Archived Posts from this Category

The Holyoke Fish Lift: 55 years and just one success–a walk-through visit on (podcast); two public CRASC meetings in June; for the birds—“Sitting Down with Nighthawks” in the current Bird Watcher’s Digest, by Karl Meyer

Posted by on 08 Jun 2010 | Tagged as: American shad, Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Conte, CRASC, federal trust fish, salmon, The Bill Dwight Show, USFWS

THE HOLYOKE FISH LIFT: 55 years of simply lifting fish–the only migratory fish passage success story on the main stem Connecticut River; CRASC public meetings in Turners Falls, MA: the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission’s (CRASC) Technical Committee meets June 17, and the CRASC Board meets June 22–witness the officials and the politics steering decisions affecting your river.  They meet just twice a year.

The migration season on the Connecticut River is far too brief–and far too thin, these days.  It must be highlighted and enjoyed within a narrowing spring window.  For a perspective on the beauty, and the myths, and the half-truths that are eroding migratory fish runs upstream on the Connecticut River, visit: , “Jurassic Park on the Connecticut” from June 4, 2010.  This is a river system that is seeing its runs of federal trust fish wash away.  It suffers desperately from waste, dishonesty, a lack of common sense science, and a dearth of public information and agency oversight.

There are two public meetings of the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission this month.  The CRASC Technical Committee meets on Thursday, June 17, 2010, at 10:00 a.m., at the USF&WS Conte Anadromous Fish Lab in Turners Falls, MA; and the full Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission meets on Tuesday, June 22, 2010, at 10:00, at the Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Lab on Migratory Way in Turners Falls.

CRASC is the tiny collection of state and federal fisheries representatives that have been making decisions about Connecticut River fisheries science, spending, and public policy for decades.  Their accountability, advocacy, and credibility would benefit from members of the public and the media attending meetings.  CRASC oversight is supposed to serve as the river’s–and the public’s, protection from environmental damage by the power companies operating on the Connecticut.

Out of 24 positions on the CRASC Board and Tech Committee, not one is held by a woman.  There has not been a public representative on the CRASC Board in Massachusetts in nearly three years.  Sound fishy?  Help the river: pay them a visit.

For the birds: For a more generalist and aerial perspective on migration in the Deerfield River Valley, you might pick up the May/June 2010 issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest and read my, “Sitting Down with Nighthawks.”

The shad abattoir: the final leg home, May 5th

Posted by on 06 Jun 2010 | Tagged as: American shad, Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, CRASC, Deerfield River, Farmington River, federal trust fish, Rainbow Dam Fishway, salmon, salmon hatchery

The shad abattoir: the final leg home, May 5th: Rainbow Dam “fish ladder” on the Farmington, to Holyoke Dam, and on to the confluence of the Deerfield and the Connecticut at Greenfield, MA

© 2010 by Karl Meyer

May 5, 2010.  The shad abattoir and home: including a visit to the deadly Rainbow Fishway on the Farmington River in East Granby, CT

I am out the door of the Iron Horse in by 6:15 the next morning.  In truth, any lurking axe murderers did not seek me out.  I had a decent shower, the TV came on, and I was able to air out the room without turning on the hotel AC—something I pointedly abhor.

There is a small gas station/convenience store a block away.  I mix myself a coffee there.  Along with water, this will be my only fuel for the next five hours.  Then, I head off a little north and east, toward the little village of Tariffville and what I’m hoping will morph into a safe route to Rainbow Dam at the back of Bradley Airport.  It’s already warm, and the day will quickly work towards hot.

With my old fashioned highway maps I’m a bit handcuffed as to local roads, relying much on my general sense of direction and landscape.  That will only get you so far.  I’m in the bedroom community corridor for Hartford, just down the road, as well as Bradley Airport—just across the way.  A poor choice here could get me hammered by commuting traffic once again.

But it’s still early, and the shade near the Farmington River is lovely.  I pull into Tariffville at just before 7 am, stopping to puzzle at maps that aren’t going to give up much more information.  This is a refreshingly modest village, with homes that are older, and built on a human scale.  From the look of it, this is a small town of regular working people.  Tariffville does not put on airs.

Just a bit up the street a pick-up pulls into the only open store, a small convenience-variety place.  I waste little time in accosting a guy in his late-forties as he exits his truck.

He’s wearing a Connecticut State Corrections uniform, and I’m guessing he’s just off-shift.  “Excuse me, but would you know how to get over toward Rainbow Dam?”  He stops, thinks a minute.  “Keep going straight up here.  At the light go right, Hatchet Hill Road.  You’ll go over the mountain.  Just stay straight on that.”

I thank him, and let his errand continue, not mentioning that I was a guest at the Hartford Correctional Center some decades back—the result of a protest over the billions spent on yet another Trident sub at the Groton Naval Base.  It’s a bit early for that kind of small talk.  I’m resettling my maps and already gulping water when he comes back out, “At the bottom of the hill, go straight.  You’ll come to a stoplight—keep going straight.”  I thank him again, and I’m off, crossing the shade dappled Farmington.

Hatchet Hill is a decent climb.  It’s narrow and winding, and a bit tight in places while people head to work and school.  It is, however, a neat biking run, on a road that at least carries the cachet of some historical and landscape significance, though I don’t know its history.  I crest Hatchet Hill, rolling up from farm into mixed woods.  That pattern reverses as I head down the other side and pass through the stoplight mentioned.

There is a small crossroads with a neighborhood, then a few old houses and farmland, with development encroaching.  When I pass the Poquonock Fire Station, I’m beginning to get hopeful that this trip to the Rainbow Dam Fishway on the Farmington will not become a dreaded death-defying race against rush hour airport commuters on a crappy four-lane.  Then, things turn quickly from open field, to modern, mega-industrial.

I hear the roar of the first jet taking off, high, and a little northeast of me.  The road is newer with wide shoulders, to my delight.  But, I’m quickly turning into an ant riding into OZ—on a flat, massive, industrial sweep of pavement bordered by giant warehouses with acres of sodded lawn spaced widely across what were once ancient agricultural lands.  This is about as far away from the idea of nature and thriving fish runs as this odd cyclist could imagine.

And, it’s a damned peculiar place to find oneself in.  As I methodically make my way across these giant fields of industry I know I don’t want to make any wrong turns and find myself on the wrong side of the Farmington, or in the pipeline of rush hour traffic.  I see a FedEx truck rumbling down from the security gate of one of the warehouses.  The guy is coming to the stop sign at the main drag I’m on.  I wave him down.  “Rainbow Road?” I query, “You don’t happen to know if this is the road to Rainbow Dam?—I don’t want to miss the turn.”  He doesn’t have a clue, but points, “Why don’t you try the guy in the guardhouse?”

