Connecticut River Blog: dismal spawning season on this unprotected river in Massachusetts Copyright © 2021 by Karl Meyer

*American shad run lowest since 2010
* 2021 shortnose sturgeon passage will likely be the worst at Holyoke in the half decade since it’s lifts were modified to restore the population and allow spawning in critical upstream nursery habitat.

The spillway fish lift and attraction water at Holyoke Dam, June 2, 2021. Photo Copyright © 2021 by Karl Meyer

The migratory fish run on the Connecticut River is done for the season. No one should be celebrating. At Holyoke Dam fish passage was the lowest it’s been in over a decade, with just 238,000 American shad counted passing that site. Seesawing spring flows that at first saw little April rain to fill river channels then quickly ramped up as May was ushered, creating big attraction flow for shad seeking upstream access via the Holyoke lifts.

But for 10 days, beginning April 30th, no lifts ran at Holyoke. HG&E won’t run lifts with flows above 40,000 cubic feet per second, so those shad had to hold there in the currents of a quickly cooling-down river for over a week. Then, as the flows ebbed to lift-able levels they were again left stranded and burning energy for extra days—as turbidity protocols from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) won’t allow awaiting fish runs to be helped upstream because they might miss tallying a single endangered shortnose sturgeon in the murky waters. Does this make sense–even for the sturgeon, or any of this ecosystem’s migrants?

In a time of climate heating chaos, this will only happen more often. Here’s a quick sketch of that migration dead-stop from USFWS Project Leader Ken Sprankle, who works to get regular fish passage updates out to the public: “Sierra at HFL(Holyoke Fish Lift) reported operations since the 4/30 closure did not resume until 5/10, with last weekend through 5/10 impacted by very turbid conditions that did not allow lift operations (sturgeon management factor).”

The parched riverbed in front of Holyoke Dam on June 2, 2021. The usual spring peak for shad runs occurs in late May. For 10 days in early May no lifts operated… Photo Copyright © 2021 by Karl Meyer

At first this might seem understandable—this abundance of caution while holding up thousands of other fish, except that the NMFS is doing literally NOTHING to protect and document shortnose sturgeon spawning success upstream at their critical Rock Dam site, and at a default industrial spawning site below Cabot Station’s ramping outflows. The whole purpose of fish lifts is to come into compliance with the Holyoke Company v. Lyman, landmark 1872 US Supreme Court decision, guaranteeing safe upstream and downstream passage at all dams.

So why hold up ANY fish—including shortnose sturgeon, in merely turbid early season conditions, when the purpose is to make sure all migrants can access upstream spawning habitat? To me, it’s disingenuous to implement a policy that seems more about data collection and missing a sturgeon or three—delaying and holding back runs of SNS and all other fish, when you are not doing a thing to ensure that those few endangered sturgeon have habitat and flow to successfully spawn. Are there any priorities that really put fish and protection first here?

As was noted at a June 24th meeting of the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, US Geological Survey sturgeon biologist Micah Kieffer did virtually no work at the Rock Dam, the only documented natural spawning site for shortnose sturgeon in this river system that he helped confirm while working for decades with Dr. Boyd Kynard. Not a single bit of investigation or a gill or egg nets set to see about spawning success—just 250 yards from the Conte Lab where Kieffer works. It appears looking after sturgeon is important everywhere BUT the place where they need protection in order to successfully reproduce.

Micah Kieffer spent a good chunk of this season looking for ghost shortnose sturgeon and chasing fish stories far upstream from their critical habitat all the way to Bellows Falls–which proved as fruitful as finding the Loch Ness Monster. Last year, the emphasis was again chasing ghosting fish upriver that were never found. It has now been three seasons since I begged and badgered Micah to take a receiver down to Rock Dam, just a literal stone’s throw away from Conte Lab. After he took me up on that single visit he ultimately ended up documenting 48 SNS present at their ancient site–the largest spawning aggregation ever recorded there across decades of investigation. The fish were there several more days–that is until Canada-owned FirstLight Power cut off the flows—interfering with the spawning of a US federally endangered species.

