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REIMAGINING A RIVER: The Year without Northfield Mountain

Posted by on 01 Jun 2020 | Tagged as: American shad, Clean Water Act, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River Coordinator, Connecticut River pollution, Connecticut River Watershed Council, CRASC, Daily Hampshire Gazette, EPA, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FirstLight, fish passage, Gary Sanderson, Greenfield, hatchery, Holyoke Dam, ISO New England, Larry Parnass, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, migratory fish, Northfield Mountain, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, Old Saybrook CT, pumped storage, Riverkeeper, salmon, salmon hatchery, The Daily Hampshire Gazette, The Greenfield Recorder, The Recorder, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Environmental Protection Agency, USFWS

THIS GREAT AND BROKEN RIVER VII

Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Issue # 7, Part 1, REIMAGINING A RIVER: The Year without Northfield Mountain


Sunderland Bridge over the Connecticut. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge, back arrows to return to text)

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I have found it difficult to write these past days. I am heartsick for my country. Are we to be a fair, generous and courageous people, or just a collection of frightened, soulless bystanders? What world do we want our children to grow up into? I have not been without a few tears at times over the past week. But, I know that good work and living rivers benefit all; they do not hate, judge, murder, or discriminate. So, noting that all of us have some heart-work to do, I continue here, with this also…

On May 1, 2010, I began a 5-day cycling trip from Greenfield MA, downstream to Long Island Sound and back again along the Connecticut River. I set out by bike to highlight and blog about the massively wasteful and misplaced emphasis on the forever-failed, hatchery-produced, 40 year-old salmon program for the river. Meanwhile, across the preceding decade, the formerly growing and robust American shad runs had concurrently experienced precipitous declines in fish passage returns at Holyoke Dam. More importantly, the shad run was literally flirting with extinguishment upstream of the Turners Falls Dam.


Miserable shad tally board at TF Fishway, 2007. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge, back arrows to return to text)

The plunge at Turners Falls had taken hold pretty much simultaneously with the implementation of newly-legislated electricity deregulation in Massachusetts. It gave owners of the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station a license to unleash new, lucrative and disruptive flow regimes in the river—just 5 miles upstream of Turners Falls Dam. Ironically, that same May Day when I left for the mouth of the river, was the day that Northfield Mountain was scheduled to shut down to begin mucking out the decade’s worth of silt and muck they’d inhaled up into their 4-billion gallon mountaintop reservoir.


Cyclist’s Shad Dinner, Saybrook CT. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge, back arrows to return to text)

Unbeknownst to me–and to NMPS management, once they shut down and started draining their reservoir that net energy loss contraption would not suction the river again for over half a year. They broke their regenerating plant; their muck half-filling the mile-long tunnels connecting it to the river. FirstLight then tried to hide their plight and the evidence as they turned around and massively polluted the river for months. That came to an abrupt halt when the EPA(remember them?) issued a “Cease and Desist” order against them extensive violations of the Clean Water Act.

But, a great upshot benefit soon came into focus: with the river not suctioned and ramping up-and-down at Northfield, successful fish passage at Turners Falls Dam jumped back to well over 400% over 2009 totals–leaping to 16,422 shad passing in 2010(though likely significantly more, since FirstLight’s fish counting software was curiously ‘inoperable’ on 17 different days that spring), while just 3,813 shad squeezed past Turners Falls in 2009. Overall, that 2010 rise peaked at over 500% above that decade’s previous passage averages there. I returned to Greenfield on May 5, 2010, and learned of NMPS’s disastrous de-watering that same afternoon. It was of great interest, but its significance wouldn’t be understood for weeks until the unusual and increasing shad tallies passing Turners began coming in.

Just 3 years earlier, after spending over half a decade working at the Northfield Mountain Recreation Center (where I’d even for a time been secretary for the Safety Committee up inside the pumped storage power plant), I quit. The dismal shad runs, just downstream, were chewing on my soul.


Lynde Pt. Light at the River’s Mouth, Old Saybrook CT. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge, back arrows to return to text)

By that May of 2010, I’d been doing part-time work for the Connecticut River Watershed Council for a few years. I immediately informed the Council of Northfield’s predicament when I got back. Sadly, I then had to watch their back-seat, kid-gloves handling of an opportunity to prosecute and hold the power company responsible for massive pollution. They stayed quietly in the background, letting the Massachusetts DEP and MA Div. of Fish & Wildlife take charge of holding FirstLight’s feet to the fire. It was a massive opportunity to begin taking on the gross daily river depredations of Northfield Mountain, but it was mostly just squandered here in Massachusetts.

