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Of Book Bans, Journalism and Shortnose Stout

Posted by on 06 Mar 2021 | Tagged as: Alden Booth, Andrew Fisk, Barnaby Watten, Bob Flaherty, Clean Water Act, Congressman John Olver, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Conservancy, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, critical habitat, Dr. Boyd Kynard, Endangered Species Act, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeion, FERC, FirstLight Power, Fish and Aquatics Study Team, journalism, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, Monte Belmonte, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, Shortnose Stout, Silvio O. Conte Connecticut River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, The People's Pint, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, Uncategorized, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey's Conte Fish Lab, WHMP, WRSI

Of Book Bans, Journalism and Shortnose Stout: a brief history of science, censorship and the short, noble life of a beer created to help stop corporate abuse on the Connecticut River Copyright © 2021 by Karl Meyer

(NOTE: for a WHMP podcast with Host Bob Flaherty related to this story go here: https://whmp.com/morning-news/sturgeon-stout-has-come-gone-but-the-harm-to-the-sturgeons-spawning-ground-continues/ )

A red slurry enters the Connecticut at the Rock Dam

Nearly a decade back retired federal fisheries biologist Dr. Boyd Kynard was putting the finishing touches on a book entitled Life History and Behaviour of Connecticut River Shortnose and Other Sturgeons. It was a compilation of sturgeon research conducted by federal biologists and university researchers—largely based locally on the Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon. Its findings described the shortnose sturgeon’s life history and habitat needs on the river from below Holyoke Dam, all the way to a spawning site known as the Rock Dam. The ancient Rock Dam site is just a few hundred yards from the USGS Conte Lab in Turners Falls where Kynard had spent a chunk of his career.

The sturgeon book authored by Kynard et al

Just as Kynard’s book was going to print in Germany, published by the World Sturgeon Conservation Society, Boyd Kynard and Harold Rosenthal, its editors, received word from the US Geological Service that two chapters of the book were being “recalled” for “editorial” reasons, and all publication would need to be halted in the United States and abroad. The reasons given were rather murky at the time—some were vague stylistic preferences. Kynard immediately smelled a rat. He believed that the two chapters thrown into question were being stymied because they used the term “river regulation” as a key factor in the spawning failure of the shortnose sturgeon here—the only federally endangered migratory fish in the Connecticut River system and one that spawned on the doorstep of the USGS Conte Lab.

The term river regulation was accurate, precise and descriptive. It referred to conditions created when the power company, just upstream, either inundated or starved the bed of the Connecticut River via operation of its Turners Falls Dam. The dam is operated in response to the massive river disruption created when the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, a giant, net-loss energy contraption just upstream, either suctioned or spewed huge pulses of water in and out of the riverbed. This grim industrial model literally cripples the ancient flows of this ecosystem, killing millions of fish outright, while creating spawning conditions for shortnose sturgeon that cause spawning failure most years at Rock Dam. The Rock Dam, confirmed by Kynard’s research, is the only documented natural spawning site on the river. It appeared the USGS did not want something put in print that directly stated those facts—one that led straight back to the actions of a corporation.

As a journalist I’d already spent many hours with Boyd Kynard, asking questions about sturgeon, shad, and river conditions. We’d had many a fine discussion over breakfast and coffee, often lasting two hours and more. The idea that the book’s information was being embargoed, censored, really hit a sour note about free speech, freedom of information and interfering with the facts and data of research science. Along with Dr. Kynard, several of the ten co-authors of the book’s chapters from various labs and universities cried foul.

The US Geological Service actually caused the book’s publication to be banned for a brief time in Europe, but the publishers ultimately decided they would not be bowed by the politics of a foreign federal agency. They resumed printing and selling the book. Here in the United State, USGS held tight to their recall and vague objections to the book’s science. Compiled and written by Kynard and fellow researchers, The Life History and Behaviour of Connecticut River Shortnose and Other Sturgeons was essentially banned—with no schedule for those USGS’s loose objections to be resolved. Months passed as the silencing of federal and state research science and the work of those authors, continued.

