Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission

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ONE WILDLY ILL-ADVISED RIDE

Posted by on 31 Jul 2016 | Tagged as: AMC, American Whitewater, Appalachian Mountain Club, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Connecticut River Watershed Council, CRWC, Dead Reach, Dr. Boyd Kynard, EOEEA, Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, Fish and Aquatics Study Team, GDF-Suez FirstLight, Jack Buckley, John Bullard, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, NMFS, NOAA, Regional Director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, Secretary Matthew Beaton, Society of Environmental Journalists, University of Massachusetts, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey's Conte Fish Lab, Wendi Weber

The following piece appeared in The Recorder, www.recorder.com on July 30, 2016, under the heading, “Rafting over prime sturgeon habitat unwise; State officials need to be smarter.”

Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer

ONE WILDLY ILL-ADVISED RIDE

A photo from May 25, 2016 posted on American Whitewater’s website shows Massachusetts’ Secretary of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs Matthew Beaton and his staff lumbering across a small run of Connecticut River whitewater on a large raft. The short rapid they just surfed over is at a place called Rock Dam. It drops directly into a small, crescent-shaped pool–the sole natural spawning and nursery site for the federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon.

That Turners Falls site is the last place you’d want to see the Commonwealth’s highest environmental official rafting in May. Rock Dam is critical habitat for survival of the river’s most endangered migratory fish. There’s no other place like it in the ecosystem. It’s also where the state-endangered yellow lamp mussel was last recorded in this reach. Ecological protection is key to preserving the natural heritage there for future generations.

Why Secretary Beaton was at Rock Dam on the heels of the state’s failure to protect endangered timber rattlesnakes in their remaining habitat is a puzzlement. That site is literally where the Connecticut has long been left for dead. Each spring it is alternately starved and inundated—making spawning and survival of young for shortnose sturgeon nearly impossible. Rapid pumped storage hydro fluctuations also help make successful upstream passage for wild American shad, sea lamprey, and blueback herring a 1-in-10 proposition above Turners Falls.

The EOEEA was joyriding on “test” flows returned there specifically for environmental protection. They were meant to allow wild fish to reenter critical habitats where they might successfully gather; then spawn—in a natural pool that would subsequently nurture developing young in critical weeks lasting through mid-June. Those flows were delineated by John Bullard, Regional Director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, to not drop below minimum thresholds that would drive spawning sturgeon out. NMFS mandated the higher limits through June 3rd to ensure sturgeon had sufficient time there. That meant healing water for the most impoverished 2.7 miles of habitat on the entire 410 mile Connecticut.

The shortnose is a dinosaur-age fish—a yard-long creature with a shark-like tail and toughened leathery “scutes” instead of spindly scales. It’s the second species listed under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act, and the most exhaustively studied endangered migratory fish in the river. It has long had a federal recovery plan, one now including the boatload of science documenting building blocks necessary for its survival. None call for boaters bashing over them during spawning gatherings, or beaching in shallows where developing embryos shelter. If this iconic fish is ever to begin the road back from the brink of extinction, mandated protections and uninterrupted flows are critical at Rock Dam.

Dr. Boyd Kynard, formerly of the US Fish & Wildlife Service, the USGS Conte Lab and UMass, led the 17 years of studies that documented Rock Dam as the species’ sole natural spawning site in the ecosystem. He recently stated, “As to protection of the pre-spawning, spawning, and rearing area at Rock Dam, exclusion dates for boating should be the same as the dates for water flow, 15 March to 15 June.”

A “watered” Rock Dam had long-offered sturgeons a wide choice of depths and flow levels they could selectively adjust, and readjust to, when natural surface flow or river temperatures fluctuated beyond optimal conditions for spawning. And that cobble and sand pool was ideal for dispersing tiny eggs and young. Only when flow is present does Rock Dam regain its function as an ancient species shelter, protecting early life stages in currents circulating through cobbled shoals.

In the current 5-year Federal Energy Regulatory Commission relicensing process that will govern hydro operations and ecological conditions here for decades, the Connecticut River Watershed Council and Appalachian Mountain Club are jointly advocating new access points into this delicate habitat for whitewater interests. Both have sat at FERC hearings where Rock Dam has been delineated as critical habitat. In joint AMC-CRWC testimony to FERC they’ve argued their interests in increased flows stem from aquatic habitat concerns, as well as recreation desires. Yet it was AMC that posted dates of those ecological study flows to their website, urging whitewater enthusiasts to exploit them: “Fish Study to Provide Paddling Opportunities: May – June 2016”

Secretary Beaton needs better advice.

Several expert appointees represent the Commonwealth on the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission. Jack Buckley, Director of MA Fisheries and Wildlife studied Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon at UMass. Mr. Buckley’s Anadromous Fish Project Leader Caleb Slater is also well versed on critical Rock Dam habitat. And the US Fish & Wildlife’s Region 5 Director Wendi Weber also sits at that CRASC table. Dr. Weber studied shortnose sturgeon in Georgia’s rivers. Ultimately, turning a failing Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration in Massachusetts into a success story will require government leaders embracing solid government science.

Karl Meyer is on the Fish and Aquatics Study Team for FERC hydro-relicensing studies of the Turners Falls and Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage projects. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

New CT River Stakeholder Comments Submitted to FERC

Posted by on 14 Nov 2014 | Tagged as: American shad, By Pass Reach, Cabot Station, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Dr. Boyd Kynard, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, FirstLight, GDF-Suez FirstLight, National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, shortnose sturgeon, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont

The following Stakeholder Comments/Requests on FERC Projects P-1889 and P-2485, Turners Falls Hydro and Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage were submitted on November 13, 2014 to the Secretary of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Karl Meyer, M.S. Environmental Science
85 School Street # 3
Greenfield, MA, 01301                                                              November 13, 2014

The Honorable Kimberly D. Bose, Secretary
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
88 First Street, NE
Washington, DC 20426

ILP COMMENTS–including: Disagreements/Modifications to Study/Propose New Study on Turners Falls Hydroelectric Project P- 1889, and Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project P-2485.

Dear Secretary Bose,

The Turners Falls Hydroelectric Project, P-1889, and the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, P-2485, are currently undergoing studies through the 5-year FERC relicensing process in order to continue plant operations beyond 2018. An Initial Study Report Meeting Summary has been filed by GDF-Suez FirstLight. Please accept these comments on the ISR and my proposals for modifications and new study requirements in the FERC ILP for these projects.

3.3.11 Fish Assemblage Assessment:

Further information/study needed:

FirstLight has declined to undertake any study in the By Pass Reach of the Connecticut River due to stated concerns of interference with spawning and development of embryos of federally endangered shortnose sturgeon in this area. Information from the 2009 EPA study is insufficient to quantify presence and abundance of resident and migratory fish in this reach during critical migration and spawning periods—April through June. That investigation used only 3 sites in the By Pass Reach and was not undertaken to illuminate key species requirements in the current ILP for this critical reach.

NMFS notes that FirstLight has failed to consult with stakeholders on SNS issues here. I am in agreement with USFWS that a dedicated snorkeling, SCUBA, or hookah diving assessment of this critical reach of the four-state CT River be conducted in the riverbed between the Turners Falls Dam and downstream of Cabot Station during the April-June migration and spawning window–and that it continue after FirstLight’s suggested June 30 beginning target date.

I personally snorkeled parts of this reach in May 2013 and found that identification of migrants and resident species was easily attained. An in-situ investigation of this river reach in order to assess species presence and relative abundance is necessary groundwork for making decisions that will impact the 45-year long fisheries restoration on the Connecticut.

