Fish passage results

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VERNON UPDATE: A peek into the public-trust’s black hole

Posted by on 26 Jun 2016 | Tagged as: American shad, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Coordinator, FirstLight, fish counts, fish passage, Fish passage results, GDF-Suez FirstLight, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, public trust, TransCanada, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont Fish & Game, Vernon Dam Fishway

VERNON, VT Connecticut River Fish Passage Update: June 24, 2016

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Vernon Dam Fishway, and TransCanada’s Vernon Station(CLICK TO ENLARGE)

As of Friday, June 24, 2016, the best information US Fish & Wildlife Service was able to provide on Turners Falls and Vernon fish passage was a FULL THREE WEEKS OLD.

The last report CT River Coordinator Ken Sprankle had for Vernon shad passage was from June 3, 2016: 29,155 American shad passing there.

The last report coming from FirstLight at Turners Falls was yet a day older, from June 2, 2016: 45,330 American shad.

This is not a case of the USFWS’s Connecticut River Coordinator neglecting to gather the information and reproduce it in a timely manner. This falls squarely on the shoulders of the MA Division of Fisheries and Wildlife failing to ensure that this time-sensitive and important information is provided to Commonwealth citizens as part of their public trust. They have allowed GDF-Suez to maintain sole control and access to the fate of a public resource at Turners Falls, the river’s most critical and failed fish passage site.

Further, it must of course be stated that Vermont Fish & Game is in the same camp this year. As they are failing to provide this information–just a quick 20 mile, one-day scoot for a shad upstream to Vernon Dam, where TransCanada is calling the shots on providing info.

These state agencies are failing constituents they say they represent.

BUT here’s a tiny fish passage update for Vernon Dam. It’s just TWO DAYS OLD. I stopped by Vernon on my bicycle on Friday, June 24th at 10:30 a.m., just hours after that “best” stale information had been released.

Given low river flows I was happily surprised to see shad moving upstream in the Vernon windows at a good clip. Singly, and in twos and threes, and fives, I watched 20 American shad flash by and shoot upstream through bubbly, yellow currents there in just under six minutes. That fishway is a fish passage site that actually passes fish–with a nearly 70% passage rate last year.

Of course, Turners Falls fish passage remains a disaster, with all fish shunted out of the river and into the 2.7 mile power canal there: average annual passage rate is less than one fish-in-ten. And, unfortunately, Turners Falls viewing opportunities have been severely curtailed over the years. Whereas they used to be open through the week following Father’s Day, this year they closed on June 12. Thus, there is literally no on-site public access or real-time information provided on fish passage success at Turners Falls–while this year’s run is obviously still underway, given Friday’s eye-witness access at Vernon.

At Turners Falls flows have been reduced to 1500 cubic feet per second over the past weeks, and with FirstLight’s downstream Station 1 dumping attraction flow into the Connecticut, its unlikely many fish are moving upstream and able to by-pass that alien power canal habitat.

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The Connecticut below Turners Falls Dam (CLICK TO ENLARGE)

Station 1 is a source of “false” upstream flow “attraction”–which can keep shad treading water for days at a time without finding any real route upstream.

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Station 1 attraction flow (CLICK TO ENLARGE)

FISHY MISSING INFO

Posted by on 22 Jun 2016 | Tagged as: blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration, Daily Hampshire Gazette, FirstLight, fish counts, Fish passage results, GDF-Suez FirstLight, Greenfield Recorder, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, migratory delay, New Hampshire, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, public trust, right-to-know, salmon, salmon hatchery, sea lamprey, shad, The Recorder, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont, Vernon Dam Fishway

The following OpEd appeared in the Daily Hampshire Gazette (Northampton,MA) and The Recorder (Greenfield, MA) in early June.

Fishy Missing Info Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer

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(low flows and byzantine fish ladder at Turners Falls 6/19/16:CLICK TO ENLARGE)

I’d like to change the name of a Commonwealth agency. What would you think about the Massachusetts Division of “Manufactured” Fisheries and Wildlife? I think it would offer a much better picture of the Agency’s focus, particularly here in the Connecticut Valley. Here you can get daily on-line information on where to find truckloads of thousands-upon-thousands of factory-produced rainbow, brown and brook trout before they are dumped into local rivers for hatchery-fish angling pleasure. But I dare you to find anything more than a several-weeks-old tally of the numbers of wild migratory fish streaming north here on the Connecticut anywhere beyond the fish windows at Holyoke Dam. So this would be a “truth-in-labeling” adjustment.

