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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.

USFWS requests $14 million in “emergency” funds for hatchery as native fish runs founder

Posted by on 31 Oct 2011 | Tagged as: American shad, Atlantic salmon, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River ecosystem, didymo, Rock Snot, Salmon eggs, salmon hatchery, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS

The following OpEd appeared in MA and VT publications, including at: www.gazettenet.com; www.recorder.com , www.rutlandherald.com;  www.timesargus.com; www.commonsnews.org;  and The Montague Reporter, www.montaguema.net .  My apologies go to USFWS Region 5 Director Wendy Weber for incorrectly spelling her name and noting her as “Acting” Director in the original.  They are here-in corrected.

Ms. Weber formally replied to my piece in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on Friday, October 29th .  I appreciate her thoughtful response, and welcome the prospect that an evaluation of the 44 year old salmon-creation effort might lead to real USFWS policy change here on the Connecticut.  A true restoration effort desperately needs to focus on the living migratory species still diverted into the debased habitats at the Turners Falls power canal.  The Connecticut River itself remains all but dead as a river system for the two miles immediately below Turners Falls dam.

I stick by my characterization that this group of ranking federal/state fisheries officials were indeed ready to “play fast and loose” with the Connecticut’s ecosystem as they left their Sept. 23rd emergency CRASC Tech Committee meeting.  The “ask”–noted at that meeting, was indeed stated as $14 million in “emergency” Congressional funding.  I put together my OpEd, to denote the dangers of spreading didymo,  and get the issue into the public record.  Days later an emergency dispatch went out cancelling the scheduled Sept. 29, 2011 meeting of the full CRASC, where the proposed emergency fish-dispersing measures would have presumably been adopted.  That meeting has been rescheduled for November 10, 20011, 10:00 a.m., at the federal Conte Anadromous Fish Lab in Turners Falls.  CRASC is a public entity, thus the public may attend.

I would love to see USFWS hold an open public forum on the future of the Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration program.  I would be happy be a part of such a panel.  My original OpEd is below.

Karl Meyer, Greenfield, MA, Oct. 31, 2011

ORIGINAL OpEd text below

Oct. 5, 2011                                                       Copyright © 2011 by Karl Meyer

 

USFWS requests $14 million in “emergency” funds for hatchery as native fish runs founder

Wendy Weber, Region 5 Director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Hadley, MA, and Deputy Assistant Regional Director of Fisheries Bill Archambault, want a boatload of pork for the failed Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission’s (CRASC’s) salmon program.  Now!  Through an Act of Congress they are seeking $10 – $14 million in emergency funding to rebuild the White River National Fish Hatchery (WRNFH) in Bethel, VT, wiped out by Tropical Storm Irene in August.  Webber sent out a letter requesting the Congressional funds in mid-September.  The primary product of WRNFH is salmon eggs—six million annually for our river’s longest running failure, the 44 year attempt to recreate an extinct salmon strain here: 107 fish returned this season.  What will Senators Kerry, Brown, Leahy and Sanders do with this request in a time of paper-thin budgets and collapsing native herring and shad runs?

Last year, the WRNFH got $723,000 in federal stimulus funds for a makeover–over $420,000 went to a refrigeration manufacturer in Missouri for an egg-chiller.  Ironically, a $100,000 egg chiller has sat useless at the Cronin National Salmon Station in Sunderland, MA for years.  Upon delivery, it simply never worked.  Four years ago White River spent millions in taxpayer dollars to build a well system to supply its hatchery salmon—upstream the White River had become infected with the invasive, bottom-smothering algae didymo, which could be transported via eggs and fry they disperse to tributaries and sent to school programs. They want to start again.

Meanwhile, state/federal CRASC Commissioners seem willing to play fast and loose with the potentially-disastrous dispersal of didymo to CT River tributaries through hatchery fry.  Right now they are devising a rush plan to parcel out the surviving 900 “broodstock” hatchery salmon at White River to hatcheries in MA, VT, and CT—though they admit they can’t be “one hundred percent certain didymo won’t be taken out of the (White River) facility.”  They’d jeopardize an ecosystem for their program.

All this was revealed at an emergency CRASC Tech Committee meeting on September 23, 2011.  This capital-intensive, million dollar system of four federal and two state hatcheries, floats a small number of well-benefitted government jobs, while ignoring native migrant fish and the lessons of a river ecosystem.  It’s a PR machine reaching into public schools, assisted via a few hundred, spawned-out hatchery salmon dumped into lakes and streams to mollify anglers duped into believing it will work.

With $14 million you could do a lot of good for the Connecticut.  With just a fraction of that money, independent scientists could conduct investigations and get real answers about why millions of migratory American shad have remained blocked from getting upstream to Vermont and New Hampshire on the main stem Connecticut at Turners Falls for decades, abandoned to a treacherous power canal literally behind the federal Conte Fish Lab.  A tiny share of those dollars could begin getting real answers to why a flood of 630,000 blueback herring passing Holyoke dam in 1985 collapsed like the September Red Sox to a “run” of 138 fish here in 2011.

Less than half of $14 million could easily build an independent, Five College-based river ecology lab that would advance our understanding of native fish, the food web, and the mix of seasonal life cycles critical to sustaining a healthy ecosystem.  MA is the crossroads of the Connecticut—where migratory fish have remained blocked from VT and NH waters since 1798.  Once built, a sustaining endowment could surely be found for such a facility.  New England’s River would finally have a think tank worthy of its critical importance.

Today, just a few hundred thousand could easily get an answer to the simple question that’s left New Englanders in the dark for generations: Why hundreds of millions of dollars spent on an extinct, cold water fish is never going to sustain anything but pork production for the 44 year old Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission–on a warming  river in the era of climate change.

In 1967, New Englanders from Enfield, CT to Walpole, NH, and Bellows Falls, VT were promised great fishing and a bounty of seafood by the New England Cooperative Fisheries Restoration Program, today’s CRASC.  The chief objective of this federal/state amalgam: “provide the public with high quality sport fishing opportunities in a highly urbanized area as well as to provide for the long term needs of the population for seafood.”   Runs of a million American shad, commercially harvestable blueback herring returns—and a hypothetical run of fishable (though centuries extinct) salmon were promised.  Instead, we’re left with an endless conveyor of salmon pork, no seafood–and damned poor fishing.

It’s time to stop this recklessness and waste on the Connecticut–time for accountability from the USFWS.  Jettison the Age-of-Aquarius salmon scheme; refocus the program on still-living native runs.  A new name, the “Connecticut River Migratory Fisheries Commission” would help; all new commissioners and an ecosystem focus would be a real start.

END

USFWS Region 5 Director Wendy Weber’s piece from the Gazette can be found at:

http://www.gazettenet.com/2011/10/28/wildlife-official-differs-on-fisheries-management