Dr. Boyd Kynard, who FirstLight cites in their argument and who spent decades investigating shortnose sturgeon on this reach of the Connecticut told me (personal communication 11/12/2014) that this study method can be accomplished without impacting SNS from the pool below the Rock Dam upstream to the base of Turners Falls Dam.

3.3.12 Evaluate Frequency and Impact of Emergency Water Control Gate Discharge Events and Bypass Flume Events on Shortnose Sturgeon Spawning and Rearing Habitat in the Tailrace and Downstream from Cabot Station.

Further information/study needed: FirstLight has supplied a grid of information for emergency gate and by pass flume openings for the years 2005 – 2012, though 2010 is missing, and we have no information on gate openings and placement for 2011 and 2012 in some instances, other than that there were no instances when greater than 4 emergency flume gates were open.

This study information should be updated with full information for years 2011, 2012—as well as 2013 and 2014 gate opening numbers, placements and CFS information.

Study findings from Kynard and Keiffer, as well as the long-term study of SNS in this reach catalogued in Life History and Behaviour of Connecticut River Shortnose and Other Sturgeons, published by the World Sturgeon Society, 2012, specifically delineate emergency and canal flume gate spill as having a profound and deleterious impact on shortnose sturgeon spawning and early life stage development.

As was stated recently by sturgeon biologist Micah Kieffer at a fall 2014 meeting of the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, “one instance” of ramped-up or ramped-down flow from TF dam or emergency spill gate and flume operation can abruptly terminate or abort spawning attempts at Rock Dam and below Cabot Station by federally-endangered SNS for the entire year. Operations of emergency and by pass flume gates on the TF canal also can have deadly parching or burying impacts SNS embryos.

FirstLight contends that its operations of Bypass flume gates above Cabot Station are aimed at either emergency load rejection at Cabot Station, or opened to flush debris. They also contend that it is rare to have more than one flume spill gate open, though most of the numbers belie this statement–and the number of days when 4 or more gates have been open during SNS spawning window is highly significant and impactful. Opening of 4 flume gates needlessly diverts flows approaching 4,000 CFS out of the Connecticut’s By Pass Reach at TF Dam, and sends it into the canal to be needlessly flushed back into the river in a configuration that impacts migratory species and imperils annual spawning attempts of the federally-endangered CT River shortnose sturgeon.

In May 2014, I personally witnessed 3 consecutive days when two or more spill gates were open at the TF canal bypass above Cabot—all at the same time of day: 12:25 pm. These openings occurred while both Station 1 and Cabot were generating, which would appear to indicate that the spill gates had been left in this position for hours, or perhaps days, as part of flow regulation in the canal–rather than emergency or debris clearing. I have sent this information to both FERC and the federal and state fisheries agencies.

It is clear to anyone who examines the TF power canal that it is mostly a lake-like, slow-water habitat, save for the thalweg. It is rare to see debris of any significant size floating in the canal. It gets culled off at the trash racks in front of the TF Gatehouse, or at racks on the canal that dog-leg off to Station 1, or it simply settles out in the lake section of the TF Canal.

The minor amount of small, floating debris that enters the fat part of the canal is culled off by the trash rack skirt above Cabot that steers it to the east side of the canal where a bascule gate can be operated to pass anything of significant size.

The continuous openings of two or more bypass gates, up to six and seven gates open on a “non-emergency” basis on the TF canal above Cabot Station during SNS spawning and early life stage periods threatens the recovery of the Connecticut River’s only federally endangered migratory species.

As I have witnessed, multiple gates open on the canal while both Station 1 and Cabot were in operation indicates that canal flow is at times being regulated at this site, rather than at the TF Gatehouse, where excess flow could be delivered to the river in the Bypass Reach, which would nourish, rather than destroy SNS chances for successful spawning at Rock Dam and below Cabot. During SNS spawning season, mid-April – June 30th, endangered species protections dictate that all flow, save for documented, specific emergency situations, by controlled at the Head Gates of the Turners Falls Dam.

Information for years 2013 and 2014 should further be included, and a Study and study season for 2015 should be implemented that documents both the reason and instances when emergency gates were open—and any flume gates above 1 that were open to vent flow from the canal to the ByPass.

I would also like to FERC to have FirstLight include information for 2010, as the May 4 time of 8-gate emergency spill operation occurred exactly at the time frame when Northfield Mountain had burped up a massive sediment spill into its intake, and was trying to flush that pollution downstream. It would be helpful to know the position of both the Bypass flume gates and the positions of TF Dam headgates and bascule and tainter gates at that juncture—as it most definitely impacted SNS present for spawning that year. This would again offer data on whether the TF canal flows were being regulated via emergency by pass flume operation.

3.3.14 Aquatic Mapping of Turners Falls Impoundment:

Further information/study needed:

If migratory fish targeted for restoration in Northern Massachusetts and Vermont and New Hampshire are to continue to be diverted into the TF Power Canal, where few emerge upstream, then an addition to this study should be conducted: Aquatic Mapping of the Turners Falls Power Canal—as it is technically an extension of the Turners Falls Impoundment, and the public has a right to understand the habitat where their fish get privatized.

3.3.18 Impacts of the Turners Falls Canal Drawdown on Fish Migration and Aquatic Organisms

Further information/study needed:

The 2014 Canal Drawdown study was flawed as it occurred over the course of two days, due to an error in spill gate function. Since this is a study of live and dead fish and organisms, as well as the presence of dissolved oxygen, a two-day study time frame represents a flawed evaluation. A night of drying, predation, and fluctuating oxygen presence confounds the results of this work. FirstLight does an annual drawdown of the canal—has down so for decades, thus a mistake at the time of a critical habitat study should corrected by conducting a second year of study.

Further, since FERC has ordered that FL conduct a study of American shad spawning in the TF Canal, it is important to note another anomaly in their canal drawdown work. At five-year intervals the TF Canal receives a full canal muck-out during drawdown. The last one occurred in 2009. This would have been the fifth year—a time when the major muck-out would occur. It did not happen. What occurred was canal “light”, with a large snafu in the middle of the one day study, making it a two day effort. Whether FL agrees that this should have occurred in 2014 or not, a big-dig in the canal is needed regularly, as the sludge, silt and muck settles out and fills in the wide part of the basin.

This must be figured into the “impacts” of the drawdown, as it has profound implications for forcing migratory fish into this habitat, as well as the survival of resident fish and aquatics.

Please see attached photo of the canal muck-out that I took in 2009.

This is the habitat all upstream migrants are diverted into at Turner Falls

This is the habitat all upstream migrants are diverted into at Turner Falls

 

3.3.19 Evaluate the Use of an Ultrasound Array to Facilitate Upstream Movement of Migratory Fish to Turners Falls Dam by Avoiding Cabot Station Tailrace

Further information/study needed: the need for this 2016 study will be fully realized if planned studies of American shad movement and spawning in the canal confirm that these fish are experiencing significant migratory delay, and are being coralled into a migratory spawning trap by confused and insurmountable flows or pre-mature warming in artificial habitat that induces spawning in the canal—preventing fisheries restoration on the river in Northern Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.

3.3.2 Evaluate Upstream and Downstream Passage of Adult American Shad

Further information/study needed: I concur with FERC’s requirements of an intensive array of radio and telemetry receivers throughout the TF Power Canal to track migrating shad in the canal.

However, I request that FERC require FirstLight, in consultation with stakeholders, add an array temperature monitors calibrated to the radio and telemetry sites to understand whether canal delays for American shad–lingering for an average of 8 days in the TF Canal, are forcing these fish to spawn in this privatized, lake-like habitat because of warmed, shallow, and slow water conditions.

