Federal Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center

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PROTECTING AN EMBATTLED HERITAGE

Posted by on 19 Aug 2017 | Tagged as: American Whitewater, Appalachian Mountain Club, Dead Reach, Federal Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center, New England FLOW

NOTES: If you go to the banner page of this website and scroll down through a few photos you will come to one of a smiling young guy named Charlie Read. It was taken a decade back on one of his many Memorial Day bicycle rides around the Quabbin Reservoir. Charlie had become a remarkable young man, beloved by his parents Clif and Arleen and sister Susan, when he unexpectedly passed away from a relatively unknown complication from epilepsy just over a year ago.

Charlie will remain in the hearts of all who knew him as a smart, caring, playful, tenacious, friend, son, brother, athlete, student and teammate by the many people whose lives he touched. Clif and Arleen Read, and friends, undertook a cross country cycling trip this summer in honor of their son, raising money along the way for the Epilepsy Foundation. You can follow their journey, completed earlier this month–and still donate, by going to c2c4charlie.org. A fitting tribute to a fine young man, missed by all.

The following piece appeared this month in the Daily Hampshire Gazette (gazettenet.com), and in slightly edited version of The Greenfield Recorder (recorder.com). (Note that the Connecticut River Watershed Council has changed its name to the Connecticut River Conservancy).

Copyright © 2017 by Karl Meyer

PROTECTING AN EMBATTLED HERITAGE

A fragile legacy clings to life in the Connecticut River at Turners Falls just downstream of where the Great Falls Discovery Center perches above an ancient cataract once known as Peskeomscut. It includes a dozen state-endangered and threatened plants and insects, a rare freshwater clam, plus several culturally and archeologically sensitive islands and the only known natural spawning site for the federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon. Currently no part of that legacy is safeguarded in any meaningful way by the handful of responsible government agencies.

The view downstream from the Turners Falls Bridge consists largely of a dewatered riverbed, parching stream banks, and islands bereft of anything that might offer life-giving nourishment. It’s a reach depauperized by seesawing flows diverted at the adjacent dam and greatly influenced by the huge suck-and-surge water appetite of the PSP Investments’s Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, five miles upstream.

All rarities here have been documented within the past quarter century. The beleaguered islands speak for themselves. All remain subject to industrial abuse and human encroachment. Two federal, and a handful state agencies are responsible for safeguarding that legacy. Sadly even the US Geological Survey’s Conte Anadromous Fish Research Lab abandoned monitoring the few dozen spawning-ready shortnose sturgeon attempting reproduction in an ancient pool there a decade ago. That “Rock Dam pool,” below a tiny waterfall, sits just beyond the Lab’s west windows.

If the National Marine Fisheries Service, MA Fish & Wildlife’s Natural Heritage Program, the MA Historical Commission, the USGS and the US Fish & Wildlife Service are serious about protecting a river’s legacy, it’s time to act. In 2007 the Connecticut River Watershed Council produced its 3rd edition of the Connecticut River Boating Guide. On March 13, 2017, the Council convened a meeting of its recreational constituents in Brattleboro VT. There it was clear commercial and recreational whitewater interests are keen to begin rides in that fragile Turners Falls reach. They want new put-ins and spring flows to accommodate bulky, seven-person rafts and personal watercraft. They’d already showed up in force there in May 2016 to joyride atop the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s mandated test flows, flows meant to enhance the survival of sturgeon and other migrants.

If new flows are mandated by FERC’s 2018 new hydro licenses there, American Whitewater, the Appalachian Mountain Club and New England Flow will again be looking to make two-second passes over those tiny Rock Dam falls. A little watery pool there is where spring sturgeon gather and spawn, and where embryos and young develop through June. But American Whitewater’s representative that day contended there would be no ill impacts from rides over that low escarpment into the sturgeon’s spawning pool. One commercial interest even suggested a path should be cut across the adjoining island, so rafts could be carried back upstream for repeat runs.

But that tiny drop and pool is adjacent to an island of historic importance owned by Western Massachusetts Electric. It’s a place of cultural and archeological significance to Native Americans whose ancestors were attacked in the Turners Falls Massacre. The site is geographically and physically the likely fishing refuge occupied by Native groups who counter attacked and routed Turner’s army on May 19, 1676. Current archeological investigations are in progress relating to that attack and the area’s ancient battle paths. Historian Sylvester Judd’s 1863 posthumous History of Hadley notes a scouting expedition undertaken by colonial troops in 1676, six weeks after that bloodbath: “On the 28th of June, about 30 men went up towards the falls, and espied no Indians. They burnt a hundred wigwams upon an island, ruined an Indian fort, spoiled an abundance of fish which they found in Indian barns underground, and destroyed 30 canoes.”