So, on my fully-bagged bike, in bright morning sun, sometime after 6:30 am, I begin rolling toward the big guardhouse astride the huge fence, surrounding the lawns of a towering warehouse.  There’s a big sign that says, “NO WEAPONS.”  This is slightly intimidating.  I have a moment of worry about how my bagged-approach will be received.

What I get is a man in full security garb stepping from the modern, kitchen-sized security shack.  I’m hoping not to be mistaken for a warehouse attacker.  Turns out he’s pretty peppy, mid-thirties, and likely amused at having this grey-haired guy stop.  I ask my questions, saying again that I don’t want to end up on the wrong side–of the river.  He doesn’t know where the river itself is, but he does know where the reservoir is, “If you keep going up here and head straight after the circle you’ll be on Rainbow Road.  I don’t know about any fishway, but there’s a sign on there for launching boats.”  “Perfect,” I tell him, “That’ll get me there.”

So, I’ve made it!  This will get me to where I did my scouting some weeks back.  I can get to the fishway this May 4th, when the fish are running.  I thank him and head on, enjoying what is not at the moment big commuter road in this industrial sector, at least before 7 a.m.  Soon, I’m around that traffic circle and onto narrow Rainbow Road, the speed trap I’ve been on before.  It’s flanked by cookie-cutter houses that back up tightly against what should be a vegetation-buffered Farmington River.

I reach the fish “ladder” at 7:15.  They gates are locked tight, but there is no way I’m going to be denied the right to visit the river at this juncture.  By its own statements the site is open during the May-June fish passage season.  So, I walk my bike about 100 feet into a tiny patch of woods and weeds to keep it out of anywhere where someone could accost it.  I grab my camera and hop a small, cursory fence, then take the gravel-dirt trail toward the fish ladder.

Yellow warblers, catbirds, robins and yellow throats pump out their spring songs.  The fish ladder sprawls out straight ahead and up along the big monolith of a dam to the right.  There is chain link fencing up flanking the ladder, wrapping back around downstream to lock off the counting and trapping facilities.  To the left are three large “salmon imprinting pools.”  They look like sludgy, forgotten wading pools and don’t appear to be used any longer.

I approach the fence and hear gurgling Farmington River water vented here from the north side of the dam.  That moving water has a wonderful spring voice as it pulses through the tight slots of this decades-old fish ladder patterned from those used for Pacific Northwest salmon.  But that water comes through in a veritable torrent in the narrow slots of this human designed cataract, 66 feet long.  And it is this that makes this structure a veritable train wreck of fisheries restoration in the Connecticut River basin—and one of the first.

The Rainbow Dam Fishway is a fish killer, a veritable abattoir for American shad.  It is so steep, and the slots so narrow, that the fish actually die trying to ascend.  This has been known by Connecticut fisheries biologists for 30 years.  Among those long in the field it has been called the “world’s best shad de-scaler.”  Few successfully spawn after the ordeal of a match with the Rainbow Fishway—upstream or down.  The fish literally scrape their bellies raw trying to ascend a mountain so long and turbulent few make it out the other side.  And most of those who do are in fatal condition.

More American shad have died in their repeated attempts to best this torture chamber than have ever been helped in the Farmington River.  It is the largest single cause of the decline in shad on the Farmington—the state’s largest tributary.  One more cut to the fecundity of the Connecticut River’s federal trust runs.  Blueback herring suffer from the impassible damage done by the Rainbow ladder too.  Its sort of like “New York, New York” in reverse—they don’t make it here, they don’t make it anywhere.  Hardly.

What makes it up the Rainbow Dam Fishway are one–sometimes two or three, hybrid salmon, fish whose lives began in a hatchery.  And, for this reason, there has been this massive run of lies and silence about the Rainbow ladder for decades.  This elite dream of a few, now this salmon hoax, has robbed this entire system of meaningful, native fish runs.  For three manufactured fish per season…  The salmon has been extinct here since 1809; I guess we’re just waiting for the same to occur with the herring and shad.

Why have real, self-sustaining populations of native fish when you can have hatcheries instead?

I look in the roaring slots of the ladder.  No struggling shad visible, though I can only view the top three-fifths of the fishway from this vantage, the rest is gated off below.  I’m wondering if they make it this far up and die, floating back down to the base, or whether most simply don’t even make it to this point.

And, or course, there are no salmon, the species this entire structure was built in deference to in 1975.

In good sunlight though I do see the one species that’s destined to gobble up all the hubris and mistakes of the salmon priesthood and spit them out the other side: sea lamprey.  Clamped to the cement walls, resting and waving like downstream streamers in this tumult are dozens of sea lamprey.  Most are clamped onto the structure just outside the turbulence of the ladder’s slots.  Occasionally you will see one or two jockeying for a new position, one up hard against another.

My regard for these fish only ramps up the more I encounter them.  What adaptation!  What tenacity!  There is no arguing with their pluck and spawning impulse.  They have returned to the sea to get it done, and by god they will.  And die afterwards.  This is a fish that has succeeded across an arc spanning hundreds of millions of years.  Unfortunately, it’s not a species with the boutique cachet of a salmon, nor, unfortunately, is it a federally trust target species—lest the old-boys salmon network would have stumbled across some success.

Staring in wonder, I occasionally see a lamprey reach its disc-mouth past the water line to clamp onto the walls, just above the pulsing current.  Looking down on these fish from above, I can’t help but be reminded of a “spy-hopping” hump-backed whale on a Cape Cod whale watch.  Those rows of rudimentary gills pump furiously as they wait for their opening.  Then, several times, I hear a crackling snap–and a spray of water patters my face as one ropey fish makes its lightning bid to best the next slot.

I keep waiting for a tap on the shoulder here, a call over some speaker, telling me I’m unwelcome in the morning sun.  I am, in a way, the enemy at the gate of course—witnessing this folly and tragedy.  That tap never comes.  A state fisheries salmon truck sits parked and idle on the other side of the fence, awaiting its next, precious cargo run.  I see about all I can see from behind the chain links; celebrate the triumph of the lamprey, and feel the heat of the stupidity that’s killing shad and herring.  I take a few pictures, and retreat.  When I’m outside the locked gate I re-read the sign.  It says the gates open at 8:00 a.m.  I look at my watch.  It’s 8:10.  A lone jet roars loudly overhead.

Once again I ferret my way back over Hatchet Hill, finding the carcass of what appears to be a wood turtle on the pavement out by that wide industrial park maze.  How strange.

I get back on Rt. 189, and quickly re-intersect the Farmington Bikeway.  It travels some lovely woods and wetlands in this section of East Granby and Suffield—quite an early morning pleasure.  I know I’ve crossed into Massachusetts when the bikeway almost seems to narrow.  The pavement is newer, there’s a yellow stripe now down the middle, but it continues.  There’s a brand new sign board—but without any info on it.