The Commonwealth and MA Fish & Wildlife did little, though some effort by MA DEP and Natural Heritage ultimately bargained for a study of erosion effects on endangered dragonflies as some sort of restitution. I later felt compelled to quit the Watershed Council, which I did five months later. They weren’t players, likely because their board was full of former power company managers and folks still working as consultants, who might see some power company contract work in the future. It was just wrong that–as one of the oldest river organizations on the East Coast, they didn’t have a single lawyer on staff, nor have a mission that mandated enforcement. This was no Riverkeeper.

It wasn’t really until early that June that I began to realize the full ramifications of Northfield’s shutdown. Fish passage numbers just began creeping higher and higher at Turners Falls. I attended a June 22nd meeting of the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC)—the Congressionally-authorized fed/state fisheries organization charged with managing and protecting migratory fish on the Connecticut. I asked the agency reps if they’d noticed the numbers and whether they’d been doing any studies on the relationship between the big shad passage at Turners and the turbine disaster upstream at Northfield. “We haven’t looked at it,” said a relatively new USFWS Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle.


Jilted American shad flashes CRASC attendees at the TF Power Canal. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge, back arrows to return to text)

Even then, I was as yet unaware that NMPS was STILL not operating. But I got a curious look from FirstLight’s Bob Stira, also in attendance, when I posed that question. That look–and the immediate notice of the shutdown of Northfield Mountain’s reservoir trails that same afternoon, is what soon sent me on a recon trip with a camera up to that reservoir. I started crunching numbers and writing. On a Sunday morning one week later I found an unposted back woods trail up to the reservoir, and there was the whole story.

Days earlier, I’d independently handed over some initial fish passage numbers and gave a few pointed quotes in an email to Gary Sanderson, sports and outdoors editor at The Recorder. Gary enthusiastically included them in his column along with his own comments. The following week, after FirstLight’s sudden and inexplicable closure of trails leading to the reservoir–plus immediately moving their riverboat tour boarding site from Northfield down to Barton Cove in Gill, I snuck up and took a photo of that emptied reservoir with two fat earth movers sitting silent in the silt-filled bed.


Emptied Northfield Mountain Reservoir. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge, back arrows to return to text)

Their riverboat got moved downriver to hide from the public the chocolate colored river that Northfield’s dumping was creating at intake tunnels next to the Riverview dock site. The silt cloud reached all the way down to the French King Bridge.


Muck-plagued Connecticut River beneath the French King Bridge. Photo Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Click X 3 to enlarge, back arrows to return to text)

In late June, Daily Hampshire Gazette Editor Larry Parnass ran my rather telling Northfield Reservoir photo above my expository OpEd bringing to light the disaster there–and the surprise fish passage bonanza occurring at Turners Falls Dam. It wasn’t until the first week of August that the EPA finally stepped in to order FirstLight to cease and desist. They’d been dumping the equivalent of 40-50 dump truck loads of reservoir muck directly into the Connecticut for over 90 straight days. That EPA order would keep Northfield shutdown well into November.

Despite Northfield’s claims of the usefullness of its daily input, and the touted critical emergency readiness of their net-energy loss machine to the grid, no one in New England went without electricity in the long months their river-strangling contraption was lifeless. The only mourners during its 7 month coma appeared to be two climate-change cheerleaders: ISO-New England and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Yet even during a long hot summer–one in which Vermont Yankee shut down for a week to refuel, everyone had essential power. The public didn’t miss Northfield, the shad run blossomed, and a river came back to life.

Why no FISH?, STILL???

Posted by on 30 Apr 2019 | Tagged as: American shad, Atlantic salmon, Bellows Falls Fishway, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration, Connecticut River Watershed Council, CRASC, Daily Hampshire Gazette, Dr. Boyd Kynard, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federal trust fish, FERC, FirstLight, Gary Sanderson, Greenfield Recorder, Holyoke Fish Lift, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, Montague Reporter, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, NOAA, Northfield Mountain, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, Public Law 98-138, Rock Dam, shad, shortnose sturgeon, The Greenfield Recorder, The Recorder, Turners Falls, Turners Falls power canal, Uncategorized, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey's Conte Fish Lab, Vernon Dam Fishway

The disastrously-emptied Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, June 27, 2010. (CLICK, then Click several times more for FULLEST VIEW) Copyright © 2019 by Karl Meyer. All Rights Reserved.