3.3.6 Impact of Project Operations on Shad Spawning, Spawning Habitat and Egg Deposition in the Area of Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls Projects

Further information/study needed:
I concur with FERC that a full spawning study of the Turners Falls Power Canal be conducted in 2015, undertaken in consultation with stakeholders. Temperature monitors should be deployed to assess impact on migratory delay and spawning on-set; and cumulative impacts of head gate and by pass use of spill gates should be factored into the study to determine the impact of silt deposits on spawning success.

3.3.9 Two-Dimensional Modeling of the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project Intake/Tailrace Channel and Connecticut River Upstream and Downstream of the Intake/Tailrace

Further information/study needed: In the Initial Study Report Study Meeting Summary for stakeholder in October 2014, a request was made that FirstLight provide vector maps with arrows and indication of directional flow around the Intake and Tailrace Channel at the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project. This is critical information for flow, erosion, and sediment displacement and needs inclusion.

This is information that has been missing on Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Impacts since at least 1974. See attached at end of document.

Thank you for this opportunity to comment on these critical relicensing issues.

Sincerely,
Karl Meyer, M.S. Environmental Science
Greenfield, MA

1974 attached file below.

 

Double Standard on the Connecticut

Posted by on 09 Jul 2013 | Tagged as: American shad, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River ecosystem, ecosystem, EPA, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federal trust fish, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC license, FirstLight, GDF-Suez FirstLight, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, New Hampshire, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, Riverkeeper, Rutland Herald, shortnose sturgeon, Times Argus, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont

The following piece appeared in the Rutland Herald and the Barre-Montpelier Times-Argus during the first week of July.

Copyright © 2013, by Karl Meyer

This is the habitat all upstream migrants are diverted into at Turner Falls

This is the habitat all upstream migrants are diverted into at Turners Falls


                               A River Double Standard

On June 28, 2013, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Director of Energy Projects Jeff C. Wright ruled against the US Fish & Wildlife Service as it sought two extra weeks to review hundreds of pages of just-released Proposed Study Plans for the relicensing of five Connecticut River hydro projects. “The request for a 15-day EOT to file comments on the licensee’s proposed study plans is denied.”  EOT is FERC-speak for “extension of time.”  Those studies will impact this four-state river for the next 20-40 years. Agencies joining that request included the National Marine Fisheries Service, MA Div. of Fish & Wildlife, The Connecticut River Watershed Council, The Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, NH Dept. of Environmental Service and The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.

One big reason for that request was the difficulties in evaluating the impacts of FirstLight’s Northfield Mountain/Turners Falls hydro operations on the entire Connecticut River ecosystem.  Beginning last fall, FERC began deviating from its standardized relicensing model when it scheduled public site visits to FirstLight sites weeks before the company released a publicly-required 500-page Pre-Application Document describing its complex pumped storage operations and machinery.

This spring FERC also supported FirstLight’s expedited-request to conduct a series of complicated river flow studies this summer—an allowance falling well outside FERC’s strict licensing timelines.  In doing so they let the company schedule three days of river visits by fed/state agencies smack in the middle of their deadline to comment on FirstLight’s 434-page Updated Proposed Study Plan.  FirstLight released that document June 28th; comments to FERC are due July 15, 2013.  Even after nine meetings with the power company and FERC, many agency representatives continued to decry the lack of critical scientific detail provided in FirstLight documents.  Those were put together by its team of five consulting firms.  Ironically, those handpicked FirstLight firms will conduct the next two years of river studies—the ones meant to protect the river.  A fox and chicken coop analogy applies.

FERC is employing a legal double standard here on the Connecticut.  If you a public agency or citizen seeking protections for the ecosystem—well, even little rules are THE RULES.  At the same time it appears corporations can continuously and sometimes massively ignore federal license requirements with impunity.

In FERC’s own words, the Commission “enforces the conditions of each license for the duration of its term, and conducts project safety and environmental inspections.”  Yet today Holyoke Gas & Electric is half a decade–and counting, in violation of its 2002 agreement to construct facilities to end the evisceration of federally endangered shortnose sturgeon and other “federal trust” fish migrating downstream at their Holyoke Dam facility.  So, why have a license at all? 

Upstream in 2010 GDF-Suez FirstLight dumped some of 45,000 cubic square yards of reservoir sludge directly into the Connecticut at Northfield Mountain over a 90-day period—the equivalent of 40 dump truck loads of muck per day, smack in the middle of fish migration season. Yet in current documents FERC states their inspections have never found FirstLight in violation of its license.

The US EPA found FirstLight in violation of the Clean Water Act in August of 2010 and ordered a massive clean-up, though the ecosystem damage was already done.  In an August 4, 2010 letter EPA sanctioned FirstLight for violating “FERC License No. 2485” and polluting the “navigable waters of the United States.”  A subsequent letter dated August 10, 2013 from FERC’s Biological Resources Branch Chief Steve Hocking to FirstLight Manager John Howard specifically referenced the EPA’s sanctions, directing him to “article 20 of your license.”  Yet there is virtually no FERC mention of that egregious violation in current relicensing documents.

That’s the standard that for-profit companies are held to here.  It rivals the Pirate Code.  Currently there is no watchdog entity on this river willing to go to the mat to protect the ecosystem.  If, like on the Hudson, there was an organization like Riverkeeper—which cites “enforcement” as one of its main responsibilities, these egregious injuries to the Connecticut would not likely stand.  Holyoke Gas & Electric would have been in court long ago for killing endangered sturgeon; and the full range of FirstLight’s lethal impacts on the Connecticut’s migratory fish when all are diverted into their turbine-filled power canal would’ve been fully investigated.  FERC’s inaction is a disgrace.

FERC Director Wright requested that questions regarding that EOT denial go to Ken Hogan at: 202-502-8434, or Kenneth.Hogan@ferc.gov. Ken has presided over the CT River relicensing hearings.  Also, you can find FirstLight’s 434-page “Updated Proposed Study Plan” at: www.northfieldrelicensing.com under Documents.  The public has until July 15, 2013 to send comments on that plan to FERC.  You do that at: www.ferc.gov/docs-filing/efiling.asp .  You must cite FirstLight’s project numbers, P-2485 and P-1889, and be sure to note that you are commenting on the “Updated Proposed Study Plan.”

Karl Meyer is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists. He lives in Greenfield, MA. Read more at: www.karlmeyerwriting.com

The Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon

Posted by on 21 Apr 2013 | Tagged as: American shad, Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Endangered Species Act, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federal trust fish, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, MA Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, National Marine Fisheries Service, shortnose sturgeon, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS

 

Copyright © 2013, by Karl Meyer

The following piece appeared earlier this April in the Rutland Herald, Vtdigger.org, The Recorder, Daily Hampshire Gazette, Shelburne Falls Independent, and on other sites.

                       The Shortnose Sturgeon and Spring’s Teachable Moment 

There’s a watershed opportunity for teachers investigating migratory fish this spring.  It’s the final season classrooms will raise Atlantic salmon eggs from a massive federal hatchery program, dismantled after 46 years.  It’s a chance to teach kids that “extinct,” in evolutionary biology terms, means exactly that: gone, forever.  It’s a profoundly simple lesson, with ramifications that can be fully grasped in a week.  I’m hoping teachers will put a living dinosaur of a fish in that salmon’s place—one still here, though teetering on the edge of extinction these 46 years: the federally endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon.  As teachable as T. Rex, this marvelously adapted, 3-4 foot fish has survived for 100 million years. 