Considering fragile wetland banks, safety concerns, and its cultural and historic importance, that island should remain off limits. It should not suffer the indignity of becoming a landing pad for river joyriders. Endangered shortnose sturgeon need shielding from slamming, overtopping and landing watercraft when they begin gathering there in early April. From that time on, throughout June, spawning sturgeon and developing embryos and young need protection from paddles, rafts, beaching crowds–and their attendant turbidity. Other fragile species would benefit. Those spring weeks would be a great time for a Turners Falls Sturgeon Revival Festival.

Just over a quarter century ago two state- and federally-endangered bald eagles began nesting on an unnamed Connecticut River island just upstream at Barton Cove. A host of boaters, birders and photographers were soon vying for close-ups of the birds in 1991. To safeguard that biological heritage the island was made off-limits to ensure the eagles’ life cycle–courtship, nest-building, hatching, brooding and rearing, could proceed unimpeded. A perimeter barred approach by water and signs warned trespassers of fines and jail time under federal and state law. Environmental policed patrolled the area. Until that nest tree toppled in 2008, nearly three dozen bald eagles fledged from the site. That’s how it’s done.

# # #

Karl Meyer of Greenfield serves on the Fish and Aquatics Study Team in the current FERC relicensing process for Connecticut River generating sites in Massachusetts. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

Spawning run ride from to Vernon; back to Turners Falls, Rock Dam and Cabot: May 17, 2015

Posted by on 17 May 2015 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, American shad, Bellows Falls, Cabot Station, Connecticut River, Conte, Dead Reach, Federal Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC license, FirstLight, Holyoke Fish Lift, New Hampshire, power canal studies, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, sea lamprey, shad, shad fishing, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, Vermont, Vernon Dam Fishway

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The Headgates at Turners Falls Dam sending flow into the power canal were as quiet as I’ve ever seen them this Sunday. There seemed to just be a bit of attraction water for fish looking to get upstream, but no usual frothing rip that is usual with power generation.
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Downstream at the end of the power canal there was a nearly lake-like stillness as Cabot hydro station seemed to be producing little power.
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Looking upstream at Cabot hydro station from the bridge at Montague City, there was just a small run of whitewater coming down the spillway at Cabot. Data about these flow manipulations should be available for investigations and study results for the re-licensing
inquiries currently taking place under Federal Energy Regulatory Commission purview. They have significant impacts on fish passage.
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Three of the lucky anglers fishing Rock Dam today–two are in the boat in background.
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Rock Dam rocking with anglers and 6,300 cfs of flow.
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Letting a Rock Dam shad off the hook.

LASTLY, here’s today’s full POST:

Spawning run ride from to Vernon; back to Turners Fall, Rock Dam and Cabot: May 17, 2015

After cycling up Rt. 5 to Brattleboro early today, I headed south along the Connecticut. I was shocked to actually find the gates to Vernon Fishway OPEN! This is something that should be guaranteed to the public—regular, posted hours where the public can view their fish. Let John Rangonese of TransCanada know. There is always at least one pickup parked at the Vernon hydro station, all that’s needed is someone to walk over and open the gate; then close it upon leaving. Self-serve site, no cost involved. Public’s fish; public’s river.

Anyway, in the riot of effervescing current in the Vernon Fishway windows today were literally streams of American shad. They were running upstream like there was romance in the offing. Here, like at Holyoke, fish come directly upriver to the base of the dam. There, attracted by flows released down the short fish ladder at this modest falls, shad quickly find their way past the dam toward Brattleboro, Putney, Bellows Falls, and Walpole, NH. Today they were passing in pods at around 10:00 a.m. There were also a couple of smallmouths lower in the current, as well as one ropey sea lamprey flashing through the bubbles.
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USFWS tank truck used to transport tagged shad

Here, also, I ran into Steve Leach and his crew, from Normandeau Associates. Using the borrowed US Fish & Wildlife Service tank truck, they were preparing to tag fish and truck them a-ways upstream for fish passage studies connected to TransCanada’s hydro relicensing at Vernon, Bellows Falls, and Wilder. They’d done some previous tagging at Holyoke as well. We chatted a bit about test flows downstream, and the lack of rainfall, and the river’s temperature profile that is rising a bit early. I bid them luck, noting a few anglers fishing below Vernon Fishway—along with a perched bald eagle and a circling osprey.