WHY no FISH…
All photos and text Copyright © 2019 by Karl Meyer. All Rights Reserved.

By clicking on the blue link WHY no FISH… above, and then clicking it again on the following page, you will open an old PowerPoint presentation that I gave to the Pioneer Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited in Holyoke in December 2010. It will take several minutes to load, but is then largely self-explanatory, with text available below photos, or by clicking the text tab.

On April 30, 2010 I embarked on a journey to the mouth of the Connecticut River by bicycle, to document the grim crippling of the river and its shad runs due to the lack of enforcement and engagement of fisheries agencies and river organizations. At the time, they were all still cheerleaders for a failed salmon program, ignoring the stark facts of the impacts of the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project on American shad and federally endangered shortnose sturgeon.

At the time I was doing part-time work at the Connecticut River Watershed Council, but quit out of frustration and disappointment just a few months after.

Notably, just a year later, the US Fish & Wildlife Service cancelled its long-failed salmon hatchery and “restoration” program on the Connecticut. A year after that, the river conversation became about the impacts of flows in the Dead Reach of the Connecticut, and Dr. Boyd Kynard’s groundbreaking book focusing on federally endangered shortnose sturgeon at the Rock Dam was released–though only following an unconscionable 3-month embargo of his research data by the US Geological Service.

Nearly a decade later, Northfield Mountain remains the Connecticut River ecosystem’s deadliest machine, directly impacting riverine life and migratory fish abundance in three states.

The Connecticut River now has TWO “conservancies”, but not a single NGO that makes any claims for ENFORCEMENT being a chief (or really ANY) component of their mandate. And ENFORCEMENT is a requisite for any true ecosystem restoration and river protection outfit that means to carry out its mission. This is a four-state ecosystem without a legal team. The Connecticut remains a river unprotected.

Bald eagles; canal shad and anglers up-close; fishy fishway windows

Posted by on 23 May 2015 | Tagged as: American shad, bald eagle, canal shad, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Conte, CRASC, Dead Reach, Federal Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, fishway windows, National Marine Fisheries Service, New Hampshire, NMFS, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, power canal studies, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, shad, shad fishing, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Service’s Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Lab, USFWS, Vermont

May 23, 2015. Turners Falls, MA. The test flows at Turners Falls Dam are now tamped down to 2,500 cubic feet per second. Thus anglers had given up fishing the riverbed below the dam yesterday(Friday) morning. However, the head gates beside the dam were open, releasing water at a good clip to course down the Turners Falls Power Canal. With little flow moving fish upstream in the actual river, it is commonly accepted knowledge that this forces fish to default to where they will find stronger upstream current to attract them. In this case that means a place 2-1/2 miles back downstream in the Dead Reach–the terminus of the canal at Cabot Station, where the power company dumps the river back into… the river. Thus, the canal becomes the impoverished, default habitat for migratory fish, attracted via privately- controlled flows that can be manipulated by dam operators. Thus, on Friday, just down from those head gates was the place where a few anglers gathered to fish the canal–just down the paved path to the low bridge behind the Great Falls Discovery Center.
P1000416
These gents were fishing shad that are part of the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission’s 1967 fisheries restoration mandate to move migratory fish upstream into New Hampshire and Vermont–to create a source of “seafood” for the public. These American shad, in Latin Alosa sapidissima–or “most delicious herring” were going to be eaten.
P1000417
With the main attraction flow coming from the downstream end of the power canal, it was primarily company flow through that conduit that was affecting upstream fish movements. Friday morning that flow was facilitating good numbers of fish in the viewing windows at Turners Falls Dam. The public’s fish and river should never be left in the private control of a corporation. That situation has resulted in the Black Hole of fish passage all these decades: the fish never reach Vermont and New Hampshire, and no one knows their fate after all upstream migrants are forced to enter the Turners Falls Power Canal.
A mile and a half downstream, there were two other potential anglers–perched in a cottonwood above the partially-flowing Connecticut’s riverbed. At just 2,500 cfs, they may have been licking their lips over fish that were confused or slowed and turning back in the river due to the withering upstream current. Slowed or stalled fish make for good eagle forage.
P1000425
Another half mile on down the river fishermen at The Rock Dam Pool were also happy to try and take advantage of a slowed or confused migration at this ancient site. Looking down from the rock ledge at the head of the pool, shad could be seen streaming through the water just 10 feet out. They moved by in tens and fives and dozens, but there was no way to discover whether they were milling through the edges of that frothy pool and simply returning to be seen again in an endless circling, or whether they were trying to shoot through one of the upstream notches in flows that were diminished by reductions at the dam.P1000433P1000432
Lastly, on “Migratory” Way, just down the canal past the USGS Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center, a crew of Conte fisheries people were inside FirstLight’s gates at the Cabot Hydro Station on the canal. USGS and the power company owners of the canal have been very close friends for decades now. Lab staff have worked for years on endless canal studies subsidized by Northeast Utilities, then NGS, and–of late, GDF-Suez FirstLight. Funny, though USGS holds the only National Marine Fisheries Service permit to study federally endangered shortnose sturgeon right here on the Connecticut, no study or tagging of sturgeon was done at all this year at their only documented natural spawning site–the Rock Dam Pool, just yards away from Conte Lab. And this, in a critical year of FEDERAL RE-LICENSING STUDIES.
P1000442
The folks in this picture are likely doing studies on migrating American eels. Power companies tend not to mind this type of work–as eels are difficult to study, they don’t spawn in the Connecticut River and thus are not an angler concern, and putting in “eelways”–which are wonderfully inexpensive, is a dirt cheap way to look “environmental” in the marketplace. Just as USGS Conte staff did endless canal studies with corporate study cash for decades on the TF Canal, they may be embarking on yet another cozy partnership, where years of data collection can be corporately subsidized, while true flows and fish passage upstream in the broken Connecticut River ecosystem through the Dead Reach here–and north past the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, gets ignored.
P1000438
The Turners Falls Power Canal’s emergency spillway chute and a portion of its failed fishway are pictured here, with a bit of Cabot Power Station in the background.