New England’s Great River runs for 69 miles through the Commonwealth. The MA Division of Fisheries & Wildlife is responsible for all migratory fish in that broad reach from the time they enter at Agawam, until they either remain here for spawning, or pass into Vermont and New Hampshire. Those runs are the agency’s “public trust”—to be protected for its citizens, anglers, students and future generations. But the less information the public gets on their whereabouts, the less an agency might be availed upon to actually protect them.

As we enter the final weeks of migration season the only information provided—not just days old, but nearly a month stale, refers solely to fish on the first 16 miles of river from the Connecticut border to the fish lift at Holyoke Dam. That leaves a full 52 miles of river with just a single—now uselessly outdated May 4th report about the truly wild shad, lamprey and herring now moving along New England’s flagship waterway. Salmon are not mentioned here because just three years after the US Fish & Wildlife Service stopped factory production of this hybrid, just a single salmon has been tallied. Hatchery fish production masks the reality of failing wild populations and deteriorating habitats. To date there’s been but one report on fish passage from Turners Falls.

As an interested citizen I’m a bit outraged that it’s June 1st, and I don’t have a clue about what’s going on with the wild, migrating fish coming upriver in what you have to consider as one of New England’s last remaining great migrations. Shad, blueback herring, and sea lamprey have been moving upstream for over two months now, and the only public information offered is of the absurd 54 shad counted at Turners Falls, almost a full month back. Really? This is any agency with an accountability problem.

MA DF&W has scant little to offer the public as to what they’ve been doing on the ground to protect our wild fish runs—and that includes struggling populations of state-listed, endangered shortnose sturgeon, also under their purview. But to not even take responsibility for having on-the-ground personnel monitoring runs at the river’s long-known choke point, Turners Falls, is a flagrant abdication of duty. Here in central and northern Massachusetts we not only don’t see fish because of decimated Connecticut River habitats, we aren’t even offered updated tallies on the ugly mess. But perhaps that’s by design. Connecticut’s state fisheries agency regularly provides more information on Commonwealth fish runs than does the MA DF&W.

When I recently contacted the Commonwealth’s Anadromous Fish Project Leader to inquire about fish passage information at Turners Falls, he tersely emailed back that the state no longer does those fish counts: I should contact FirstLight Power for information. I guess our fish are now fully privatized. And when it has come to the power company requesting larger and more frequent water withdrawals on the Connecticut upstream at the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, it appears the Division has never seen a company proposal it wasn’t just fine with.

This 2016 season has literally been the worst year for Massachusetts fish passage information since 2010, when FirstLight’s Northfield Mountain broke down, fouling its pumping tunnels with 45,000 cubic square yards of reservoir muck. They didn’t operate from May – November and fish passage at Turners Falls–it was subsequently revealed, had jumped 600-800% above yearly averages. We didn’t get that information until late as well. Seem a little fishy to you?

Some of us actually care about wild fish and living rivers. And, frankly, if I were reduced to thinking that following a truckload of factory fish to its dumping site for a day’s angling was a wildlife experience—well, I’d just as soon get one of those wind-up fish carousels you can hold–the ones with the tiny plastic pole and the revolving, yapping fish mouths. The Massachusetts Division of “Manufactured” Fish & Wildlife–sounds about right where wild fish and the Connecticut River is concerned.

Karl Meyer of Greenfield is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Greening Greenfield’s “Green Hero” for September

Posted by on 11 Sep 2015 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC licensing process, Fish passage results, Greenfield Recorder, Greening Greenfield, Holyoke Fish Lift, National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS, Northfield Mountain, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Rock Dam, shortnose sturgeon, teachers, The Recorder, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS

Greening Greenfield’s “Green Hero” for September

I’ve had the honor of being selected as Greening Greenfield’s “Green Hero” for September, 2015. The award was announced in the pages of The Recorder on September 9th; the text from that piece is attached below.