About 150 yards into the Bay State, a large oak is sprawled across the trail from last night’s storm.  There are two older men and a woman standing around the blocked path.  One man has a saw, but this is a huge tree.  “You can get by,” they tell me, and you can, barely.  I want to ask about the path ahead, whether it’s complete through Westfield, but they are pretty wrapped up in talk.  I bid them goodbye.  Things are going fine for a mile or more as I’m into Southwick past Congamond Road, when suddenly, and without warning, the path turns to a dirt trench near an underpass.  Dead stop.

I head back, and decide its time to reenter the world of the road biker.  I take the right at Congamond and decide I’ll just keep heading west and north, until I intersect with Routes 10 and 202, a familiar path in this region.  I know it well by both bike and car in places.  By back roads I reach Southwick Center by 11:00 a.m.  The sun is bright, and the day is getting warm.  I need to replenish, since I’ve been running on just water and a cup of coffee since leaving Simsbury.  I grab a fat muffin at Dunkin Donuts, and refill my water bottle in their restroom, then stand outside, taking a last look at my maps and wondering if I’ll make it to Holyoke by noon, in time to catch my friend Tony shad fishing.  It’s not looking good.

What I do know is that this road will take me–though not far out of my way, into downtown Westfield, which is currently a mess of construction.  Out of the question, I say to myself.  Then, as I’m back on my bike I start figuring I should be able to lean a bit on landscape memory, common sense, and my experience out here when I used to meet my old friend Carol for lunch now and then.  I grab this back road, and that back road, and finally come to some known turf: Shaker Valley Road, and Little River Road.  I now know where I am, and have the rest of the route in my head.

I scoot through the main Rt. 20 intersection in Westfield and over the Westfield River, and proceed down back roads just west of the ridge that leads over to the Connecticut River.  I re-intersect Rt. 202 and begin grinding my way up the steep side of East Mountain, where the road is totally torn up, and in full repaving mode.  Cops and workers wave me through this stretch and that.  It’s hot, and time is running short for my noon deadline.

Finally, I crest East Mountain, and check my watch.  A few minutes past noon.  Not bad.  I figure another 15 – 20 minutes to Holyoke Dam—nearly all those last miles either downhill, or flat.  Triumphant, its just 12:23 when I pull up to the Rt. 116 Bridge downstream of the dam.  A small string of guys are fishing below, but Tony will be further down.  One guy lands a shad.  I head to the parking lot and check for Tony’s truck; then gamely leave all my bags on my bike, unlocked, and scramble down to the river.

A dozen guys are in the water, downstream of Slim Shad Point.  One, I recognize as Tony.  There’s the quiet banter of fisherman, as birds chirp in the margins.  The Connecticut has its own music too, where it’s been released to come through down the tailrace.  I’m in my bike shorts, looking a bit shaggy.  With a grin I say to their backs, “Anyone seen a guy named Demick around?  He kind-of flicks his rod??”

Tony turns, smiling.  “Hey Karl!  You still on the road?—just getting back?”  “Yeah, I came to catch you—didn’t Alan give you my message.”  “Oh, I got it,” Tony says, “Hey Karl, you’ll never believe what just happened, right down here.”   I’m quick, “Someone caught a salmon.”  “You got it.  Thirty-three inches.”  I chuckle, wryly, “Did they cook it up?  I hope so.  I hear they’re good.”  A few fishermen laugh.

I’d brought my camera down with me, thinking I might get somebody to take a picture of me and my pal Tony.  I figured we would maybe get some lunch.  But I’m mistaken, badly.  “Tony, you want to take a break—get some lunch?”  Tony is still thigh deep in the river.  There’s a pause, then, “No Karl, sorry, I really can’t—I want to keep fishing.  I’ve only got three this morning.”

I am a bit surprised.  “OK,” I tell him, “You know your brother Alan was really good with the hospitality stuff.”  One of the other fishermen pipes in, understanding I’ve just biked all the way from the mouth of the river, “Geez, he wouldn’t even leave the water to shake your hand!”  “OK, Demick,” I say, “I’ll see you.”

Snapping a few pictures at the bridge, I head over to the fishway.  Two of the guides know me well.  It is “Opening Day” at Holyoke Fishway, the first public day of the season.  I chat with the guides a bit, and mention the salmon, which gets their attention– especially the third one, who I’ve never met.  “My friend told me it was 33 inches,” I tell them.  “Did they put it back?” they ask, two of them knowing my intense regard for this hybrid, “No, they cleaned it, and cut it up to share for barbecue.”  Later, I learn this little joke and interaction started quite the argument between the young salmon-head and these other two.  The kid stopped talking to them for the day.

I head up to the viewing windows for my first look at the run from the inside.  And there they are—American shad.  The window is busy with them, schooling nervously, as they wait for this rectangular prison to be unlocked.  They are graceful and silver-shiny.  This is not a super-heavy day, but there are hundreds before me.  They’ve already lifted 15,000.  There is one banged-up shad in the window, perhaps from an encounter with a hook.  A lone, white sucker rests on the bottom, back from the viewing windows—and I’m not referring to myself.

I’m tired; ready to be home, so I don’t quite take in fully that these are the fish I’ve been riding after all these days—don’t fully enjoy the spectacle in the way I might have if this was the sole amusement of the day.  There’s still the work of completing the trip.  I thank the two friendly guides who have watched my bike.  Vinny, the older of them, maybe sixty, says chidingly, “Drive carefully–there are people out there aiming for you!”  These two have enjoyed reading my stuff on the restoration program, and they know it’s unwelcome exposure for many.

I decide on the east side of the Connecticut for the next leg—up through South Hadley.  It’s now after 1 p.m., and I’d like to get through that town before the high school gets out.  I know this route by bike so well I’m counting in my head the number of hills for the next 35 miles upstream.  It’s not many, but, so close to home and with the tougher riding yesterday and this morning, they loom a bit larger.

I plod along up to the crest at Mt. Holyoke College; then continue along Rt. 47 up the end blip of the west end of the Holyoke Range that forms half of the water gap here as the Connecticut sweeps in between this, and the Mt. Tom Range.  Swinging widely to the west is the land once roped in by the loop depicted in Thomas Cole’s “The Oxbow.”  Once Hadley farmland, it is now the property of Northampton, and largely overrun by a marina and soccer fields.

At the Hadley Common I stop and grab a sub at a place recommended.  The guy gives me half on a plate, and half wrapped.  The heat of the day is upon me, it’s a little after 2 pm.  I sit on the Common, laid out in 1659, that I’ve written about in the past, and enjoy a good sandwich–washing it down with part of a quart of chocolate milk.  Tired but a bit refreshed, I decide to stick with River Road, Rt. 47, all the way through Hadley and Sunderland.  Ironically, a USF&WS pick-up with a trailored boat passes me as I head north.  Tracking salmon today?