De-watered critical sturgeon spawning and nursery habitat at Rock Dam, May 16, 2021. Photo Copyright © 2021 by Karl Meyer

There were likely no suitable conditions allowing SNS spawning and rearing at their Rock Dam nursery again this year. I documented that in my photos of their sheltering cobbles baking in the sizzling June sun. So, so much for anyone protecting endangered fish or habitat. When there is no watchdog, there is no enforcement.

One big reveal at the June CRASC Technical Committee meeting was much-touted news that shortnose sturgeon eggs were recovered below Holyoke Dam. Here’s that event, put down in USFWS’s Fish Passage Report from Ken Sprankle on June 30th: “Some important fisheries news was shared at the CRASC Tech when CTDEEP confirmed they had sampled Shortnose Sturgeon eggs in habitat immediately downstream of the Holyoke Dam. Eighty eggs were collected in a sampling bout using egg mats with genetic confirmation, the first documentation of spawning outside of the Rock Dam and Cabot Station shoal, Turners Falls.” But this was really nothing new. Some minor spawning activity has long been known to occur below that industrial site where sturgeon were blocked from accessing their upstream habitat for well over a century.

Chapter 2 in Life History and Behavior of Connecticut River Shortnose and Other Sturgeons, 2012, published by the World Sturgeon Conservation Society (a chapter authored by B. Kynard, M. Kieffer, B.E. Kynard, M. Burlingame, and P. Vinogradov) states that spawning activity has been documented, understood and accepted since the late 1990’s in the area below Holyoke Dam. This is the place where sturgeon had forever been trapped in a spawning cull de sac—more or less since the first dam there was completed in 1849. So, though it is some new data, it does nothing to protect the SNS’s critical upstream spawning site–or the broken river ecosystem at Turners Falls and well beyond.

More CRASC hubbub was created when it was noted that professional divers looking for yellow lamp mussels stumbled on several dozen young-of-the-year shortnose sturgeon and took videos of them at a major in-river construction site in Springfield. Ironic that those divers were not sturgeon researchers… The big excitement was the cute video of baby fish. But it seems the ‘discovery’ was more a celebration of a random technological happenstance than progress in safeguarding this season’s sturgeon spawning run and success.

Anglers in a motorized raft in fragile Rock Dam habitat May 25, 2021 Photo Copyright © 2021 by Karl Meyer

Here’s just one other twisted shortnose sturgeon kicker: those motivated, early-spring spawning-run shortnose sturgeon that get rejected at Holyoke’s lifts in that April-to-late May spawning window because of high flow or the dreaded “turbidity”, are denied a season’s spawning opportunity at their critical upstream Rock Dam site. But this July a new circumstance has been implemented that could help deny more up-running SNS a shot at successful spawning NEXT year!

For Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon there’s actually a bigger, seasonal early-SUMMER migration peak. It’s an upstream push for shortnose sturgeon attempting to find their way past Holyoke Dam. It occurs at the beginning of July and peaks soon thereafter. This is thought to be a “staging” migration for spawning-age fish–for sturgeon moving upriver to prepare to spawn the following year.

However, this year HG&E decided that maintenance on the fish lifts was overdue, and the federal agencies gave the okay for Holyoke Gas & Electric to shut down its lifts beginning July 1st–keeping them off-line for up to three months. Most sturgeon get lifted at Holyoke in July. Delaying those lift closures by just two weeks could have allowed a significant chunk of that critical SNS run to pass upstream. So much for ESA protections…

The average upstream count at Holyoke these last 5 years has been 58 shortnose sturgeon lifted. This year’s count stands at a paltry 11 fish. Thus, it’s pretty much guaranteed it will be a dismal year for passage upstream to critical habitats—Holyoke Company v. Lyman and all those endangered fish be damned!

There was one … tiny ray of hope noted at the June CRASC meeting. After two years of my reporting and intervening on behalf of the buckling banks, sink holes and grim discharge from the failing Connecticut River banks at Rock Dam, Ken Sprankle has been the sole fisheries person to take note. He actually proposed action. The Connecticut River Conservancy, with their water lab, refused to do testing there, and there was no action whatsoever from the Connecticut River Streambank Erosion Committee. On a river with a watchdog pressure would have been applied to force the National Marine Fisheries or MA DEP to take action on the failing riverbanks—which are the responsibility of FirstLight. Or, more to the point, a watchdog could have gone straight after the corporation. But no one to stepped up in that role. Because there is no watchdog here.