What ultimately broke the ban was journalism. I interviewed Kynard. Then I attempted to interview his long-time assistant and fellow researcher Micah Kieffer, who still worked at the USGS Conte Lab. Kieffer was not allowed to speak with me. In fact, that spring he was unceremoniously taken off sturgeon research altogether, and sent upriver to work on studies of trout—far from his area of expertise. Ultimately, I was able to get Barnaby Watten, Branch Chief at Conte Lab on the record. Not surprisingly, he could provide no clear reason why USGS was recalling and withholding Kynard and Kieffer’s Chapters 1 and 3. After that I tracked down the USGS editor, who it turned out, had no experience in shortnose sturgeon biology. It all went into my developing story for the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

But what ultimately broke the embargo was my chat with an aide to Congressman John Olver—noting to him that a group of federal and university researchers had all signed a letter to his boss, decrying the silencing of federal and university research. In short, they claimed censorship by USGS. Free speech protections, university science and the public’s right to know were being thwarted by a federal agency. Once this was brought to the attention of John Olver’s office I was quickly informed that Dr. Olver, a former UMass professor, fully intended to “look into the matter.”

The next day I brought that bit of information back to Barnaby Watten at USGS, asking for a reaction. This was a Friday. And, with just that bit of inquiry on behalf of the public’s right to know, the federal embargo on the government and university science contained in Life History and Behaviour of Connecticut River Shortnose and Other Sturgeons, quickly evaporated. By the weekend, Dr. Kynard was signing and delivering copies of a book that was the product of his nearly 20 years of federal sturgeon research. My Gazette article appeared sometime the following week.

What made it so creepy—the recall and ban, was that it was coming on the heels of the beginning of the relicensing process for the Turners Falls Dam and Turners Falls Power Canal, and the giant Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, 7 miles upriver. The corporate owners of that spawning-crippling “river regulation” lived right nearby. The land USGS Conte Lab sat on was owned by the power company. Hard not to contemplate a corporate connection.

Anyway, that fall, 2012, I began taking part as a participating stakeholder and member of the Fish and Aquatics Studies Team in the Federal Energy Regulatory Relicensing process for those facilities. I had a lot of science and writing experience pertaining to fish, dam, and river issues, and also had worked for both the power company and the watershed council previously. It was a pretty thorough bit of starter knowledge that I could make use of. I knew where the bodies were buried, where culpability for the abuse and failures in habitat protection lay.

Funny thing though, when the state and federal fish agencies, assorted stakeholders and the power company, FirstLight, sat down to discuss river studies and information needed to create new river conditions in a new license, very little mention was being made of shortnose sturgeon, the sole endangered species trying to spawn right in the heart of these relicense settings.

Frustrated, as deadlines loomed for the outlines of that spring’s fish migration studies were being discussed—all largely without anyone talking “sturgeon”, I phoned Dr. Kynard. In light of the seeming “third rail” absence of discussion about needed flows for sturgeon spawning, I asked him to release permission for me to use and enter Chapters 1 and 3 into the federal record of the relicensing. Boyd complied, and I quickly put all that science into the record so it would have standing. I also intervened later that spring when some test flows into the riverbed suggested by the power company were so low that they were guaranteed to interfere with sturgeon spawning. I won a change in the spring study flows–they didn’t get to low-ball the river’s only endangered migrants that year.

Shortnose Stout: a noble public information idea that ultimately went sideways; then belly up

Still, as time went on there just seemed to be only a smattering of lip service at the company/stakeholder meeting tables involving river flows and fish studies that mentioned shortnose sturgeon. It was remarkably, eerily quiet on that count. One day over a coffee meeting where I was downloading more long-term fisheries knowledge from Dr. Kynard, I told him that I had an idea for a beer, Shortnose Stout. I promised him I would find a producer for it, to help get the word out about sturgeon flows to the public. That effort would take many more months, but when out cycling one warm day I bumped into Alden Booth, owner of The People’s Pint in Greenfield. I told him I had this great idea for a beer name and marketing concept to help create change for an amazing–and amazingly ignored fish. He came on board pretty quick.