On April 20, 1967, two federal agencies and four states signed the Cooperative Fisheries Restoration Compact for the Connecticut River.  It specifically targeted American shad and blueback herring, plus salmon–extinct here since Darwin’s birth in 1809. Within two years its emphasis had overwhelmingly veered to conjuring up a new salmon.  Still, with a little help shad and herring populations blossomed.  Combined runs reached 1,000,000 fish in the 1980s; then dropped precipitously.  Bluebacks are now rare as hen’s teeth. 

By 1975, what was then the Federal Power Commission had heard testimony that Long Island Sound had warmed to a point that might prevent cold-water salmon from entering rivers in its basin.  The climate had changed.  Still, in 1980 MA and US Fish and Wildlife Service officials insisted a series of salmon ladders be built, leading all migrants into a power canal at Turners Falls.  It failed instantly; yet skewed logic continued.  In 1983 Congress renamed the restoration The Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission.  It continues today. 

Those extinct salmon had only visited here–the southern tip of their range, for a few centuries.  Importing eggs from Canada and Maine, the program proved futile, costing millions annually.  It left the real problem for native shad, herring and endangered sturgeon—a broken Connecticut River, quietly untended.  Those species had returned here for thousands of years.  Bony-plated sturgeon had been vacuuming-up freshwater mussels eons before the present valley took shape. 

On March 11, 1967, the shortnose was listed as “endangered” in the original Endangered Species Preservation Act.  No one knew how they’d survived, or how many remained.  Shortnose were sometimes landed downstream of the 1849 Holyoke Dam; and a few were recorded upstream below Turners Falls.  By 1980, researchers discovered embryos and larvae upstream–proof shortnose spawned somewhere below Turners Falls.

Beginning in 1990, Dr. Boyd Kynard and colleagues began 17 years of continuous federal and state-funded sturgeon research.  Kynard ultimately uncovered the structure of the population, its migratory patterns, and ancient spawning grounds.  A key finding established that all shortnose head upstream to an ancient spawning pool between Greenfield and Turners Falls known as Rock Dam.  Less than 2,000 survive today.  They exist in two groups of a single genetic population, separated over 150 years ago by the raising of Holyoke Dam—which luckily had left some adults upstream with access to spawning.  Fish trapped downstream were out of luck.  

Today, the bulk of the population lives in the river below Holyoke Dam.  Known as “reproductive nulls,” some 1,500 sturgeon linger in a forced limbo created by agencies charged with protecting them.  If one manages to slip into Holyoke Gas & Electric’s fish lift for a spawning ride upstream, it is trapped and pointedly dropped downstream—per orders of the National Marine Fisheries Service and the MA Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program.  Surviving for 40 years or more, adults will repeatedly attempt to pass the dam until, genetically unfulfilled, they expire.

NMFS, MA NHESP and USFWS claim this protects sturgeon from being sliced up in HG&E’s turbines, if they return downstream after spawning.  All the while HG&E is 5 years in violation of license agreements mandating construction of safe downstream fish passage.  The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has done nothing to enforce environmental statutes that were key to Holyoke receiving a new hydro license in 1999.

Today, some 300 sturgeon cling to life upstream of Holyoke.  An unknown number are adults.  Some attempt to spawn near Rock Dam each spring (females spawn once every 5 yrs).   According to Kynard et al, success is far from guaranteed.  Unregulated flows emanating from FirstLight’s Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls dam and canal imperil that endangered process.  Annually, spawning fails 79% of the time at Rock Dam; and 29% of the time at a default site just downstream.  Fertilized embryos are also killed when waffling flows flush them out, or leave them parching on river banks.  Many years, no young are produced.

Laws ignored; habitats decimated, river groups mum: it’s a blueprint for extinction.  Yet, amazingly, our dinosaurs persist. It’s this spring’s teachable moment.  Anyone up to a challenge? 

Karl Meyer’s Wild Animals of North America won a 2008 Teachers Choice Award for Children’s Books.  He lives in Greenfield, MA.

The Last, BEST Hope for the CT River: GET INVOLVED!

Posted by on 06 Nov 2012 | Tagged as: Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River ecosystem, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, National Marine Fisheries Service, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Service’s Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Lab, US Geological Survey, USFWS

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission re-licensing process for GFD_Suez FirstLight Power’s Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls Power Canal Projects on the CT River officially began with FirstLight’s Notice of Intent to file for two new operating licenses to use our river to make electricity for the next four decades.  Over the next four months–until the end of February 2013, officials from the US Fish & Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, and directors of fish & wildlife programs will be meeting to decide the critical studies needed to restore and safeguard the Connecticut River through the year 2058.

FirstLight is anxious to see that the main studies guiding the “restoration” of migratory fish is based on moving migratory fish upstream through their power canal, NOT upstream through the ACTUAL Connecticut River, sitting directly adjacent to their canal.  The Power Canal route has proven a disaster, patently deadly for any river restoration.  After 32 years, and study after study, “improvements” enable ONE fish in TEN, to emerge alive, upstream of the Turners Falls Power Canal passage.  It is a death sentence for any true restoration of the river.

To learn more, tune into a broadcast of Greenfield Community Television’s LOCAL BIAS, with host Drew Hutchinson.  In the program I attempt to explain how complexity is clouding the thinking and priorities of our wildlife officials, and h0w simply requiring the Connecticut River to be allowed to flow through its own bed at critical times is the key to having a working ecosystem for the next three generations to come.

Here’s how you can tune in:

Episode (# 127) will be cablecast Wednesday 5:30pm, and Thursday and Saturday 9pm starting November 7th for two weeks. It will also be available via video on demand at gctv.org sometime next week.

The Connecticut River for the next Half-Century: a federal hydro relicensing process already leaving the public behind.

Posted by on 24 Sep 2012 | Tagged as: Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River ecosystem, Conte, CRASC, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federal trust fish, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC license, FirstLight, National Marine Fisheries Service, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Service’s Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Lab, US Geological Survey

Copyright © 2012 by Karl Meyer.  All rights reserved.

The Connecticut River for the next Half-Century: a federal hydro relicensing process already leaving the public behind.

The only public site visits scheduled in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) relicensing process for five giant hydro-power facilities and dams operating on the Connecticut River are taking place in less than two weeks.  In Massachusetts few members of the public appear to have been apprized of the opportunity to attend federally-mandated public site tours to GDF-Suez-FirstLight’s Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station and their Turners Falls Dam and Canal generating facilities.  A few news items appeared in the local media about the visits, published less than 48 hours before the deadline to sign up for tours.

Thus, few members of the public registered in time to tour the complex of facilities GDF-Suez operates on a seven-mile long stretch of the Connecticut that profoundly hamper upstream migratory fish runs, and directly impact the annual spawning success of the federally endangered Shortnose sturgeon. The shortnose sturgeon’s Connecticut River spawning grounds are on a short stretch riverbed a mile below the Turners Falls Dam, adjacent to the US Geological Survey’s Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center.

The next chance for the public to visit and judge the impacts these facilities have on New England’s Great River may not come around again for two generations. These site visits are the critical beginnings to a six-year process that will dictate whether or not the Connecticut River is a restored and functioning ecosystem through at least the year 2058.  FERC licenses are issued to corporations for up to 40 years. The Connecticut belongs to the public, but licenses allow the leasing of a certain amount of flow to corporations to produce power, while dictating conditions that will protect the public’s interest in a restored and functioning ecosystem–including migratory and resident fish, and other riverine species and critical habitats.

Today, the Connecticut River ecosystem restoration fails profoundly at approximately river-mile 120, where most of the river’s flow and its upstream migratory fish have been shunted out of the riverbed and into the Turners Falls Power Canal.  Most migrants never emerge upstream of the punishing currents, upwellings, slicing turbines and silt-laden habitats found in the power canal.  The Connecticut River above the Northfield Mountain/Turners Falls hydro facilities has never been restored to anything resembling a functioning ecosystem.