After stopping to visit friends in Gill, MA, I was on the Turners Falls Bridge just a few minutes after noon. The test flow current is at 6,300 cfs (cubic feet per second) today, and the Connecticut is alive with frothy water across the wide, curving expanse formerly known as Peskeomscut. I look down at four people fishing the quick current along the Spillway Fish Ladder, just downstream of the bascule gate that’s pouring down current. In ten minutes time I watch five shad get hooked—four of them are landed, and one is lost near the waterline.

I get back on my bike and tuck in to the Canalside Rail Trail, scooting under the Turners Falls Bridge. As I come alongside the canal at the Turners Falls Gatehouse I notice that the canal is nearly quiet—almost like a still pond. This rivals the quietest flows I’ve ever seen passing through this site. FirstLight controls the headgates here–and with so few open, the fish coming up through their power canal can get a better shot at passage.

A cynical person might think they were manipulating the canal to make it look like a good industrial conduit for wild fish—especially during tagged-fish tracking surveys during test flows. One also might think this could be done to punch up fish passage numbers for weekend visitors to the TF Fishway—something that has shown up in fish passage tallies there for years. You’d think fish were only interested in migrating on weekends… Nonetheless, after well over a decade of subsidizing federal Conte Lab employees for fish passage studies and structural changes in the Turners Falls Power Canal, they have yet to succeed in passing more shad upstream than passed this site in the 1980s…

Curiously, when I head all the way downstream along the canal to Cabot Hydro Station, and then out on the deck of the General Pierce Bridge in Montague City—it is absolutely true that the TF Canal appears lake-like in its absence of flow, with just a small bit of whitewater bubbling down from its tailrace. Operators have certainly quieted the whole canal system this day.

In between I make a stop at the Rock Dam Pool, where the 6,300 cfs flows have the rocks roiling with lively current, and the anglers reeling in fish, seemingly at will. For the first time ever here I see two men standing and fishing below the Rock Dam’s fall in a motorized Zodiac type craft. Between the boat, the fishers wading out in the Rock Dam Pool, and the people tossing darts from the ledge over the pool, there are nine anglers fishing the site—eight men and a woman.

And the shad are streaming in. In the fifteen minutes I spend there, five fish are brought to shore. When I ask one guy to pause with his catch for a minute while I shoot a photo, he obliges. “How’s it been for you?” I ask. “I can’t seem to make a mistake today—I’ve had two dozen,” he tells me. “Well, I guess you know what you’re doing.” “Hey, I ran the Turners Falls Dam for 8-1/2 years,” he says. I nod, adding, “I guess then you know exactly when it’s time to come down here for shad.”
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The other great thing that has happened for anglers with these actual flows in the river: almost nobody is relegated to tossing lines in the stillness of the power canal. The anglers and the fish are all in the river.

Shad anglers help ground-truth test flow impacts at Turners Falls

Posted by on 13 May 2015 | Tagged as: American shad, Connecticut River, Conte, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Endangered Species Act, ESA, Federal Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, Holyoke Fish Lift, Northfield Mountain, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, shad, shad fishing, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Geological Survey's Conte Fish Lab

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The above photos were taken at the Rock Dam Pool today, May 13, 2015. Many shad could be seen with the naked eye fidgeting and milling through the pool. Two anglers were enjoying plucking a few out of the drink. (CLICK ON PHOTO FOR LARGER IMAGE)

Shad anglers help ground-truth test flow impacts at Turners Falls

Federally mandated test flow releases from Turners Falls Dam continued today, with flows reduced to 2,500 CFS (cubic feet per second). That drop, from 4,400 CFS the day prior, produced some interesting results for shad anglers fishing the 2-1/2 mile long Dead Reach below the dam.

At 12:20 p.m. I stopped by the Connecticut River’s Rock Dam Pool, off G Street and “Migratory” Way in Turners, basically just a few hundred yards upstream of the Conte Fish Lab. Curiously, with the tamped-down flows, the Rock Dam Pool was a-bustle with milling shad—perhaps defaulted to this site when flow got cut at the dam. What’s clear is that 2,500 CFS is not a flow level that moves migratory fish upstream in the river through this site toward the TF Dam. When I spoke to three anglers at the base of the dam just 20 minutes later, they said the shad had run out with the decreasing flow.