As I blunder the final twenty miles or so, I’m happy that the wind is at my back for a bit. It’s hot, and I’m going through some open farmland on the Connecticut’s vast floodplain.  What is noteworthy, and has been for much of today, is the number of trees taken down by yesterday’s line of storms.  As I reach Sunderland Center there are two crews working the ancient, shattered sugar maples and stringing up utility wires.

At the Sunderland Bridge over the Connecticut it occurs to me that a ceremonial picture is required.  I look south to the knob of Mt. Tom, but its directly in the sun.  I sit for a minute, propped up against the bridge railing and drink the last of my chocolate milk, still respectably cool.  Then, I face upstream, and point my camera toward the mid-stream island and valley beyond, and snap a photo.  It later turns out to be a very satisfying shot.  As I bike down the other side of the bridge I almost miss the two fishermen casting for shad in the afternoon shadows below.

I reach South Deerfield Center and there drop in on my friend Sara, who directs the library.  She’s just over in town running a few errands, I’m told.  I decide to sit in the shade and wait.  I crunch down the last of that very good sub, and then stretch my legs walking back toward the town center.  I don’t see Sara, and start back when I hear my name called.  I wait while she catches up, and we chat a bit.  I run down a few highlights of my trip.  Nice to see an old friend as you near home.

Then, I’m back on the bike, tired, for what are truly the last miles.  I take the back roads into the south end of Old Deerfield, tract housing that morphs into rural farmland and old dairying tracts at Stillwater.  But, here too, the modern, consumptive age is at work.  Huge, rolling sprinklers, in attached, 100 foot segments, are spraying ornamental flower “crops” in two different fields.  Each, with linked segments, is about 500 feet long.  It’s a scene you might imagine in the Central Valley of California, but hardly what one envisions here to grown boutique flowers by drawing deeply on the waters of the Deerfield, not a mile from that river’s mouth.  I have to snap a photo.

At last, I pull up the final hill into Greenfield at Bank Row, and head the last blocks to my apartment.  There’s a bunch of mail in the box and I somehow decide to grab it now, since I don’t think I’ll have much energy to walk back down once inside.  I am literally stumbling up the fire escape stairs under the weight of my loaded bike when I hear a car pull up.  It’s my friend Tonia, who’s come to pick up my mail.  She can’t believe I’m back already.

Later when I’m checking phone messages there’s one from Tony, from this afternoon:  “Karl.  I’m really sorry about lunch today.  I don’t know.  I just start fishing and I can’t stop.  Obsessed, I guess that’s the word for it.  As my wife just said to me, “Once an asshole, always an asshole,” I do apologize.”

I understand Tony’s obsession with shad, they just took me on a 250 mile bike run, and I’m hardly done with the journey yet.

#     #     #

Rundown on the run–three fishways by bicycle: Holyoke, Turners Falls, and Vernon

Posted by on 24 May 2010 | Tagged as: American shad, Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Conte, CRASC, federal trust fish, Nature, salmon, salmon hatchery, teachers, USFWS

Rundown on the run–three fishways by bicycle: Holyoke, Turners Falls, and Vernon; a.k.a., Thousands, a Handful, and None…

© 2010 by Karl Meyer

May 24, 2010

For a little ground truth this late May, the height of this year’s Connecticut River migratory fish season, I undertook some field work.  On May 21st, I bicycled from Greenfield, MA, south to the Holyoke dam and fishway; then back north to the Turners Falls dam and fishway.  The next afternoon, Saturday, May 22nd, I biked from Greenfield to the Vernon Fishway in Southern Vermont.  On these visits to the three lower-most dams on the Connecticut River, here’s a report on what I found:

At Holyoke, on a Friday morning at 9:15 a.m., the fish viewing windows are full—jam-packed with fidgeting, agitated American shad, nearly two-feet long.  The silvery fish shimmer in nervous schools, veering to and fro–anxious to be set free and upstream of this rectangular trap.  At times the shad literally form a wall of glistening bodies and fish scales pushed against the glass.

The visiting adults and children here are all mesmerized by the life–the seeming plenty, in these windows.  There are many ooohs! and aahhhs!   The fishway guides note that there were a few even blueback herring were in the windows minutes ago.  None are visible now.  But, mixed in, is a good compliment of ghoulish-looking sea lamprey.  Nearly three feet in length, they blindly snake along the fishway glass.  The kids whoop at the sight of them.  A lone smallmouth bass lingers at the bottom of the tank.  There are no salmon in the windows, though one was counted yesterday.  They sent a truck over from Farmington, CT to pick that salmon up and haul it away to one of the hatchery farms for breeding.

The total fish numbers counted here as of May 21st are written on a tally board: American shad 103,216; sea lamprey 9,737; blueback herring 55; Atlantic salmon 23.   Today, I watch as two trucks are loaded with American shad—to be taken to either New Hampshire or Vermont because of the fish passage failures at the Turners Falls-Northfield hydro complex and further up at Vernon dam.  Some of these Connecticut River shad are also be trucked as seed-fish for runs that have failed or disappeared on rivers in Rhode Island and Maine.  This day, with the river temperature nearing 60 degrees and flows low, but steady at peak season, the guides say they may get 10,000 shad today, maybe more.  I head back north, cycling along the east bank of the river past the Holyoke Range.

I reach Turners Falls Fishway in late afternoon.  At 3:40 p.m. the fishway windows are a pale, blank screen, filled with the streaming gold current sent down the Turners Falls Canal via this Northfield Mountain-Turners Falls hydro complex.  Looking closely I pick out the shadows of a few American shad treading water in that current, hovering dimly in the background.  I count five shad, nothing that could remotely be termed a “run.”  They shad try and keep pace with the current, but are soon pushed downstream out of view.

Fully half of the shad that pass the Holyoke dam reach this Northfield Mountain-Turners Falls hydro site.  Studies show that only about two shad out of a hundred make it through these grinding currents of the two salmon ladders built here three decades back.  Those numbers were slightly better here before the site was deregulated a decade ago.  Back then, 5 or 6 fish of every 100 shad might make it through.  Still, these are all terrible odds if you are a shad trying to spawn successfully upstream.  It’s such a poorly designed system–built for the non-existent salmon here (less than 10 salmon came through Turners in 2009), that it’s a bit like water boarding for American shad.  The shad deplete all their oxygen and float back downstream, spent; exhausted.

This is why The US Fish and Wildlife Service traps a few thousand shad at Holyoke and drives them upstream for release above Turners Falls in New Hampshire and Vermont each season.  Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC) officials try to lay claim to that as a “run” or “restoration”—but in truth those are terms that shouldn’t be used anywhere but in the stretch downstream–between here and Holyoke dam to the south.  From Turners Falls north to Vernon and Bellows Falls, restoration is an abject failure–over a half century after success was achieved at Holyoke with simple fish elevators in 1955.  Today, with just 2% of the shad reaching Turners Falls successfully passing–and with just 19 shad passing Vernon dam in 2009, dismal is the only word to describe the “restoration” in this–the still remaining 60% of main stem Connecticut River habitat that should have become shad-accessible decades back.  Vermont and New Hampshire would have had something to invest in.