In 1975 hearings before the Federal Power Commission (today’s FERC) that established the fish passage facilities that have failed for decades at Turners Falls, Colton Bridges, then Deputy Director of Massachusetts Fisheries and Wildlife, appeared as a member of the federal/state Connecticut River Fishery Program (established in 1967, and today known as the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission).  Bridges was asked, on the record, about the specific goals of the program:

“The program was designed to establish a run of a million American shad at the river’s mouth and extend their range to historic spawning and nursery grounds near Bellows Falls, Vermont.”

Thirty-seven years later, after Commissioners from four New England States and federally fisheries directors from what is today’s US Fish and Wildlife chose a complex series of Pacific salmon-based fish ladders and the Turners Falls Power Canal as the primary upstream route for migratory fish on the Connecticut, nothing resembling restored fish runs or an ocean-connected ecosystem exists above Turners Falls.

Simply put, those officials chose wrong—and the hangover has impacted this river for decades.

They get just one chance to do it right this time; for all of us.  But again, their silent stance seems to exclude bringing the public in on the process.  No messages or notices on state and federal public websites were posted about site tours and input.  Little or nothing on non-profit, river group sites, either. Once again it’s: “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of this.”  That’s a pretty dangerous position, considering the track record.  State and federal agencies have failed to demand operational changes that should have provided protection of federal-trust American shad, and federally endangered Shortnose sturgeon all these decades.  They have simply kept mum about their little mistake at Turners Falls back in 1975.  It has served no one well, save the power companies.

Dr. Boyd Kynard, an expert on migratory fish behavior and fish passage at large dams who helped established the federal Conte Fish Lab under the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1990, led studies of the federally endangered Shortnose sturgeon in the Connecticut River at Turners Falls for 17 years.  It’s the fish fisheries officials don’t talk about in public.  Dr. Kynard spent over a decade compiling his work and that of nearly a dozen co-authoring scientists into a book entitled Life History and Behavior of Connecticut River Shortnose and Other Sturgeons, published by the World Sturgeon Conservation Society in Germany last February.  Intervention by the US Geological Survey delayed distribution of the book in the US for several months, and it continues to be difficult to purchase.

However, Dr. Kynard, with permission from the World Sturgeon Conservation Society, released a chapter of the book to me for citation while it was “in-press” back in August of 2011.  Since so few members of the public will get a chance to visit these sites, and since the book is currently only easily available through its chief author, Boyd Kynard, (contact Dr. Boyd Kynard at BK Riverfish, LLC, kynard@eco.umass.edu), I’m printing the abstract from the chapter on spawning and the effects of power company regulation of downstream flows at Turners Falls Dam.  The chapter’s science was done at the federal Conte Lab using funds from UMass, along with federal funding from US Fish & Wildlife Service and USGS.  Kynard’s co-author on this chapter is Micah Keiffer.  Note that the “Rock Dam” is not a conventional dam, but an ancient stone formation in the riverbed, creating a natural spawning pool that Shortnose sturgeon have used for centuries.

Abstract: “During 17 years, we studied the spring spawning migration and spawning of adult Shortnose Sturgeon Acipenser brevirostrum in the Connecticut River, Massachusetts.  Increasing day length (13.4−14.2 h), not increasing temperature (7.0–9.7°C) or river flow during 13 April–2 May likely triggered pre-and non-spawning adults to leave wintering areas and migrate.  Females initiated pre-spawning migration later than males, during lower flows and higher water temperatures, a strategy that conserved energy after wintering.  The pre-spawning migration failed one year (2002), an event probably related to reduced energetic resources of wintering fish caused by high temperatures and low flows during the previous summer foraging and wintering periods.  Pre-spawning adults homed each year to the same 1.4-kilometer-long spawning reach at Montague, Massachusetts, where river current likely determined where spawning occurred: either the Cabot Hydroelectric Station tailrace (area, 2.7 ha) or the Rock Dam, a natural mainstem fast run (area, 0.4 ha).  Spawning occurred when three spawning suitability windows were simultaneously open: (1) day length = 13.9−14.9 h (27 April–22 May), (2) mean daily water temperature = 6.5–15.9°C, and (3) mean daily river discharge = 121–901 m3s-1.  Annual spawning periods were short (3–17 d), which may be typical when only a few females are present.  Spawning periodicity was 1–5 years (mean 1.4 years) for males and 2−10 years (mean 4.5 years) for females.  Peaking operations at Cabot Station did not prevent females from spawning in the tailrace, but likely displaced and stranded early life stages.  During 14 years, spawning at Cabot Station succeeded 10 years and failed 4 years (28.6% failure); while spawning at Rock Dam succeeded 3 years and failed 11 years (78.6% failure).  Spawning failures at Rock Dam were due to river regulation.  Females spawned in a wide range of water velocities (0.2−1.3 m/s); however, the flow regimes created by river regulation and peaking operations exceeded even their broad adaptation for acceptable water velocities.”

* It should also be noted here that not a single representative from the National Marine Fisheries Service the agency federally mandated by Congress to protect the shortnose sturgeon, signed up to tour FirstLight’s power facilities.

 

Its about the River, AND the Fish…

Posted by on 19 Jan 2012 | Tagged as: American shad, Atlantic salmon, Bellows Falls Fishway, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River ecosystem, Conte, CRASC, Dead Reach, ecosystem, federal trust fish, FirstLight, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, river steward, salmon, Salmon eggs, salmon hatchery, sea lamprey, shad, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Geological Service’s Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Lab, Vermont, Vernon Dam Fishway, Walpole

© Copyright 2012 by Karl Meyer   All Rights Reserved

The following Opinion piece appeared in publications and media sites in CT, MA, VT, and NH.  It is a reply to writing in support of the status quo on the Connecticut River fisheries restoration, emphasizing extinct salmon.  The writer, Mr. Deen, is a river steward, flyfishing guide, and VT representative.  This piece appeared mainly in a shorter, Letter to the Editor format.  Here it appears in an expanded OpEd, this version from The Vermont Digger.  Find them at www.vtdigger.org. 

                        It’s about the river, AND the fish…

The Connecticut River Watershed Council’s Vermont River Steward David Dean asks the public not to judge the 45 year-old Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission’s fisheries restoration by numbers of returning fish, while 74 salmon reached the CT’s first dam at Holyoke, MA in 2011.  As someone advocating rededicating funds away from an extinct salmon strain, I found the piece well-intentioned but short on fact.

After decades and hundreds of millions spent on the science, genetics, and hatcheries dedicated to a centuries-extinct, cold-water salmon on the southern-most river it ever briefly colonized, the public has a right to a return on investment in this time of demonstrated climate warming.  I agree that that return should be an improving river ecosystem.  Useless dams should be eliminated; hydro operations damaging rivers and skirting regulations protecting fish should be prosecuted.

But Mr. Deen cites as salmon-program benefits “growing populations of other anadromous fish,” specifically shad and lamprey.  Science is, and should be, about measurable results.  Yet in results coming back from a hatchery program dedicated to elite angling, salmon represented less than three-hundredths of 1% of this year’s fish returns, while devouring 90% of funding for all migrants.  As to the 244,000 American shad and 19,000 sea lamprey he touted as reaching Holyoke–that’s a 66% plunge from the 720,000 shad counted there two decades back; and 19,000 lamprey?—only 4 years have seen lower numbers since tallies began.  Personally, I’d note 138 blueback herring–a might shy of the 410,000 Holyoke counted in 1992.