The river levels today at the Rock Dam though, would at least likely have sustained the presence of the annual spawning gathering of federally endangered shortnose sturgeon in the Rock Dam Pool. They were many levels above the mid-summer conditions created by dam operations at this site on May 3, 2015, which basically scuttled a year’s reproduction there. But hey, who’s enforcing the Endangered Species Act these days??

I did meet a young angler at the Rock Dam who was having a blast pulling in shad. He will graduate Westfield State this coming weekend, and noted that his dad—President Elect for the American Fisheries Society, works in fisheries for the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Hadley.
He’d been tossing in shad darts at the Rock Dam Pool for maybe an hour, and had landed and released 7 shad. Big ones, he noted. I explained a bit about the test flows, and we both stood for a bit marveling at the pods of shad turning quick laps around the pool—ten, then a run of a few, then a line of several more—all darting into shadows beneath the high, mid-spring sun.

Hopefully, he’ll carry news to his dad that these fish are here because there’s flow being released to the river. A well-kept secret in these parts is that USGS Conte Lab fisheries biologists who like to get in a little fishing on lunch break always make their way down to the Rock Dam Pool when there’s flow in the Connecticut—cause that’s where the fish want to be.
You won’t find them flicking darts into the power canal just out their front gate.

When I debriefed a trio of 20-somethings fishing below Turners Falls Dam just 20 minutes later, they reported the fishing had turned to dust once the flows were tamped down to 2,500 CFS. One of the guys said that yesterday—Tuesday, all he had to do was just cast and reel in. “I probably caught a hundred.” OK, that’s fish talk, but I’ve seen these guys before. They are shad people. When I told them the Rock Dam was rocking, one said to the woman angler with them, “Wanna go down there?” “Hell yeah!” was the response.

Lastly, I drove Greenfield High Girl’s Softball down to South Hadley later in the afternoon. It’s only a mile or so hike down to South Hadley Falls Dam from there. I took the stroll. There were maybe two dozen anglers strung out along the edge of Slim Shad Point at around 4:30 p.m., but things looked fairly quiet. I didn’t have much time, but I did a little de-briefing to two hefty Latino guys I’ve seen fishing from the Veterans Memorial Bridge before. “Shad are done!” one said of the days fishing. “There’s no water.”

Interesting, since its possible this could be equated to the cut-off of nearly 4,000 CFS up at TF Dam earlier. It’s known to take 6 – 8 hours for the impacts of flow manipulations at Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls Dam to be experienced 36 miles downstream at Holyoke. Thus, these guys may have been experiencing the impacts of test flows, which temporarily quieted the upstream run of fish. Be interesting to try and tease out the correlations. Test flows at Turners will bump up again to 6,300 CFS this Saturday through Monday.

The Greenfield Varsity Girls won at South Hadley.

As of Tuesday, Holyoke had lifted 181,000 shad.

Spawning shortnose sturgeon denied flow at Rock Dam Pool

Posted by on 08 May 2015 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, American shad, Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Dr. Boyd Kynard, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Endangered Species Act, ESA, Extinction, Federal Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federal trust fish, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC, GDF-Suez FirstLight, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, Rock Dam, Rutland Herald, shortnose sturgeon, The Greenfield Recorder, University of Massachusetts, US Fish & Wildlife Service, Vermont Digger

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(to view lager image, click on photo).

NOTE: the photo above documents conditions found at the Rock Dam Pool on the Connecticut River on May 3, 2015. Seventeen years of published studies conducted by federal and University of Massachusetts fisheries researchers at the adjacent Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center show that these river conditions cause spawning failure for federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon at the Rock Dam Pool, their only documented natural spawning site. The May 3rd river conditions found at Rock Dam mimicked mid-summer flows on the Connecticut–conditions that research shows drives spawning-ready females from the site, and de-waters the cobble-strewn pool where eggs and embryos attach and develop. April 25 to May 22 is the documented spawning window for the shortnose sturgeon on the Connecticut. It is a crime to kill, injure or interfere with endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon under federal and state law. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the US Fish & Wildlife Service, and the MA Division of Fisheries & Wildlife are responsible for the protection of the Connecticut River’s only federally-endangered fish under the Endangered Species Act(ESA). GDF-Suez FirstLight controls river flows to this site via spill gate operations at the Turners Falls Dam, just upstream.