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.

Desperate Measures: portrait of a CRASC Meeting

Posted by on 09 Nov 2011 | Tagged as: American shad, Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River ecosystem, Conte, CRASC, didymo, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, Rock Snot, salmon hatchery, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service

The PIONEER VALLEY NEWS will be out on news stands beginning tomorrow, November 10th.  Right now you can read about the last meeting of the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, aka CRASC, on-line at:  www.pioneervalleynews.com ,

Or simply type in the link below.

http://www.pioneervalleynews.com/main-1/environmental/desperate-measures

The Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, aka CRASC, meets tomorrow, November 10, at 10 a.m. at the USGS Silvio Conte Anadromous Fish Lab in Turners Falls.  Though the meetings are not publicly announced, this is the federal/state public entity responsible for protecting migratory fish and the Connecticut River ecosystem–fisheries officials responsible for protecting runs of blueback herring, American shad, and the Connecticut’s only spawning population of federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon.

The public can attend these meetings, and should be made aware of them.  To attend tomorrow, take the 11th Street Bridge across the Turners Falls Power Canal, go left at the first stop sign, and follow down along the widened power canal until you see Conte Lab on the right.  Parking is right there.

A New Ecosystem Gamble: know when to hold ’em; know when to run…

Posted by on 22 Sep 2011 | Tagged as: Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River ecosystem, CRASC, EPA, FERC license, FirstLight, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, New Hampshire, salmon, shortnose sturgeon, Turners Falls power canal, USFWS

© Copyright 2011, by Karl Meyer

(the following OpEd, appeared in the Greenfield Recorder, www.recorder.com , on 8/31/11)

A new Ecosystem Gamble: know when to hold’em; know when to run…

Some deals just smell fishy—like one for the Connecticut River being cooked up by global giant FirstLight/GDF-Suez and the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC.)   Today CRASC, US F&WS and MA Div. of Fish & Wildlife are pushing a deal ignoring ongoing damage to federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon and federal-trust American shad.  It prioritizes retrenching the river’s migrating fish in FirstLight’s Turners Falls power canal—filled with slicing turbines, stress-filled currents and silt.  It’s this ecosystem’s black hole, crippling fisheries restoration here for decades–literally at the doorstep of the federal Conte Fish Lab in Turners Falls, MA where CRASC meets.

CRASC meetings can be Orwellian. The USFWS’s John Warner all but stated at an August 3rd meeting that the river’s only spawning population of federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon were immaterial to talks he’s leading.  Their ancient spawning grounds, just beyond Conte Lab’s west window, weren’t documented when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) license currently governing Northfield MT-Turners Falls hydro operations was signed in 1978.  So Endangered Species Act be damned, those fish don’t count.