Over the winter things began to brewing. The Pint came up with a fine label, a Shortnose sturgeon backlit by a full sturgeon moon. I came up with the text, describing both the beer and the biological plight of the sturgeon at its spawning site, the Rock Dam—while pointing the public to the science featured on Kynard’s website. This was all volunteer work for me, done in the name of giving a voice to the river and this embattled fish.

The brand I created; my text, and Dr. Kynard’s website link.

The beer debuted on St. Patrick’s Day at The People’s Pint, and created quite a buzz. Meanwhile, Alden Booth had asked me whether there wasn’t a group that could be targeted to benefit from the sale of Shortnose Stout. I told him that I really didn’t see anyone doing any worthy river protection in light of this endangered fish’s plight. Nobody had taken up that fight. There was no one that deserved either praise or reward in the sturgeon’s name. So, it was let go at that.

The following spring, despite the Endangered Species Act, the published book, the science, and a year of Shortnose Stout, no one was standing up to the sturgeon miseries STILL occurring at the Rock Dam spawning site in the midst of federal negotiations. There was no action, nothing stated from Mass. Fish and Wildlife, US Fish and Wildlife Service, or National Marine Fisheries about stepping in at this critical time, and no USGS work to track spawning success at Rock Dam.

I did learn from The Pint’s Booth that the popular stout was going to be brewed again in March. But where I again would’ve noted that none were worthy of having stood up for sturgeon, I was informed that the Connecticut River Watershed Council was stepping up to collect funds in the name of the Shortnose sturgeon. With that I simply declined the invitation to be at that spring’s St. Patrick’s Day debut of a new batch of Shortnose Stout. Dr. Kynard did attend, and on the invitee list was also Dr. Andy Fisk, newly arrived director of the Connecticut River Watershed Council–happy to step in front of a camera.

Fisk had recently been pictured in The Greenfield Recorder, holding a bottle of Shortnose Stout on a bridge above the Connecticut. Any self-respecting shortnose sturgeon would tell you that the only site worthy of getting a photograph taken for your hard, hard work protecting this species would have required you to pose at the Rock Dam–the grimly embattled site that remains this river’s ugliest, most pointedly-ignored and undefended critical biological habitat on the entire river. The Watershed Council collected the profits and accolades in the name of the shortnose, while the actual fish remained undefended and under siege for yet another spawning season at Rock Dam. It’s great PR associating with an endangered species though.

I believe that was the final year Shortnose Stout was brewed. It was a shame such an opportunity for action was squandered. The miseries for this river’s federal and state endangered shortnose sturgeon remain today exactly as they were nearly a decade back, when a federal agency quickly stepped in and placed an embargo on a book written by researchers doing public research in the public’s interest, conducted at their own federal facilities.

The watershed council has since changed its name to “conservancy,” but in all its 69 years has never brought on board any legal staff, or adopted a mission to investigate, enforce, and prosecute—the basic things necessary to lay claim to protecting a river and endangered species.

The Connecticut River Shortnose sturgeon will arrive back at its ancient Rock Dam spawning site in just five weeks. There the riverbanks have been collapsing and failing, oozing a grim orange puss that feeds directly into their cobbled spawning pool home. The Rock Dam’s critical habitat becomes more debased, embattled and ignored with each passing season. Year after year, decade upon decade, there is no more disgraceful biological habitat—on this river, at the heart of the Connecticut River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, on the doorstep of the USGS Conte Lab, just across the river from Greenfield, home to the Connecticut River Conservancy, than the ancient Rock Dam pool on New England’s Great River.


The Connecticut River’s Rock Dam spawning pool today. Shortnose sturgeon will be returning to this grim and undefended spawning habitat 5 weeks from today.

In the end, nobody walked the walk. No one stepped up; no one deserved to profit from the sale of a beer named to honor and protect a river and a magnificent and embattled ancient fish.

Here in Massachusetts on the Connecticut River during a critical and endless FERC relicensing process the only apparent player playing for keeps is FirstLight Power–the Canadian-owned, Delaware-registered, recently-arrived operators of these river-crippling facilities. Their shareholders are delighted, I’m sure.

What will our grandchildren have to say about what we failed to do here?.

