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ONE WILDLY ILL-ADVISED RIDE

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

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

Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer

ONE WILDLY ILL-ADVISED RIDE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Secretary Beaton needs better advice.

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

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

Shortnose sturgeon: ignoring published research

Posted by on 04 Apr 2016 | Tagged as: Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Dr. Boyd Kynard, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeion, FERC Comments, Jack Buckley, John Bullard, Julie Crocker, Kimberly D. Bose, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, MA Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS, NOAA, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, Secretary Kimberly Bose, shortnose sturgeon, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vince E. Yearick, Wendi Weber

KM-Rock Dam program 4-23-16P1000433

TOP: Rock Dam program, 4-23-16 (click to enlarge)

Bottom: The ROCK DAM: shortnose sturgeon spawning site (click to enlarge)

The following testimony was submitted on March 18, 2016, to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on behalf of the biological needs of the federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon at its sole documented natural spawning site in the Connecticut River ecosystem.

Karl Meyer, M.S.

85 School Street # 3

Greenfield, MA  01301                                       March 18, 2016

 

The Honorable Kimberly D. Bose, Secretary

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

88 First Street, NE

Washington, DC  20426

 

SUPPLEMENTAL INFORMATION: RE: P-1889-081 and P-2485-063, and federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, (Acipenser brevirostrum)

Attach to: PROTEST of FERC-sanctioned Revised Plan for Study 3.3.19, issued to FirstLight Power Resources, Inc, in a February 25, 2016 FERC letter to Mr. James P. Donohue of FirstLight, by Vince E. Yearick, FERC Director, Division of Hydropower Relicensing.

Dear Secretary Bose,

This additional information is being submitted subsequent to my receipt of a March 15, 2016 letter from Mr. Vince Yearick, Director, Division of Hydropower Licensing, restating FERC’s intention to sanction spring 2016 test flows that are documented to result in spawning failure and displacement of federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon(SNS), at their sole natural spawning site in this river system. Those findings come from 20 years of research conducted by government scientists from both the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the US Geological Survey.

I am submitting an index and key chapters from this exhaustive body of shortnose sturgeon research published in LIFE HISTORY AND BEHAVIOUR OF CONNECTICUT RIVER SHORTNOSE AND OTHER STURGEONS, 2012, by Boyd Kynard, Paolo Bronzi et al, World Sturgeon Conservation Society: Special Publication # 4. Chapter 3 directly addresses SNS spawning failure and displacement at the Rock Dam in the Connecticut’s By Passed Reach, and clearly indicates that test flows of 1500 cfs will not be protective of a species listed since 1967 under the federal Endangered Species Act.

From P. 107 (PDF-page numbers and numbers in the actual text are the same), “Spawning failure in unregulated rivers likely occurs, but it should be rare because females have adapted to natural fluctuations in the river discharge. Spawning failure (when fish were present) occurred at MontSR due to river regulation, but spawning did not fail due to peaking operations. Regulation created bottom velocities that were too low or exceeded the preference of females or created a low discharge that either prevented female access to the RockD or failed to attract them.”

Findings and data from pages 101 and 102 should provide further guidance to FERC in reexamining this decision. In his response Mr. Yearick argues that the low test flow of 1500 cfs put forth for Study 3.3.19 is somehow key in making correlations to last year’s American shad passage tests from Study 3.3.2. However, that is by no means clear (note–the 3.3.2 results have yet to be made available to Stakeholders) as that study also included tests flows of 1000 cfs and 6300 cfs—flows also not being included in order to make any useful correlation with Study 3.3.19.

Further, in regard to the failure or oversight in the protective responsibilities of the National Marine Fisheries Service to submit objections in this instance (as well as the USFWS and MA Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, who also have federal and state ESA mandates), those failures in no way release the FERC from its own responsibilities under the federal Endangered Species Act. In FERC’s own words, from: Hydropower Relicensing-Get Involved, A GUIDE FOR THE PUBLIC: “Is the Commission subject to other federal laws? Yes. The Commission must comply with a variety of federal laws, such as the Clean Water Act (to protect water quality), the Endangered Species Act (to protect threatened and endangered plant and animal species) and the National Historic Preservation Act (to protect culturally significant places and historic properties).”

Regarding Mr. Yearick’s citing of Article 34 as permitting the harming of protected species in the current license, he fails to note the following tenets included in that self-same Article regarding continuous minimum flows and modifications thereof: “These flows may be modified temporarily: (1) during and to the extent required by operating emergencies beyond the control of the Licensee; and (2) in the interest of recreation and protection of the fisheries resources, upon mutual agreement of the Licensees for Projects 1889 and 2485 and the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.”

Please also note that, with the marked improvements shown in American shad passage at Turners Falls in 2015 which appear to correlate well with the significant increases in flow through the By Passed Reach, it is highly unlikely that any of the Stakeholder Agencies would consider requesting a Licensed flow of 1500 cfs when the biological needs and passage of both federal-trust and federally-endangered migratory fish require significantly more volume to fulfill their spawning requirements.

Lastly, 8 years in arrears of its license agreement signed in 2002 for FERC P-2004–to have completed upstream access for federally endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon by 2008, Holyoke Gas & Electric has completed modifications to its fishway. That should allow SNS their first access and reintroduction to their natural spawning grounds in 168 years. In my mind, it would be patently criminal to greet these endangered fish on their first spawning trip upstream since 1849 with sanctioned flows guaranteed to displace them and cause spawning failure.

Thank you for your careful attention to this critical matter.

Sincerely,

Karl Meyer, Fish and Aquatics Study Team, P-2485 and P-1889

Please see attached chapters in PDF format, as well as included index and book cover.

Cc’d via email to:

Brandon Cherry, FERC

William Connelly, FERC

James Donohue, FirstLight

Julie Crocker, NOAA

Bjorn Lake, NOAA

John Warner, USFWS

Caleb Slater, MA Division of Fisheries & Wildlife

John Bullard, Regional Administrator, NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Region

Wendi Weber, Director, USFWS Region 7

Jack Buckley, Director, Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife

Dr. Boyd Kynard