UMass professor Dr. Boyd Kynard, an expert on many of the world’s endangered sturgeons who consults on fish passage behavior at large river dams including the Yangtze and upper Amazon, might disagree.  In a book on 20 years of sturgeon research slated for December publication, Kynard and colleagues cite manipulated hydro flows in a 2 mile stretch below the Turners Falls dam and canal as contributing to significant breeding failure for shortnose sturgeon.  Sentences from adjoining paragraphs fall out like this: “Flow regulation at Rock Dam makes spawning for shortnose sturgeon impossible during most years.” And, “Peaking operation of Cabot Station causes discharge shifts that have deleterious effects on spawning success of shortnose sturgeon.”  On March 12, 2010, FERC notified FirstLight they’d failed to comply with licensed provisions for “minimum flow” for those sturgeon during fall 2009.

When I asked Mr. Warner about any existing notes from talks with FirstLight, he wouldn’t give a direct answer.  Make no mistake, what’s being cooked up is a de-facto reopening of the current 40 year FERC hydro license governing conditions and flows from FirstLight’s Northfield Mt.-Turners Falls operations–only it sidesteps details like public input, endangered species, and disclosure.  Until caught last year, FirstLight used the river as its flush-sink for 65,000 tons of silt at its Northfield MT plant during peak migration and spawning season. Clean Water Act, be damned.

CRASC is the protector-of-record for the river’s ocean migrants and ecosystem, our federal trust.  They’re excited FirstLight is now interested in negotiating migratory fish passage—though river, fish, and fish passage protection and enhancements are mandated under federal law, and included in the current license.  CRASC’s never demanded them.  Instead of negotiating critical flows for shad–and spawning shortnose sturgeon documented since 1993 on Conte Lab’s doorstep, they’re again blithely substituting a canal restoration for a river restoration.

“Trust us,” say USFWS and CRASC, “We’ll protect the river–we just have to wait until the next full 40-year FERC license negotiation in 2018.”  But they’ve failed for 40 years now, emphasizing their salmon “restoration” which returned 107 fish this year; and its hundred million dollar federal (genetic hybrid)salmon hatchery system—essentially a jobs-program that’s never produced  a single, fishable-fish for this river.  It’s been CRASC–formerly “The New England Cooperative Fisheries,” that’s repeatedly abetted channeling 90% of the river’s migratory fish into a meat grinder: Turners Falls canal.  Fish don’t emerge from the other side.

Hydro companies like to use a river like there’s tomorrow–like they own it.  Their interests are profit; the weight of water shunted through turbines.  Ecosystem-protections don’t maximize profit.  USFWS’s John Warner, negotiating with FirstLight, admits any new river help from a 2018 license may take “until 2025” to be implemented by a foot-dragging company.  Yet everyone’s lining up with FirstLight’s “canal-first” idea—when they should be prosecuting for sustaining river flows, and prioritizing direct fish passage up the Connecticut’s currently-crippled reach to a lift at Turners Falls dam.  Several CRASC’s partnering scientists at Conte Lab are being paid by FirstLight—for ongoing fish passage studies in the TF canal.  With federal scientists on your payroll, how can you lose?

New England’s River can’t survive another losing hand.  Unlinking ecosystem-sustaining flows and fish-lift passage at Turners Falls dam from the current canal-restoration scheme is a recipe for disaster that could set a failed restoration back another half century.  Negotiate a sustainable river first.  If CRASC and USFWS allow themselves to be slow-danced into repeating a dead-end canal configuration for the Connecticut, its renewed use will be cited by the power company as an endorsement of its suitability as the best upstream route for migratory runs when a new 40-year license is negotiated in 2018.  Nothing is further from the truth.  Today, 44 years and three states shy of CRASC’s 1967 MA, VT and NH restoration goals, ecosystem fish runs choke to a halt in the Turners Falls power canal.

(* note: the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission is holding an emergency Tech Committee Meeting, tomorrow, Sept. 23, at 10:00 a.m., at 1 Migratory Way, in Turners Falls at the Conte Lab.  Use the 11th Street Bridge to cross the Canal, then take a left.  ALSO, the full CRASC meets on Sept. 29th, same time, same place.  Though not publicized, these are PUBLIC meetings with your public officials calling the shots.  There is currently NO Massachusetts “public representative on CRASC, the seat has sat empty for 3 -plus years.)

Writer Karl Meyer of Greenfield, MA, has served on the boards of two watershed associations and is former member of the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Safety Committee.  Reach him and read more at: www.karlmeyerwriting.com

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