It is time for an ecosystem restoration.  Turn this upside-down species pyramid back on its base–rededicate funds to bedrock species of this ecosystem.  River groups could contribute greatly by opening public discussion about desperate river conditions just below Turners Falls, the second dam on the CT.  Migratory fish there are funneled into an ecosystem death trap: Turners Falls power canal.  Meanwhile the adjacent Connecticut is strangled in its own bed by pummeling and parching flows–deeply impacted by pumping operations at Northfield Mountain just upstream.

Today, the only shad regularly reaching VT/NH waters are a few hundred sometimes trucked there from Holyoke.  However, in 2010 Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station choked on its own silt.  Its mile-long intake tunnel and turbines became massively clogged.  From May 1st to November, it did not add a single watt of energy to the grid.  Few noticed.  There was no energy interruption—even while Vermont Yankee was down for refueling in early May.

Yet something amazing happened: shad numbers passing Turners Falls skyrocketed over 600% to levels not seen in 15 years.  Without Northfield pumping–and with river levels kept steady and artificially high at TF dam as FirstLight Power tried to conceal a 65,000 ton mountain of silt it was dumping in the river, the miserable conditions in the riverbed below the dam actually improved.  With May and June rains arriving, artificially brimming river levels behind the dam meant more steady flows were released directly downstream to the oft-parched and pummeled “dead reach” of river below the falls.  Shad got their ancient migration route back—swimming upriver, rather than being deflected into the punishing currents and turbines of the Turners Falls power canal.

Even with suspect tallies and FirstLight’s counting equipment inoperable for parts of 37 days, 16,768 shad were counted passing toward VT–the most since 1995.  Vermont salmon expert Jay McMenemy expressed surprise when all eight free-swimming salmon also used the ancient riverbed to shoot directly upstream to the ladder at the dam.  Since 1967 over 11 million shad have passed Holyoke.  All but a whisper of them ever made it to the Green Mountain State, while they once spawned to Bellows Falls and Walpole, NH.  Ironically, federal studies show 17,000 shad is a shadow of the run that should be passing: at least half of all shad passing Holyoke eventually attempt to pass Turners Falls–95% get deflected into the meat-grinder of currents and turbines of the Turners Falls power canal, never to emerge.

The main reason for no Vermont fish runs: no regulated flows in the riverbed; no easy-access fish lift built upstream at TF dam.   The ecosystem dies in the 2 miles of river directly below Turners Falls—due in large part to floodgate manipulations to accommodating Northfield’s pumping.  There is no working fish passage at Turners Falls.  It is legally required and should have been in place over a decade back.

Northfield Mountain is a reserve energy source that can produce a large amount of energy, 1,000 megawatts, in a very short time.  But it can only run for 10 hours, and then its reservoir is depleted.  It is dead in the water.  Owners must then go out on the market and buy electricity to divert the Connecticut’s flows uphill to its 5.6 billion gallon reservoir again.  Then, they sell our river back to us as expensive energy.  Northfield’s efficiency is just 67%.  Add in its profound river impacts and you have to question: Why is no one talking publicly about this ecosystem-killing elephant in the room?

Karl Meyer is an environmental journalist and award-winning non-fiction children’s author who writes frequently about Connecticut River issues from along its shores at Greenfield, MA.

THE “BIG GAME” PROSECUTION of RYAN MCCULLOUGH: another red herring in a failing Connecticut River restoration

Posted by on 19 Jan 2012 | Tagged as: American shad, Atlantic salmon, Bellows Falls Fishway, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River ecosystem, Conte, CRASC, Dead Reach, didymo, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Endangered Species Act, ESA, federal trust fish, FERC license, FirstLight, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, Pioneer Valley News, Rock Dam, salmon, salmon hatchery, shad, shortnose sturgeon, The Pioneer, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Service’s Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Lab, USFWS, Walpole

© Copyright 2012 by Karl Meyer    All Rights Reserved

The “big game” prosecution of Ryan McCulough: another red herring in a failing Connecticut River restoration

(NOTE: the following article first appeared in The Pioneer, January 5, 2012, available now on free newsstands from Springfield, MA to Bellows Falls, VT.   Find it online at: www.pioneervalleynews.com )

Legend has it a reporter once asked career criminal Willy Sutton, aka Slick Willie, to explain his long history of thefts, “Willy, why do you rob banks?”  Sutton, a master of disguise, purportedly answered in terms as honest as a crisp January day: “Because that’s where the money is.”

At criminal proceedings in a jtrial scheduled for January 12, 2012 in State Superior Court at Windsor, VT, accused Atlantic salmon poacher Ryan McCullough will likely be asked why he was fishing downstream of the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s White River National Fish Hatchery(WRNFH) last July 25th.  With the Connecticut River and a failed migratory fish restoration looming as backdrop, I’m hoping McCullough replies with a similar bit of direct irony: “Because that’s where they make the fish.”

Last August a hatchery-bred Atlantic salmon created in controlled environs at the White River hatchery in Bethel, VT, was traced via a receiver to a radio-tag blipping away in the freezer of a nearby home.  That tag, hidden inside a 31-inch, 9-1/2 lb. salmon, landed the 22 year-old fisherman in hot water.  McCullough, an aspiring fishing guide, contended he mistook the fish for a huge brown trout.  He’s now charged with taking a “big game species” under Vermont fish and wildlife statutes.  Conviction carries a $1,500 fine and a possible 3-year suspension of his hunting and fishing license.

That big game fish McCullough caught was not even remotely connected to a healthy river system.  It was homing back from the sea to an artificial environment only a factory fish would recognize as habitat—the climate-controlled conduits of WRNFH.  That aqua-culture facility is part of a 19th century industrial idea: factory production substituted for a working ecosystem under the 44-year old banner of the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRACS)’s Connecticut River migratory fish “restoration.”

The fly-fishing community was abuzz about this incident.  Yet the only “wild” thing about that salmon was its public perception.  It had been conceived at the hands of humans.  The egg and milt (sperm) that spawned it had been matched up by computer models, those genetic fluids were mingled together in plastic tubs, swirled by human hands.  In that immaculately-sterile conception a tiny fish was produced—one of ten million “fry” that were later flushed into Connecticut River tributaries to swim to the ocean.  Every tiny fish produced and released that year along with the one McCullough was to catch two years later was at least two generations removed from any salmon that had ever tasted the salt sea.

In the months just prior to McCullough’s apprehension fisheries personnel at the Holyoke, MA, fish lift on the Connecticut had intercepted the entire spring salmon “run” from the decades-old, half-billion-dollar-plus effort—still politely referred to as a “restoration.”  They trapped all 107 returning fish.  Of those, all but nine were put in trucks and rushed to sterile, hatchery-lab settings where they were weighed, genetically profiled, vaccinated, quarantined, had their fins clipped, and tissue samples taken.  All would ultimately be needed as breeding “stock” for next years dump of millions of “state-farmed” salmon babies into Connecticut River tributaries.

However, ensuing developments at White River will make it interesting to see if Vermont Fish & Wildlife continues in its attempt to make an example of Ryan McCullough.  Tragically and ironically, WRNFH was all but washed away by Tropical Storm Irene just weeks after he was brought up on poaching charges.  A storm surge of White River water entered pools, conduits, wells and buildings throughout the facility—overwhelming well-water fed fish ponds and carrying in the seeds of didymo, aka Rock Snot.  Didymo is an easily-spread invasive alga that was discovered upstream of the hatchery 3 years back.  It smothers river bottom habitats.