Rock Dam raft runners on May 29, 2019.

However, the USFWS’s Ken Spankle did get a study proposal put together that could potentially document the common-sense linkage of those crumbling banks to the Turners Falls power canal–just 150 feet away, as possible culprit and source of the bank failures and habitat pollution. Isn’t this ultimately a potential TF canal failure—the DIVERTED Connecticut River trying to return to its own riverbed less than 200 feet distant? This–on a protected river, would seem a slam dunk to document during a critical time when a new license for decades to come is in the offing. I raised these issues again in questions to the CRASC in their on-line meeting.

Rafters invade fragile Rawson Island at the Rock Dam site to lug their boat upstream for another tilt at Rock Dam’s tiny rapid, May 29, 2019.

Ken Sprankle needs just $131,000 to get the study done–at a time when a $100-million-plus foreign corporation is seeking to run our river here for decades. But he’s found he can’t find the money amongst and between all these federal and state agencies that would enable it to go forward.

You’d think all of CRASC member agencies would be falling all over themselves to chip in and get this critical information—especially since it was their forebears who ruined an easily restorable fish passage prospect at Turners Falls Dam in the mid-1970s. They did this by turning their backs on constructing a simple fish ladder there. That ruined prospects for a true Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration for hundreds of thousands of American shad and blueback herring to VT, NH, and northern MA each spring for a full half century.

BTW, in the name of further explanation of the above: the predecessor and immediate precursor of CRASC, is the fed/state fisheries cooperative that—in 1969, turned what should have been an CT River fisheries restoration project into a 43 year odyssey that put the river’s long extinct salmon strain (since 1809) at the top of Connecticut River species restoration pyramid, stumbling right past the needs of American shad and blueback herring. These same two federal agencies and four states signed off on the wretched, river-emptied, three-ladder fish passage based on salmon at this Dead Reach in Turners Falls. That has left this river system broken from mile 122 all the way upstream into southern Vermont and New Hampshire.

Their decision at Turner Falls for fish passage essentially killed a true river restoration when that ladder system was completed in 1980. VT, NH and northern MA never saw a fraction of their promised runs of American shad and herring. CRASC’s current chairperson, Andy Fisk of the Connecticut River Conservancy recently described shad as “lazy” in an interview with the Springfield Republican. I think those shad–as well as John McPhee, would agree American shad deserve a better spokesperson.

Failing Connecticut River banks at Rock Dam, June 15, 2021. Photo Copyright © 2021 by Karl Meyer

I do credit Ken Sprankle, who is extremely busy, for making that pitch and getting a study plan put together. This is a Massachusetts problem—home of the broken Connecticut River, and all those present here should find it shameful. The study would take two seasons. But time is tight for it to have any merit in terms of licensing, and this is a river bureaucracy bathed in INACTION.

In a time when the Dead Reach of the Connecticut has been left half-dead and de-watered at the fragile and failing Rock Dam reach for over half a century, you might think the first priority there would be protection and letting this critical patient have a chance to finally begin to heal. Thus it seems rather ironic and no less a bit dangerous that the Connecticut River Conservancy, Appalachian Mountain Club, American Whitewater and other groups will be doing a big PR push in mid-July to bring more joyriding traffic through the fragile Rock Dam site–which has any number of legitimate critical preservation needs and designations.

A campsite and someone living on the south end of Rawson Island opposite the Rock Dam pool on July 4, 2021. Does this critical habitat merit protection, or merely a flood of new visitors… Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer

What seems sure to absolutely create more damage and dishonor at this place are crowds jamming downstream to run the single tiny Rock Dam rapid. Many of us have witnessed the ugly traffic jams and trash sites on the Deerfield River. What will happen when crowds descend on this critical area? Does CRC have a plan to protect this habitat? Will they pay for police and search and rescue operations? Will the AMC? Or does the Town of Montague get stuck with the problem and the bill in this tiny backwater so critical to a restored ecosystem?

Perhaps the full CRASC will have something to say about this at their upcoming meeting? Oh but Andy Fisk of CRC is the CRASC’s chair, so perhaps it’s just fine. I’m sure there’s a plan. Be careful what you wish for! What I’m not certain of is whether the folks living in the little “Patch” section of Turners will be thanking CRC. Certainly the sturgeon won’t…