Thanks to all the people of Greening Greenfield for extending me that recognition—as well as focusing on the importance of the critical artery in Western New England’s ecosystem, the Connecticut River. Greening Greenfield has been hard at work locally on issues of climate and sustainability for over a decade. Their efforts reach into all aspects of local energy, economy, and quality of life issues. They’ve made great strides in steering Greenfield toward an environmental future that will nourish coming generations. www.greeninggreenfield.org .

A special thanks from me to Susan and Dorothy.

Text of The Recorder piece follows:

A Passion for the Connecticut River

The first thing you notice about Karl Meyer is that his eyes light up when he speaks about the Connecticut River and the fish that live in it. His commitment and enthusiasm shows through in his words and in every action he takes.

In the 1970s’, Karl was interested in the river for its scenic qualities. But in the 1980’s, he visited Holyoke fishway during May spawning season and observed some of the more than a million fish moving through lifts there. One year 720,000 American Shad and 500,000 blueback herring came through the river at Holyoke. That image never left him.

Since that time, Karl has concentrated on the needs of the fish in the river, with a particular concern for American shad and the shortnose sturgeon, an endangered species. Karl believes the Connecticut’s restoration concentrated on the wrong species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put a great deal of effort into stocking the river and building fish ladders for Atlantic salmon, a fish extinct here since 1809. That emphasis diverted attention from shortnose sturgeon, shad, and blueback herring, none of which benefit very much from those Turners Falls fish ladders which diverted all migrants into the Turners Falls power canal.

In 2015, 410,000 American shad passed through Holyoke, but because they are diverted out of the river and into the power canal only 60,000, fewer than 15%, made it past Turners Falls to reach open, upstream spawning grounds. This is clearly unsustainable. Today’s US Fish & Wildlife Service passage goal is 60% passing Turners Falls. Their original 1967 target was 75%.

With fewer fish making it to food-rich, open habitats, fewer newborn fish survive. There will be fewer fish for eagles, herons and osprey, and fewer for anglers and the public to consume. Eventually 15% of very little will result in the failure of the restoration to return vibrant shad runs to three target states.

Karl has a simple solution for this problem. Require life-giving flows in the river throughout spawning and migration season. When fish aren’t diverted into a turbine-lined power canal they’ll have a much greater possibility of making it to spawning grounds in MA, VT and NH. It’s a last chance for river restoration.

The other great danger to river health is the Northfield Mountain Pumping Station. It draws on the 20 miles of river backed up behind Turners Falls Dam, pumping it uphill to a 5 billion gallon reservoir. Northfield hugely impacts river flows and migration.

“An original design proposal had Northfield closing during migration and spawning season. Implementing that today would return more natural flows to the river. It would allow fish to migrate directly upriver in natural habitat, and let sturgeon gather and spawn successfully at their ancient Rock Dam spawning site,” stated Karl.

So how do we encourage this change? Easy. Right now the Northfield and Turners Falls/Cabot Station facilities are both up for 30-year relicensing with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). We can all comment on the relicensing of these plants at http://www.ferc.gov/docs-filing/ecomment.asp. The FERC project number for Northfield is P-2485; Cabot Station is P-1889. Advocating that our river run free during spawning and migration season could make a huge difference in improving the health of the Connecticut.

Karl would like to see local high schools adopt the National Marine Fisheries Service’s SCUTES Program and encourage monitoring of tagged, adult shortnose sturgeon at their ONLY documented natural spawning site, The Rock Dam in Turners Falls. By developing an awareness of the numbers and needs of these endangered fish, students will build a new relationship to this river. http://www.greateratlantic.fisheries.noaa.gov/prot_res/scutes/kits.html

For his tireless work to create a healthy Connecticut River and a vibrant fish population within it, Karl Meyer is our Green Hero for the month of September.

On “false attraction” at Turners Falls

Posted by on 24 May 2015 | Tagged as: American shad, canal shad, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, False attraction, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, FERC licensing process, FirstLight, Fish passage results, Holyoke Fish Lift, New Hampshire, Relicensing, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, shad, shad fishing, Station 1, Test flows, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, Vermont

On “false attraction” at Turners Falls

No, this is not about sex—well OK, maybe a little. But it’s different than how you might see someone 200 yards up the trail and think, “Wow, looking good!”—only to discover on a closer pass that they are a different sex than the one that drives you, or they are decades older or younger than the person you were expecting to see. This is about spawning though—about squashing the spawning efforts of migratory fish.