At FirstLight’s Turners-Northfield complex you find a massively failed system that fisheries and power company people have tried to keep quiet for decades.  For ten years the public has had the right to get a new design installed here, but fisheries folks have essentially stayed quiet, with little word to the media or outreach to the public.  Their record of advocacy and effort these past decades on behalf of shad and herring here has been as lifeless as the runs here.  If these were hybrid salmon, millions would be spent on them—millions are spent hatching tiny hybrid salmon to be dumped in the Connecticut annually.

But, as to these runs of native shad and herring—a shadow of what they were twenty years back, our public fisheries guardians appear content to wait another decade to address the failures of restoring federal trust runs upstream here.  No wonder it’s now years since there has been a Massachusetts “public representative” on the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission–the federal-state entity responsible for the federal trust shad and blueback herring.  People have just stopped believing them, as they’ve watched numbers flatten and wind backward–while hearing tales of promised salmon.  It seems Bay State fishermen have stopped buying the myth Connecticut River salmon.  They’ve been extinct since 1809.

The tens of thousands of shad that reach Turners Falls will try to pass here for days–sometimes weeks, lingering in pools where the pulsing currents of the ladders exhaust them, pushing their oxygen-deprived organs to the limits.  Only the toughest and the luckiest of the lucky make it through Turners Falls.  And it’s impossible to know the damage that exhaustion and all those expended resources will have on their spawning success—for those few thousand that may squeeze upstream here over the course of a season–or those tens of thousands that will be repulsed and pushed back downstream.

In the half hour I’m at Turners Falls, seven shad–after trying, and trying again, actually do appear to make it out the up-side of the “fishway.”  We give them a cheer.  They don’t so much swim through as finally appear to float upwards and out.  I’m on the river deck talking to the fishway guides when a man–the lone visitor at the moment, comes back up from the viewing windows.  He’s puzzled, “Which way are the fish trying to go?”  “Oh,” I say,”actually it’s accurate to say most are heading downstream.  Only about two out of a hundred that try can get by.  They built the wrong ladders 30 years ago, based on salmon.  It doesn’t work.”

The man is surprised and interested–just as the young boys and two moms were when I stopped by here yesterday.  The kids kept trying to cheer the flagging shad up-current, groaning when they got pushed backwards repeatedly.  I offered an honest answer to one’s question, “Why are the fish going backwards?” telling them this system doesn’t work for the fish–a new one is needed, “You should tell your teachers, and write a letter to the newspaper.”  Most often kids have this question deflected here, going without a direct answer, offered instead a ready-tale of excuses and promises of what the future will bring.  I tell this gentleman today about the thousands of shad in the viewing windows at Holyoke this morning, “Check it out tomorrow.  They’ll still be coming through.”  He intends to, saying thank you, “Hey, I live right near there, in South Hadley.”

Reading the Turners Falls tally-board for fish the guides have spotted here is a very short story: American shad today, 28; for the season, 82; sea lamprey today, 12; for the season 23.  Eighty-two shad does not a “fish run” make. None of the nine salmon released upstream at the Holyoke dam have been spotted here, a mere 36 miles upstream.  They have counted six carp however.  Later, someone gets around to viewing the fish videos–used to make full counts here when no one is around evenings and Mondays and Tuesdays.  As of Friday, May 21st, the total numbers of federal trust fish that have passed Turners Falls as of this mid-season point: 303 American shad.  No blueback herring, and not a single salmon–in a fishway built for salmon 30 years back.

The next afternoon I’m back on my bike, heading from Greenfield to the Vernon dam and fishway, just below the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant.  It’s a bit over 40 miles round trip.

I reach Vernon Fishway at 1:50 p.m.  It’s a late-May Saturday; you’d think the site would be bustling.  The place looks derelict.  The gate is padlocked.  A sign on the chain-link fence reads: GATE WILL BE CLOSED AT 3 PM.  I take a picture with my watch in the foreground–1:54 p.m.  I’m left with the feeling nobody gives a damn.  Honestly.  I’d imagine after passing a total 19 shad last year, they are not anxious to have the public see what’s going on here.  Back in the early 1990s they passed 37,000 shad in one season.

Last year I bicycled to this Vernon site a half a dozen times between early-May and late June.  On all but my last visit, the gates were open.  And I did not see a single fish in the viewing windows on those trips.  They were empty–save for swirls of tiny, rising, bubbles.  Below me this day three fishermen are strung out along a sandy stretch of downstream beach.  One, a shirtless guy at the base of the dam, notices me, “You getting anything?” I ask.  “Nah!  The guy down there caught a smallmouth though, about an hour back.”  And that man’s fishing report seems about as good a snapshot of this migratory fish “runs” and “restoration” prospects in May 2010–anywhere from Turners Falls north to here, and beyond, along the Connecticut.

But that’s not completely true…  Sea lamprey—a fish that nobody eats and nobody fishes—and most find them repulsive, do quite well moving upstream past the Connecticut River’s perilous fishways.  Sea lamprey are ancient jaw-less, fish—native migrants here.  They’ve changed little since the time of the dinosaurs.  Though not a named species in the federal trust mandate, they are this river’s accidental restoration success, returning annually in the tens of thousands.

This shouldn’t be embarrassment to public fisheries officials, who are always claiming they’ve turned straw into gold with a couple dozen, million-dollar, hybrid salmon showing up.  Tough as old tow-rope and built for the ages, sea lamprey are one fascinating and integral part of this river’s restored biology.  Though incidental and mostly-unmentioned, lamprey do seem destined to survive and thrive despite the track record of this restoration program and its myopic fixation on an extinct salmon.  So, lamprey–that’s one down!  Now, how about a lift for those shad and herring?

How about it CRASC, FirstLight, Conte–USFWS??  The kids would love cheering on real fish runs at Turners Falls and Vernon.  Kids in Bellows Falls and Charlestown, NH would love that too.  It’s their river, and their future.  It’s time to recognize that, and stop squandering resources on yesterday’s ideas and yesterday’s Connecticut River.

Long Island Sound to Simsbury, CT and the Farmington

Posted by on 20 May 2010 | Tagged as: alewives, American shad, Atlantic salmon, Connecticut River, Nature, salmon

Long Island Sound to Simsbury, CT and the Farmington

© 2010 by Karl Meyer

May 4, 2010:

I wake up early in Old Saybrook, and spend a good hour writing in my journal.  Then, there’s checking the weather, which is not as straightforward on a multi-channel TV as one might expect.  But the weather looks clearing, and humid, with a few, pop-up “afternoon thundershowers possible for those heading north.”  No big deal.  I shower, and sort through the small pile of maps I’ve accumulated.  Brewing the final motel coffee, I down that, pack my bike, drop my key-card at an empty desk, and finally hit the road at 8:45 a.m.  So, I’m not the early bird.