(**NOTE: for further information related to this story listen to the following podcast with Host Monte Belmonte from WRSI, The River. https://wrsi.com/monte/saving-rock-dam-from-damnation/

Paying for Journalism: why Democracy Depends on It

Posted by on 01 Jul 2020 | Tagged as: Attorney General William Barr, Geoffrey Berman, journalism, The First Amendment, The Recorder, The Society of Environmental Journalists

Here is a link to a piece published in The Greenfield Recorder on Saturday, June 27, 2020. The original text is reprinted here, immediately below the link.

https://www.recorder.com/my-turn-Meyer-journalism-34918407

Paying for Journalism: why Democracy Depends on It
Copyright © 2020 by Karl Meyer

Paying for journalism is patriotic—whether it’s for the investigative stories from an online subscription, a newspaper, or original reporting from public TV and radio. If all politics is local then so too is all news. And in tough times it’s up to citizens to support and keep local reporting front and center. Without it, democracy withers.

The First Amendment, securing the franchise of democracy and freedom of expression for all citizens of the United States, reads thus, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Yet on June 1st, US Attorney General William Barr shoved a stick into the eye of the First Amendment. He and President Trump used a phalanx of US Park Police, chemical pepper spray, and a military helicopter to clear a passionate, largely peaceful group of demonstrators from Lafayette Park. This, so the President–flanked by riot police and a military commander, could have a picture taken holding a Bible before a church he had no membership in. It smacked of blatant disrespect for Black people, local religious leaders, free speech and the rights of the citizenry. The king got his photo op.

Then, on June 18th AG Barr made a quietly-arranged stop in Boston–a city with a troubled racial history. He met with Boston’s first Black Commissioner of Police, the recently promoted William Gross. For Commissioner Gross it would’ve been tough to refuse a meeting with the nation’s top law enforcement officer. But for Barr the optics of the visit may have actually been a bigger feature–as one of his aides made sure a request for a quick photo-op was soon posted to social media. A smiling Barr with the Commissioner–seemingly all unified in liberal, troubled Boston, just another fact-empty, news-like social media coup.

Late Friday June 19th when people weren’t focused on news, Attorney General Barr manufactured a press release intended to intimidate Geoffrey Berman–US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, into silently resigning his position of 2-1/2 years. The lie Barr made up about Berman stated he was “stepping down” from his post. No cause given. Barr’s fabrication fell on its face when Berman informed the public, “I have not resigned, I have no intention of resigning.” While Berman refused to go quietly, it must also be noted the Attorney General’s intent was that his power would be bowed-to—and that his late-night maneuver would then subtly mislead US citizens about the facts–about the truth. In grade school parlance writing that false narrative made William Barr plainly, simply, a liar.

William Barr is an accomplished politician. But as the nation’s top legal official I’d describe him as cunning; unfit to umpire a tee-ball game. As a writer, journalist—and citizen, I’m kind of attached to the First Amendment. But Barr has recently made a mockery of that clause in the Bill of Rights. Maybe he’d like it erased. And it seems his boss would rather see the Second Amendment emplaced as law number # 1. At that point any democracy left for your kids may be squeezed down to merely the number of rounds contained in a military style-assault weapon.

When people holding the highest positions in government repeatedly lie, democracy is in danger. When they wield power like a cattle prod at anyone speaking truths they don’t want to hear, Mr. Lincoln’s “government of the people, for the people, and by the people” is in peril. When fear, anger, and blame are used to deflect responsibility for death, discord and disaster in a country desperately in need of courage, compassion, and healing, that country is moving dangerously close to dictatorship.

I’ve never grown tired of democracy. It is the great, imperfect experiment that’s made us unique. When dictators, at times, tried to bully their way to the top of our system, all eventually failed when a light was shined on their actions. And it was journalists, editors, the professional news media–backed by the First Amendment, doing that work. Their stories shone a light not from above, but from street level–work that was bolstered by a common trust, a linkage with the people of America’s cities and towns. Professional reporting and a free press are critical to democracy. Planted, news-like stories and pomp-and-flag-draped photo ops of leaders crying “fake news” when confronted with facts imperil it. Support real journalism, it’s worth every penny.