke Dam. Here at Turners Falls, we have nothing from GDF-Suez FirstLight and the Greenfield Community College students hired to tally them. The public’s fish, and the information as to their whereabouts, remains in private hands—most of it in the murky environs of a private power canal.

I’ll give you an on-the-ground update from my visits. At Rock Dam, just after midday on Tuesday, three anglers were working the site for shad. Curiously, there was a very clear “tide” line in the sand at the site—which is also the natural spawning ground for endangered shortnose sturgeon. The very recent high water mark was between 10 and 25 feet wide leading down to the water’s edge. It indicated a recent and significant change in flow there. One of the gentlemen said the drop came quickly, and had only happened “fifteen minutes ago.” Such “ramping” up and down of flows by the power company has huge implications for migrating and spawning fish. In fact, ramping at this site is one of the key reasons for spawning failure for endangered sturgeon. But, who’s watching?

Anyway, the three anglers reported that the shad were running here before the flow drop—there were several in two buckets, but they had disappeared once flow conditions changed.

I returned to Rock Dam on Wednesday, and there was just a lone guy and his dog present. His name was Shawn, and he’s lived nearby for the past year, but this was his first outing for shad. He looked to be in his early 20s.

There must’ve been plenty of shad trying to pass upstream at Rock Dam—with extra “test” flow water being released at the dam for federal relicensing studies. It wasn’t a minute after I clambered up the rocks to speak with him that he hooked his first fish. I obliged and took his photo with it. While there, I also took a minute to explain that shad don’t survive handling well, and they do best if handled very gently and while right in the water at the shore line.

I only tarried only for five more minutes–in which time Shawn landed two more fish, and four new anglers had scrambled down to join the shad run at the Rock Dam.

The latest Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon count at Holyoke Dam: 15 fish—ostensibly on spawning runs to that self-same Rock Dam spawning haven, have been lifted in the fish ladder this spring–and stopped abruptly once reaching the top floor. Every one of them has been slapped on the nose with a newspaper, told “NO!” and been dropped back in the drink below the dam. “Wait till next year..!” Hey, National Marine Fisheries Service: that is award-worthy endangered species protection through genetic deprivation! Kind of makes you miss David Letterman and his Stupid Pet Tricks…