I get my last looks at the mouth of the river off Rt. 154 in the Otter Creek area, and I’m moving north again on a lovely morning.  I quickly scoot by Essex and head north toward Deep River on the left bank of the Connecticut.  Traffic is light.  I’ve already missed the rush to schools and work.  Orioles and yellow warblers chirp.  I hear my first scarlet tanager and prairie warbler of the season.  There’s also a roadside feeding cottontail, and a cutely-clumsy and confused young chipmunk, surprised by an old guy on a bike.

As I near Deep River I take a chance at an intersection and choose what looks like a promising, old “upper” road, which veers a bit west of Rt. 154.  It allows me to miss Deep River center, and will perhaps show me something new.  This is an old thoroughfare, the 18th century houses telling me it won’t take me far from the river’s reach.  I follow Union Street which eventually merges into to Straits Road.  Along the way I’m treated to one of the startling spectacles of the trip: the disaster eliminating the Easter hemlocks.

I’ve written about this in Sanctuary, even spent a day nearby with Harvard Forest biologist Dr. David Orwig in Killingworth, Ct., documenting the devastation of this plague caused by a tiny insect that we imported from Asia–the woolly adelgid.  Here, in stark contrast to a rocky hillside that spent decades sheltered in the shade and diffuse light of hemlock needles, the bare, rock-bone of this roadside escarpment is baking in mid-morning sun.

Bleached and blown-out trunks of hemlock lay quietly scattered up the hillside, as a once-thick forest duff dries to a dusty consistency in May light.  A whole suite of plants, birds, and amphibians will be lost in this corner—one of many thousands of like corners, the result of our heedless globalization and lust for cheap commodities.  This scene will repeat, again and again as I bike northward, but to a lesser scale.  The adelgid is a cold sensitive insect.  But this hemlock plague is an easy case in point: it is creeping ever further northward as we continue our rapid, seemingly-incremental warming of the planet—on a time scale we pointedly refuse to comprehend.

I snap a few photos of this emblem of a global holocaust, and head on beneath blue May skies.  At one point a woman out for a bike ride passes me, and I ask if the road will take me into Chester.  The question is timely, as I’m at the intersections where I should turn east, Spring Street.  I thank her, and head down a shady, winding lane with a stream that trips along next to me wherever it is not ponded by little, colonial mill dams.  This, I know, will be the same alewife stream that bisects Chester itself.

Three minutes later I’m in town–on a Chester, Monday morning.  It’s just after 9:30 and I’m off my bike and ordering coffee and a thick-looking square of bread pudding at Simon’s Market.  I ask for the cook, and am told to find him out back.  There’s Alan Demick, brother of my buddy Tony.  I’d met him on the ride down.  He sits for a few minutes as I try his bread pudding—quite good.

Alan notes I look a lot better this day, but that’s only because I had a shower two hours back.  He takes me out and shows me the scenario on the deck at the rear of the store where he first met one of the State of Connecticut’s prominent fisheries biologists—and likely its biggest, salmon proponent, walking up that alewife stream looking for signs of a run.  They had a very funny interaction over the failures of the restoration—likely quite the surprise to a biologist who thought he was just talking to the odd chef!

I shake Alan’s hand, get some last minute directions, and remind him to email his brother Tony that I’ll be seeing him fishing below Holyoke dam tomorrow, “Tell him not to leave before noon,” I say.  The continuing run up Rt. 154 is pleasant through mid-morning.  There are some wonderful views of the river, and the bridge and Goodspeed Opera House looking into East Haddam.  Coming into Haddam village I just had to take a picture of the old jail, soberly constructed of slate and granite at the foot of Jail Hill Road, sometime in 1800s.

And then there was the town historic marker, quietly not explaining how the town managed to get a small group of Native Americans, mostly matriarchs, to deed over their lands to these colonists in 1660.  The downstream annihilation of the Pequots by the United Colonies just two decades earlier, and subjugation of the nearby tribal people may have played a small part in those concessions.  That story will not be enshrined on a road marker.  We erase and exclude our own history in the landscape in a way that seems to connect to our environmental miasma as to our real predicament here.  Just across the river, tons of deadly nuclear waste containers sit—stored, and largely forgotten by the public, at the site of a nuclear plant that closed after nearly exposing its core through lax safety checks some 15 years back.  There’s no road sign for that either.

Just up the two-lane I note two cars parked along a siding that leads down to a steep pitch over railroad tracks, and to the riverbank.  There’s a big hoop net in the back of one.  I lean my bike on a post and scramble down.  Two retirement age men are talking quietly, one with a line in the water.  I hover above them, and cough to make my presence less surreptitious.

When they give me a hello I ask how the fishing is going.  They are just getting started, says the one—in what I hear as a Polish accent.  He says no, they are not going for shad, he’s after striped bass, fish that are here for the river herring, and to a much lesser extent, the shad.  No luck this morning just yet, but the do pull them in here.  I thank them and head on, soon into more of an urban landscape, as Rt. 154 finally peters out.  This morphs into a poor biking stretch of old macadam that is Rt. 9, south of Middletown.

Middletown Center is dense, and busy, but the construction that is fouling up Main Street slows everything to little more than at crawl–something cyclists get to glide through.  But, I realize I’m a bit information-challenged, and make my way to the tourist info office, at the Chamber.  There, I pick up a newer state map, and a local street map of Middletown and Cromwell, which hopefully will get me out of town going west—with my destination somewhere near Farmington, so I can eventually see Rainbow Dam fishway on the Farmington River.

I get into a conversation with a black man who likely has just a couple of years on me.  He tells me he used to bicycle regularly, for about three or four years running, but it’s been some time since then.  “You can still get out there,” I tell him.  He smiles.

The route is now uphill and away from the Connecticut.  This will be an afternoon that sometimes finds me in knots, and negotiating seeming dead-ends, faced with busy, four-lane traffic and tiny shoulders to ride on.  Its unpleasant, to say the least, at times, but you just persist—turning back and trying again where things get too dicey.  In the world that exists all around me, people would be traveling without taxing their landscape sense and travel wits at all—a cell phone or GPS readout telling them what to do.  All decisions coming from outside.