Suddenly, tiny salmon fry and over a half-million surviving hatchery fish had become potential carriers of a Rock Snot plague–if they were to be spread in the annual truck-and-dispersal system into Connecticut tributaries and the lakes and streams of four New England states.  Annual production costs alone for five salmon hatcheries around New England can reach a million bucks per facility.  Mistakes and the necessity for new “bio-security” protocols and upgrades repeatedly send costs skyrocketing.  And, after 44 years of trying to create a new strain of cold-loving salmon on the southern-most river it ever colonized, the number of hybrid salmon returning to a warming Connecticut River averages between 40 -100 fish.

A quick damage estimate by USFWS for White River was put at between $10 – 14 million.  But the hatchery would have to be “depopulated;” then sterilized, before any rebuilding could start.  They’d likely have to kill and landfill half a million fish, including hatchery trout and salmon.  Desperate to put a good spin on this second million-dollar disaster at WRNFH in 3 years, USFWS and CRASC scrambled to find a feel-good PR angle.

Ultimately they “reached out” to federally-recognized Native American tribes, inquiring if they would like a “gift” of expensive hatchery salmon—some 8,000 of the table-sized fish were still swimming on site.  Some tribes immediately accepted.  CRASC convened quickly to take a unanimous vote legalizing the “donation.”  They then began killing, gutted and icing the largest salmon, happy to pass them along to indigenous peoples of the Northeast.  Within hours of that vote, CRASC’s feel-good ‘fish-to-the-Indians’ story hit the media via the Associated Press.

Ironically, the 600 largest of those choice “gift” salmon were near replicas–in size and weight (30 inches, 9 lbs), to the fish Ryan McCullough sits accused of poaching months earlier.  But at this point it appears the angler can mount a pretty decent defense.  Back in July he’d actually let a local paper photograph him holding his prize “brown trout” prior to placing it in that freezer.  Though the photo showed a fish appearing to have the slightly hooked lower jaw of a “cock” salmon–that PR move would have been a hugely naïve bit of bravado, something a knowing, and aspiring, fishing guide would never do.  His supporters, including fish and game people, contend he simply may have made a rookie mistake.

Curiously, if he’d purchased a MA fishing license and landed a tagged salmon there, the Bay State penalty would have been akin to a parking ticket: $50 – $100.  Why??  MA doesn’t have a hard classification for exactly what these hybrid fish are.  They aren’t considered a native Connecticut River migratory fish in MA, where the Connecticut’s minor salmon strain has also been extinct for over 200 years.  This is also likely the reason there isn’t a federal prosecution looming for McCullough.  Connecticut River Atlantic salmon are officially classified as “extirpated” by the US Fish & Wildlife Service.  To prosecute him they’d have to hold a monkey trial with a hybrid fish at its center, a spectacle Darwin himself would shake his head at. Considering the fish give-away status at the WRNFH–and the endlessly-failed Connecticut River salmon restoration program, Vermont is going to look foolish if they don’t let young Ryan McCullough off the hook.

But the Green Mountain State has long had a blind spot about all other native migratory fish on the Connecticut save for extinct salmon.  Fisheries officials there long-ago staked Vermont’s idea of pristine environments and elite sport fishing on the creation of a new salmon strain to replace one not seen since 1809.  Decades later, Vermont anglers, as well as those just across the river in New Hampshire, are left without a nifty shad run anglers could be tapping into all the way to Bellows Falls and Walpole.  They get no fish at all, save spawned-out hatchery lunkers dumped into local lakes as salmon program PR (*USFWS Region 5 put out an official advisory on consuming hatchery salmon way back in 2004).  Meanwhile, their rivers and tributaries face the ongoing specter of new and potentially-catastrophic emerging fish diseases being spread through hatchery operations in a time of warming climates.

The full ironies of last summer’s comedy of errors become even more apparent looking just south of the Vermont/New Hampshire border to the federal Conte Fish Lab where CRASC meetings are held beside the dead stretch of Connecticut River in Turners Falls, MA.  CRASC and USFWS are responsible for all the “federal trust” migratory fish on the Connecticut including blueback herring, American shad, and federally endangered shortnose sturgeon.  Yet there, state and federal fish guardians continue to ignore the river’s most-critical 2-1/2 mile chasm—one that’s been key to migratory fish restoration to Vermont and New Hampshire for decades.

Thirty years ago VT and NH should’ve begun crying foul due to the lack of accommodating flows and a fish elevator (still yet to be built) directly upstream at Turners Falls dam.  Implementing those proven remedies–required under federal and state license regulations for migratory fish to reach upstream waters, would long ago have revived those “dead reach” flows during spawning season—concurrently providing easy upstream passage for very fishable runs of American shad all the way to Walpole, NH and Bellows Falls, VT.  Today, the Connecticut’s federal trust run of American shad expires in the dead reach below Turners Falls dam, deflected into the treacherous environs of a power canal.  For decades now VT and NH anglers have been denied fishing for what would’ve amounted to millions of 3 – 6 lb. shad, a tasty catch that makes for excellent fishing in anyone’s book.

Today, funded in part by FirstLight-GDF-Suez, (the global power company manipulating pulses sent downriver from their Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, and flows diverted into their Turners Falls Power Canal) USFWS, CRASC, and federal Conte lab researchers continue ignoring the devastation to migrating and spawning river fish from company flow regimes.  In deference to FirstLight’s preferences, annual agency studies continue emphasizing sending migrating fish into miserable habitats, cross currents, and slicing turbines of the Turners Falls Power Canal.  Meanwhile, virtually next door to the federal Conte Fish Lab, federal trust American shad runs and whole season’s production of eggs and young from the river’s only spawning population of federally-endangered shortnose whither in a dying reach of river annually.

Perhaps most shameful of all is that there is virtually no federal enforcement or prosecution for the year-in, year-out, damage to those federally endangered sturgeon.  US Endangered Species Act protections are wholly ignored for this population, which measures only in the hundreds.  The beleaguered two-mile reach behind the federal Conte Lab has served as their historic mating ground for untold centuries.

Annually, successful shortnose sturgeon spawning in this reach occurs less than half of the time.  Much of the loss is preventable, and could be stemmed in large part by enforcing environmental statutes that would quell the punishing effects of the water pulses and parching trickles sent downstream by Northfield Mountain/Turners Falls dam operators toward an ancient, low escarpment in the river known as the Rock Dam.  Shortnose sturgeon have spawned at this site since before well before Columbus sailed.

More losses arise from the company’s spawning-season water diversions into—and out of, the Turner Falls Power Canal.  That flow can be, alternately, either so strong, or so halting, that it can stop an entire season’s worth of sturgeon mating dead in its tracks.  Or, those same vacillating pulses will either wash downstream, or strand, a season’s worth of tiny sturgeon embryos–leaving them to decay beneath the silt, or desiccate on barren riverbanks.  Either way, a year’s worth of endangered shortnose sturgeon production regularly gets sideswiped to oblivion.

The penalty to an individual for catching, killing or interfering with a federally endangered shortnose sturgeon is up to a year in jail, and a $100,000 dollar fine per instance.  That penalty is increased to $200,000 for corporations, which seems a bit out of balance.  Right at Turners Falls–adjacent to the US Geological Service’s Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Lab and just downstream from the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s Great Falls Discovery Center, there is documented evidence of annual damage to the Connecticut River’s only spawning population of endangered shortnose sturgeon, yet here no one is being dragged into court…

At the November 10, 2011 CRASC meeting in Turners Falls, USFWS’s Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle announced the outlines and some preliminary observations from a multi-year American shad migration study he’s begun.  With assistance, Sprankle caught and radio-tagged over a hundred shad, some at the mouth of the Connecticut, some at the Holyoke fish lift.  This allowed him to track their movements via receivers placed along the river as they made their upstream runs.  Partly funded by FirstLight Power, federal Conte Lab researcher Dr. Ted Castro-Santos partnered on the Sprankle study.  Castro-Santos was the point person responsible for siting receivers along the river from downstream of the Turners Falls Power Canal up to the Vernon dam in Vermont.