False Attraction Flow is a phenomenon where migratory fish follow flows upstream that lead them to impassable barriers. These flows are created by flood and head gate releases at dam and canal sites, and they keep wild fish expending precious energy that would otherwise be used to swim to upstream river reaches to spawn.

5/24/2015 Today, FERC Relicensing Study test flow releases to the riverbed at Turners Falls Dam are set at 2,500 cubic feet per second. The weather is clear, warm.
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At 1p.m. I visit the ancient Rock Dam site on the Connecticut, where three people are fishing—a woman and two young men. The woman has just landed a shad. She has not been here long.

One young guy is just upstream. He says he’s been getting some hits, but nothing landed. He notes that he’s also a recent arrival.

I clamber up the cliff that looks down on the Rock Dam Pool. Shad are looping by in a constant stream, visible just to the outer edge of the bubbly rip. The light is so good I can see them almost straight down beneath me, as they are only five feet out from the cliff face at times. What is also apparent is that some turn back after making the approach to the whitewater that would take them through notches they must best to pass this natural falls. I see many turn in the current–cutting back against the school, then milling for a bit in the current.
(Below, is the flow downstream, away from Rock Dam–two people with fish poles are in kayaks)
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All the while, the stream of shad beneath me trying to find a way upstream is constant. Always a run of more fish—ten, twenty–hard to get a count as they spurt along. The spectacle is reminiscent of the old medieval representation of the ocean’s fish in constant circulation around the globe. Here, they simply keep appearing in an endless line. There is no telling if the 2,500 cfs is just too low for them to risk the rough, rocky edges of the Rock Dam’s clefts to move ahead. They get lost from view in the bubbly current. What it appears like, overall, is that these fish are stuck—streaming in, agitated to move upstream, but not finding a clear path forward at this flow.

I toss a question over to the furthest guy upstream near the headwaters over this basalt rock face. He says he’s seeing plenty of fish, but hasn’t brought in one yet.

On the way out I ask the woman if she’s going to cook up the good-sized shad she has laid out in the shallows. “Will you slow cook it?” I ask, “Or do you know how to dress them?” She is going to cook it up, but describes a method of cutting through center, just to get out some of those hundreds of delicate bones, and then toasting it up. “After it’s done, you can just get in there and get at the meat with a spoon.”

She asks me where my rod and reel are, and I tell her I’m really here to document flows—so that maybe someday we can all count on fish being here. I continue up the beach. “I’m hoping when I open this one there are some eggs in there,” she says, motioning over at her catch. She’d be delighted to fry up some roe. “Yea, that’s a pretty big fish,” I say, “I’m guessing it’s a female.” I bid her good luck for the day.

I get back on my bike and follow the Turners Falls Power Canal all the way upstream through The Patch section of Turners, and then down past Station 1–FirstLight’s small hydro generating site located on a dog-leg off the main canal. There’s a lone car down the paved drive that leads to the fishing access. When I scoot down to look over, the tailrace at Station 1 is charged with current. FirstLight is generating at this site, despite the test flow requirement that water only be released from the Turners Falls Dam at the 2,500 cfs level today. This will corrupt and skew fish passage study results.
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I walk down and meet the young guy fishing just off the edge of Station 1’s frothy spillway. James is from Greenfield, and “yup,” he fishes the site pretty regular. He’s just finished landing one. It’s unceremoniously laid out in the sandy silt. Smallish. “When there’s water here there are always fish,” he notes. I ask him if he wouldn’t mind my snapping a few photos and he’s fine with it, “You’re not in my way.” He points to the water, not a few feet out from where he is, “You see them all there?” I look, but don’t see much but shadowy, sun-dappled water. I stare a bit more, then start snapping pictures of the flows.
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When I come back down from near the tailrace I look again in the current. This time my angle to the sun is better. There are the shad. Dozens of them, stacked up in the current facing upstream into an endless, impassable sheet of water. “Now I see them,” I say, “Too bad they aren’t going anywhere.” “Yea,” James notes, “they are just stuck here.” I snap a photo of his dusty catch and wish him luck for the day.
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As I come up to the road from Station 1 there are two young boys, maybe eleven or twelve years old, walking along with poles and fishing tackle. They appear to be headed further on, to try their luck in the canal dog-leg. “Hey, what are you guys going after, shad?” “Anything!” they both say in concert. “If you head just down there,” I say, pointing, “There’s a guy just caught one. There’s dozens of fish waiting in the current—you can look right down and see them.” A quick glimmer passes between them, and they say thanks, heading down the driveway. “There’s a bit of poison ivy on the path. Watch for it.” I call, riding away.