I clear the density of Middletown, and head through busy Cromwell on a spider web of roads I’m piecing together.   I crisscross the floodplain of the Mattabassett River, a small artery I’ve written about in my work perhaps a dozen times.  I’ve never seen the river though.   At one point, as I’m trying to find my way across the barrier of Interstate 91, I pick a small side-road called Pasco Hill.  Finally cresting it zipping to the bottom, I cross a little bridge in the midday heat.  I look to my right and there’s a small dam, just upstream of the crossroads of what was once a little industrial section, now somewhat derelict.  There’s something about that dam…

I curve back on my bike, and there’s the picture–one I’ve put captions to: the StanChem Dam on the Mattabessett.  This is a tiny dam that–with a fishway project that is currently in something of a stall and waiting for more funding, “will reopen the entire historic habitat range for American shad on the Mattabesset.“  Those are my own words.  Shad would regain over 16 miles of this river, right to their full, historic range.  Were these fish salmon, Connecticut fisheries would have had this site on the fast track decades ago…

This is a very busy travel corridor, and the biking is somewhat less than satisfying at times.  But seeing the dam site is a bonus, offering a bit of quiet in a hurried landscape.  I get directions from a town DPU guy having an ice cream in front of the locked, StanChem property gate, and head off uphill once more.  Ultimately, I’m at a busy spot in Berlin, trying to find my way along busy Rt. 372, when the Berlin Bike Shop comes into view.  The proprietors–like me, solidly in their fifties, are affable and interested in a bike traveler.  Mike takes the time to give me a couple of maps, and point me in the right direction.

Those directions hold through Berlin, and into a corner of New Britain, but my brain can only keep so much in play, and the maps are still fairly general.  Skies that I mistakenly thought were deep blue, are darkening to more of a powdered coal with banks of clouds.

One bonus though, as I make a small rise, is the red barn of an old siding that reads, “Avery’s Beverages.”  I’ve read about them somewhere by some coincidence, likely National Geographic.  It’s a family soda making and local market operation that’s been in business since 1904.  I have to stop.

What I again find is a couple-of-three guys, near my age, two of them from Avery’s, standing inside the old barn filled with wooden crates of soda, and two genuine, old style refrigerators stocked with cold pop in a rainbow of flavors mixed on the premises.  Again I’m treated with some deference, likely due to white hair and my odd journey.  I’m offered the best new directions that these three can chart in a round-robin discussion.  I try to keep it straight in my head as I suck down a tasty Avery’s orange soda.

Soon, I’m following a thoroughfare past hospitals and housing projects that I thought was one marked route, only to find that the street name has become an unfamiliar one.  The skies are spitting, the wind is picking up.  I’m bouncing around like a confused ping-pong ball.  Finally, an old Latino man in a car gives me a good spin and I’m heading in the right direction.  I few more turns and tries and the rains have come.  I take shelter under the large portico of the Connecticut School of Broadcasting—letting the woman at the front desk know I’m out there, and not homeless.  She smiles.  In a half hour, that downpour is done.  I head out.

More crazy roads and bouncy directions come into play as I try and make my way to Farmington, and the Farmington bikeway.  Finally, after a long, curving downhill, I’m in Farmington itself, facing the well-appointed Miss Porter’s School.  Soon I’m heading down a main drag toward Rt. 10, which should bring me up to the bikeway.  It’s drifted into late afternoon now, with a lot of stops and queries along the way, but I’m finally on the trail.  It’s great being out of traffic.

I think of my old friend Carol Hurst, now gone, who wrote a children’s book, “Through the Lock,” about the canal that was the original thoroughfare this rail trail is built on.  She may have even made me a minor character in that book.  I’m in one of them.  I think too, of Sylvester Judd of Northampton, whose journals I studied for my master’s degree.  Judd was an investor in this ultimately cash-poor and failed canal back in the 1840’s.

The real challenges of the day come in Avon.  Tired, I’m trying to make my way through an incomplete section of the trail which sends you briefly onto streets.  I must’ve mis-heard directions from someone and find myself following busy Rt. 44, a real mess of traffic on a four-lane at rush hour.  And, the rains return.  Determined to not soak my entire rig and take on pounds of water, I stop, jumping into the local D’Angelo’s, and ordering a sandwich—both for sustenance and shelter.  It’s quiet at the moment.  The two middle-aged guys behind the counter offer me a phone book when I ask about motels, but one warns that none will be cheap on this stretch.  How true that proves!

Here, I’m stuck for 45 minutes until the next storm clears.  Then I’m off, but still confused, and heading wrong, ultimately finding myself stymied by a sea of traffic.  I pull of into a mall lot, the acres of pavement offering very little in the way of relief.  Happily, a young woman inside the doors of Barnes & Noble takes a minute, and offers me a course that seems promising.  I have to backtrack through the mess I’ve just finished.

Again, finally back on the rail trail, I’m heading north.  But the skies are darkening once more, and the wind is picking up.  I’m hoping to beat them into Simsbury, but its still a few miles away as the storm bears down.  I turn back, recalling a small shelter at the side of a trail intersection about a mile distant.  Here, at a site bordered by a broad field and tobacco barn to the west, I take cover in a lean-to built by the Avon Rotarians.  I share it with sheltering bumblebees as the storm swirls.  It hits hard–almost all wind.  Dust fills my eyes as I peak around at the clouds.  Trees are bending in gusts that near 50 mph.

I snap a few pictures and wait.  And wait, as the wind rages.  I finally take to my bike after almost an hour, thinking it’s done.  Then, the rains finally come.  I run back.

In another ten minutes, all is over.  Unbeknownst to me, trees are down all along the valley heading north.  I’ll see them all the way home–road and utility companies will be out clearing them right up through Sunderland, MA, and I’ll come across one sprawled over this rail trail at the Massachusetts border in the morning.

I head on.  It’s now after 6:30, damp, and still windy, plus its gotten cool–to say the least.  I have nowhere to stay, but I do have my tent and bag for a damp night in the buggy brush if all fails.  Perhaps this trip is conspiring to have me spend a night camping.  This won’t be pretty–or scenic, though, just ditch camping.  At one juncture the trail moves parallel to Rt. 10, and I take to the road, my best shot at finding a room on the edge of town.  I come across a Marriot someone had mentioned, but when I ask the desk woman about a single rate she quotes me $189.00.  A bit much for a few hours and a shower.  Back on the bike.

Simsbury is another private school town, and my hopes for a reasonably-priced stay quickly go south.  A picture perfect history is manicured into the town’s presentation, though its plaque mentions that Native Americans put the torch to it a couple of times– see the first writing on the wall way back in the first part of the 17th century.  I come upon a bed and breakfast.  What the heck?—I set myself a limit; I’ll offer $90.00, take it or leave it.  No one comes to the bell.

As I near the town’s northern edge there is something looming on the left, a blue-gray building, perhaps 1970’s vintage, three stories tall.  The Iron Horse Inn.  It looks a bit like a low-to-mid priced place you might see in the denser towns of Cape Cod.  But it’s mostly empty at 7:05 p.m., just three cars sit in a large parking lot.  Still, I have nothing to lose.  I walk in to a modestly lit lobby, the other corridors are dark.  No one is at the desk, but there’s a phone, and a sign: for service, pick up the phone.