A RIVER PRESERVED IN PLASTIC Copyright © 2015 by Karl Meyer

(The following essay–with minor variation in each, appeared recently in The Recorder, The Rutland Herald, and at Vtdigger.org)

A lifeless, three-foot long Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon sits on display at the Great Falls Discovery Center in Turners Falls, MA. The shortnose has been this river’s only federally-endangered fish since 1967. That plastic sturgeon has sat amidst other replica fish for a dozen years now—a plastic American shad, a blueback herring, a trophy-size Atlantic salmon. They’re framed beneath a slightly-ruffled acrylic surface representing the Connecticut River at this flagship site of the Silvio Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge.

That display is the basic message offered to visitors here: ‘This is a river with congenial flows supporting populations of shad and herring, big native salmon, and federally-protected sturgeon.’

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Few upstream migrants reach Vermont and New Hampshire today. That’s part of the legacy of failure of federal and state fish agencies and watchdog groups claiming to safeguard an ecosystem and its native migratory fish. That legacy will remain intact until they confront ongoing conditions in Massachusetts that have been crippling the river here for decades.

That Discovery Center depiction falls apart if visitors simply walk outside onto the deck of the Turners Falls Bridge, adjacent to Turners Falls Dam. There, often for months on end, what they’ll see is the hollowed-out heart of New England’s Great River–a waterless chasm, or one teased by just a trickle from the power company’s dam. Conversely, when rain or snow send more river downstream than can be profitably sent through FirstLight’s power canal or stored upstream for their Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, those spill gates open wide–producing violent, see-sawing flows few fish can fight or follow.

Meanwhile a 200 million year-old evolutionary gem, the Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, remains all but abandoned just downstream–teetering on the verge of extinction for decades. Likewise, American shad can’t move upstream in the river here at all. They’re forced into that turbine-lined power canal where less than 1-in-10 will emerge alive beyond the dam. And those blueback herring–protected on paper as a “federal trust” species, have not been counted here in almost a decade. Just 20 years back they passed by the thousands.

That plastic salmon, showcased for decades as the darling of this river’s fisheries restoration, has been extinct here since 1809. It should not be presented as a living native fish. In science, extinct isn’t subject to interpretation.

That trophy-sized model derives from a massive hybrid hatchery program created by cross-breeding salmon imported from Canadian and northern New England rivers. For 43 years federal and state fish farms produced the millions of tiny fry dumped into the river each spring. Those fish factories repeatedly proved vectors for the potential spread of disease throughout the river system. Though those tiny fish proved great for public relations, no spawning population of engineered salmon ever took hold.

Hybrid salmon became the red herring that masked the massively broken ecosystem that exists on an eight-mile stretch of New England’s Great River from the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station to the tailrace of the Turners Falls Power Canal. Those salmon were the stand-ins for agencies including the National Marine Fisheries Service, the USFWS, and MA Division of Fish & Wildlife that had failed to protect living migratory species here–and an ecosystem suffocating right in their backyard.

The plight of the only state- and federally endangered fish here represents the ultimate failure of responsibilities. Dr. Boyd Kynard spent decades studying the shortnose and documented it’s only natural spawning site–the Rock Dam Pool, less than two miles downstream of Turners Falls Dam. Dam operations there were annually creating conditions that crippled spawning success for the remaining 300 sturgeon still able to reach their ancient rendezvous site.

Kynard’s federal- and state-funded findings were given to fish agencies a decade back. Each bore legal responsibility for that sturgeon. Yet no agency or non-profit stepped-in to monitor and enforce Endangered Species Act protections. None intervened to halt the trickle-and-torrent flows preventing reproduction. That step alone would’ve put living waters back into the river here–aiding the shad and herring attempting to reach Vermont and New Hampshire. Likewise in 2012, when Kynard published a book on the shortnose–documenting its life history and the river conditions necessary for its recovery, again, no one went to court to protect this public legacy.

Had agencies and watchdog groups taken responsibility years back for protecting spawning sturgeon at that Rock Dam Pool below FirstLight’s dam, native migratory fish and the river ecosystem would be in a far better place today. Instead, that work was left to become part of the current studies in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s 5-year relicensing process for the Turners Falls and Northfield hydro sites, where I’m on the Fisheries and Aquatic Studies Team.

Sturgeon spawning is not monitored today. It’s unconscionable to have waited for a 40 year relicensing process to come around before broaching concerns for an endangered fish and broken ecosystem. Hopefully it won’t prove the difference between a living river, and one merely depicted in a museum model.

Greenfield, MA journalist Karl Meyer is participating in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s relicensing process for the Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls hydro sites.