I continue up to the Turners Falls Dam, where the flow is still at 2,500 cfs, the lowest test flow setting. There were not supposed to be any other intervening flows confounding these tests all the way downstream to the end of the power canal. The only time Station 1 is supposed to be operating during test flows is when dam releases ramp up to 6,300 cfs. The Fisheries and Aquatics Studies Team had worked out the schedule with FERC, and FirstLight agreed to it. This appears to be a clear violation of study protocols, and it throws into question fish passage results here.
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I cross the road on the Turners Falls Bridge, and peer over the side just downstream of the dam. A few people are fishing in the flow next to the Spillway Fish Ladder. I yell down to the closest angler. He’s fairly close to where Bascule Gate 1 is pouring down those 2,500 cfs. He doesn’t hear me over the rush of water. I yell again; he looks all around—then, on the third time, he looks up. I’m maybe 80 feet above him and we can’t really converse. “How is it?” yell, mimicking with the thumbs up/thumbs down gesture. At first he doesn’t pick it up, but when I do it again, he gives the thumbs down.

I’m not surprised. With all the false attraction flow at the Rock Dam Pool from the added water released by FirstLight at Station 1, there is little flow here in the broad reach of the Connecticut that would temp fish away from treading water at those sites into these thin upstream currents. The fish are basically being tricked; they are expending precious energy that could be used to get upstream to Vermont and New Hampshire just running down their batteries downstream. Imagine treading water on an aquatic, industrial treadmill that’s trying to lure them into a power canal. If you are a Vermont or New Hampshire angler, just understand that these swam their little fins off trying to spawn up on your stretch of river. The lure of false attraction just got the better of them.
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When I take a look at the head gates at the head of the Turners Falls Canal they appear all but quiet, save for the bubbling attraction currents that help lead fish into the Gatehouse Fishway —the place where the public will see them passing. The main and only place where these fish are getting a substantial upstream current that leads to this site is…yup!—2-1/2 miles downstream at the tail end of the power canal at Cabot Station. That’s likely where these fish are really being attracted–and tallied, as some that are actually radio-tagged for these studies are being registered. Humn! That would certainly skew study results toward fish “preferring” the canal…

There’s a long tradition among American shad themselves–and the fisheries biologists that have studied fish passage at Turners Falls over the decades. Study results sometimes show a remarkable uptick in fish passage at the Turners Falls Fishway on holiday weekends when the public is most likely to visit. The fish just seem to just know exactly when it’s Memorial Day Weekend. Even in those years when passage is poor for most of the month of May, those shad seem to just love to appear in the fishway windows at the holiday weekend. It’s uncanny how the fish know. Ironic, really. Not like they are being manipulated…

What would also be uncanny would be if FirstLight had their “most successful canal passage year” ever–right at the time when the studies that impact relicensing flows are taking place. Last year, when 370,000 shad were lifted past Holyoke Dam, just 39,914 made it out of the canal and upstream past Turners Falls Dam. Not a great number. In 2013, when 381,436 shad were passed upstream at Holyoke, just 35,124 made it out of the canal and upstream past Turners Falls. A slightly worse number.

For the last 15 years the canal route for migratory fish has been studied and “improved” for fish passage. Today’s numbers are still pretty much junk.

As a final testament to the lack of progress let’s go back almost a quarter century: in 1991 the Holyoke Fish Lift passed 520,000 American shad upstream. Of those, 54,656 shad managed to emerge, alive, upstream of the Turners Falls Canal and dam, to swim toward Vermont and New Hampshire spawning site.

Thus, a quarter-century later, migrating American shad here are still “partying like its 1991.” False attraction–and false solutions, are very closely related here at Turners Falls. Study results are compromised.

Vermont, New Hampshire, sorry but as an ecosystem, we are still broken up. Just know this: “It’s not you, it’s US!”