Sprankle termed the undertaking a “whole river study for shad,” one that would help in understanding how they use the river in migration.  He further noted that Dr. Castro-Santos had placed radio receivers throughout FirstLight’s Turners Falls Power Canal.  At that point I asked how many receivers had been set up in the “actual river bed”—referring to the Connecticut’s embattled, 2-mile “dead reach” just beyond Conte Labs west windows.  As expected, he answered that none were in place to monitor that section or river.  It’s remains the river’s missing link.

Thus, from the foot of the Turners Falls canal to the base of Turners Falls dam, Sprankle and Castro-Santos will have no data on shad movement in a critical river reach.  I pointed out to Sprankle that the undertaking could not then be considered a bona fide “whole river study for shad.”  This is decidedly a broken river study—missing the miles of streambed where a river’s ocean-connected ecosystem dies.  I further observed that the section Castro-Santos has chosen to monitor promotes a power “canal restoration”—a configuration that has failed for the past 40 years, and one that let’s the power company wholly off the hook in terms of sustainable flows for federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon and working, direct, upstream fish passage for federal trust American shad.

Ryan McCullough is scheduled to appear on Thursday, January 12, 2011, in Room 1 of Vermont Superior Court in Windsor at 9:00 a.m.  He is pleading not guilty to the charge of knowingly taking a “big game species” and has chosen to be tried by jury, represented by attorny Jordanna Levine.

Mirror to the Past: a legacy of failure at Turners Falls

Posted by on 21 Dec 2011 | Tagged as: American shad, Anne Makepeace, Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, Captain William Turner, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, CRASC, Daily Hampshire Gazette, Dead Reach, didymo, federal trust fish, Jessie Little Doe, Narragansett, Pilgrims, Rock Dam, Rock Snot, Rutland Herald, shortnose sturgeon, The Greenfield Recorder, Times Argus, Turners Falls dam, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Wampanoag, William Pynchon

The following essay appeared on the November OpEd pages of the Rutland Herald, Times Argus, Greenfield Recorder, and Daily Hampshire Gazette.

December 21, 2011

Copyright © 2011 by Karl Meyer     All Rights Reserved

A Mirror to the Past: the legacy of failure at Turners Falls

Some history is worth repeating.  In Deerfield, MA on November 9th I listened as independent filmmaker Anne Makepeace introduced, “We Still Live Here” in a church at a place once called Pocumtuck.  There in 1638, Springfield’s William Pynchon bargained with the Pocumtuck for 500 dirt-cheap bushels of corn—selling it at inflated prices to Connecticut colonists who’d run out of food while warring against the Pequot.  The Pequot massacre at Fort Mystic, as well as Pynchon’s low-ball trading, established a posture toward Native Americans that overran a continent.

But Ms. Makepeace’s documentary displayed a clear sensitivity in depicting the 18-year odyssey of a Wampanoag woman, Jessie Little Doe.  Through vision and genius, a seemingly-everyday working mom has begun reviving the spoken Wampanoag language, last heard over a century ago.  At Mashpee and Gay Head, MA, a bedrock tongue of indigenous North America is again being taught and spoken, where starving Pilgrims first encountered it.

The next evening the Associated Press published a story: ‘Rock Snot’ Fear Means Salmon For Native Tribes.  It told how the disaster of an invasive alga picked up by thousands of hatchery salmon at the US Fish &Wildlife Service’s flooded White River National Fish Hatchery during Tropical Storm Irene was turning into a curious windfall for Native Americans.  The USFWS and Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC) had just unanimously voted to give free fish to the Indians.

The headline was unfortunate, sounding like the tribes were being used.  CRASC’s half-billion-dollar CT River salmon restoration had had another dismal year—returning just 106 fish.  The Irene flood was the second million-dollar disaster befalling the White River VT hatchery in 4 years.  Giving a tiny portion of the facility’s half-million surviving fish might play better in the media than advertising a likely fate for most—killing and burying the lot to avoid releasing rock-snot-infested salmon and trout to New England rivers and Great Lakes habitats.

Filed from Montpelier, VT, the story sketched that morning’s CRASC meeting at Turners Falls, MA, once known as Peskeomscut, just 7 miles from Pocumtuck.  It missed some substance an attending reporter might’ve caught–that CRASC Chair Bill Hyatt had become chairman that day; that it was his first meeting ever.  Hyatt’s quotes hit the media so quickly—hours after the meeting, it might appear someone had been spoon fed a cheery “salmon-for-the-Indians” pre-Thanksgiving tale.  But an editor made a good call on its content: rock-snot-means-gift-to-tribes.

On-the-ground reporting might also have uncovered that—just beyond the federal Conte Lab where CRASC meets, sits two miles of beleaguered Connecticut River identified on colonial maps as Peskeomscut.  It’s a delicate place to fashion an ‘Indian-fish-rescue’ story from.  Here on May 19, 1676, Captain William Turner and Hadley-based soldiers surprise-attacked hundreds of sleeping Wampanoags, Narragansetts, Pocumtucks and Nipmucks–largely women, children, and elders. They’d come to rest, plant, and dry-harvest massive blooms of migrating shad, herring, and a knot of spawning shortnose sturgeon.  If time allowed, they’d tap a small, later-arriving salmon run.

Time did not.  This was King Phillips War, their fight for sovereign lands.  Dawn brought the Turners Falls massacre.  Just past Conte Lab’s windows warriors encamped at the ancient fishing-island today called Rock Dam counterattacked–routing and killing 37, including Captain Turner.

This day, 335 years later, it was noted that half the hatchery’s 8,000, two-to-four year old salmon, the small ones, could likely be released to already didymo-infected rivers.  Regulations would prevent any sale.  Still, all remaining baby salmon, plus 500,000 didymo-infected lake trout still faced a quick landfill burial before the hatchery could be flushed with chlorine.  They could not be released for anglers—and way back in 2004 the USFWS Region 5 actually issued a consumer advisory on eating hatchery salmon.  Those remaining 4,000 larger salmon, some to 9-1/2 lbs., might also have had to be killed and land-filled–had they not found someone to take them…

CRASC, charged with protecting all of the river’s migratory fish species, unanimously voted to donate those big fish—killed, gutted and iced, to any federally tribe who’d take them.  It might be a PR coup for the disastrous restoration, buffering perceptions away from the millions lost producing ten dozen salmon returns annually.  As with the Pilgrims, Pynchon and William Turner, the Indians had not come calling: USFWS had.  Region 5’s William Archambault noted, “We reached out to the federal tribes.” Ironically, that included the Wampanoag and Narragansett.

I hope all fully understood that in accepting fish they did USFWS a huge favor.  They should also know the embattled 2-mile reach of river they know as Peskeomscut remains today a desolate place.  There, USFWS and CRASC have abandoned spawning federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon and beleaguered American shad to the excesses of a for-profit power company.  Certainly they know that Jessie Little Doe was awarded a MacArthur genius grant in 2010.  “We Still Live Here” premiered nationwide on November 17th, funded in part by WGBY in Springfield, MA.

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DESPERATE MEASURES : salmon hatchery program a grave threat to the Connecticut River

Posted by on 13 Nov 2011 | Tagged as: alewives, American shad, Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River ecosystem, CRASC, didymo, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, Rock Snot, salmon, Salmon eggs, salmon hatchery, shortnose sturgeon, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS

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.

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