A young woman answers.  I ask if they have a single rate.  Yes, she says quickly, its $84, including tax.  Despite the thin carpet and sparse presentation, this may be something.  I mostly ignore the air that seems like it could use a good venting by merely leaving the lobby door open.  “Where are you?  Downstairs??” she asks.  They are not used to people walking in, apparently.  “Are you interested?”  Yes.  “I’ll send someone down.”

And down comes Melind, perhaps Indian or Pakistani, in his young thirties, I’d guess.  He too wonders, “How did you find us?”  They are right on Rt. 10, but it seems not a popular stop.  I start to give a tale of biking and wind, but cut it short.  “So, what does $84.00 get me?”  “Would you like to see a room?”  Melind takes me up a flight of stairs, then starts toward another, “Do you have anything on this floor?”  The place is empty, after all.  I figure one car is the woman’s on the phone—likely Melind’s girlfriend, the other is his, and the third…is the killers.  “Well, if you don’t need a king-sized bed I can grab another key.”   He runs back down the stairs.

The room is large, suite-sized—long, with a fridge, stove with two burners, microwave, writing table, etc.  I can’t completely ignore the musty air, the stain in the ceiling tiles.  I ask if the doors open.  They do, onto a deck overlooking a pool that doesn’t look like it’s primed to open this spring.  There’s a TV, “but the cable went out about an hour ago.”  “Sure,” I’m thinking.  I’m also thinking this place may be in receivership.  But the bed looks clean, and the price is right, and Melind seems willing to bend the rules a bit and allow me to bring my bike into the lobby for the night.  I guess they worry about the plush state of the indoor-outdoor carpet throughout.  I tell him we have a deal.

In truth, the TV cable did come back up later.  I got to watch the weather.  Melind sent me to a pizza joint that actually had reasonable prices, and I walked out, dead-tired, with a chicken-pesto sandwich on fancy bread, and a dose of curly fries.  That, and a bottle of beer, conspire make my return to the Iron Horse a minor triumph of bike travel for a white-haired guy.  Surviving a rough day on the road is part of the adventure.

I set aside the beer, eat half the large sandwich, and take a satisfying shower.  The double doors are thrown open to the damp, cool, clearing night.  Wrapped in a towel, I take the only two snapshots I have of myself on the journey—reflected in the long bathroom mirror.  A tired man, but satisfied to have pulled this rabbit out of this hat.  Hotel stalkers, be damned!  I sprawl on the bed, write in my journal for most of an hour and a half; then have that beer and a bunch of cold, curly fries while looking at the weather—along with reports of the thickening oil-spill disaster in the Gulf.  Somewhere toward midnight I switch off the light, coming to life again just before 6:00 a.m.

Enfield to the Sound

Posted by on 11 May 2010 | Tagged as: alewives, American shad, Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, Connecticut River, salmon

Enfield to the Sound                                        © 2010 by Karl Meyer

May 2, 2010

This will prove the downstream ride’s best day—actually the best day of the trip.  At 6:00 a.m., I check the skies above the sprawling pavement surrounding my Enfield address.  There’s high, grey cover.  It’s humid and cool, but already in the upper 50’s.  The TV update says upper 80’s today, with afternoon showers.  I grab my own shower, and then head to check out.  The kind woman at the front desk tells me I get a free complimentary lunch at the chain next door, “Do you have time?”

I go and order up a cooked, breakfast sandwich, to go.  It takes about 15 minutes, but I pack it on my bike, grab a quick cup of the motel’s complimentary coffee, and I’m off, coffee in hand.  I scoot back down south through Enfield, a combination of newer homes, with the occasional colonial place delineating the original town layout.  I dive right, down Old Depot Road, to Thompsonville and Warehouse Pt., examining the landscape that dictated where humans first walked here, and fished, and where Pynchon found it necessary to build his trading warehouse in the 1630s, due to the rapids just upstream.

I intersect Rt. 5, and head south.  It’s 7:45 a.m., and traffic is generally light on this Sunday.  In places this road has a real urban edge, with stores and commerce spread broadly across the river terrace.  Other places are given over to pasturing horses, and idle land, with a few farms and garden center operations in between.  Most telling, to someone traveling in the silence of a bike, are the hundreds and hundreds of fertile acres given over to pavement—oil atop earth, for the sole purpose of auctioning off thousands of new cars, here sitting in storage.  As I ride past this, a great oil slick is spreading over the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.

I keep watch for the Scantic River.  Dr. Boyd Kynard tells me there used to be a pretty good blueback herring run up this river.  When I finally dip into its crossing in East Windsor, I stop on the narrow bridge, looking down to the semi-dark waters as a scattering of trucks shoot past.  It’s a tripping little river here, semi-dark in the bottomland woods.  I can make out no fish in the morning light—not that they would be moving necessarily at the moment.  A mallard scoots away, and two Canada geese take flight.  There may be another dam between me and the mouth of the Scantic, but I think not, as I’m only a mile away.  Later I discover that the first dam is miles upstream in Enfield, and that this river had a pretty good run of shad in the 1970’s, and even today a few river herring knock on the door of the dam each spring.  Both, have been left hanging for decades without assistance.

Stripping down to a t-shirt, I head out of the bowl of the Scantic and quickly find my way onto North Main Street.  This turns out to be a wonderful secondary road, laid out in the mid-1600s above the Connecticut’s broad, flood plain.  It’s quiet, straight, and flows down through the old settlements, with many of the old houses still standing.  The East Windsor Hill Post Office, from 1727, is still in business, as is the refreshingly untidy Porter House, dating from 1694.  I follow south, largely untrammeled by traffic.

Other cyclists heading north for a recreational ride slide by in twos and threes.  At South Windsor I pass the birthplace marker for the Reverend Jonathan Edwards, born in the first years of the 18th century.  This connects me back to an upstream town.  When I lived in Northampton, MA, Edwards and I were neighbors of a sort.  I lived across the tracks, less than 200 yards from Edwards Square–his old digs when he was an early fire and brimstone preacher.  The citizens of Northampton had the good sense to run Edward’s and his brand of fear mongering out of town.  His bloodline apparently continued though, as I read that Aaron Burr was his grandson.

Continuing on down South Main through East Windsor, the road grows slowly less rural, with less of the preserved, cookie-cutter, historic ambiance it cultivates at it most opulent horse-farmy acreages.  It was time to leave this quiet anyway.  Soon I’m in East Hartford, which would have been a real challenge on a weekday, but at 10:00 a.m. on a Sunday, is highly doable.  I’m still on the old, historic path, but the road widens, merges with Rt. 5 as Main Street.  I cross the entrance to one sprawling Pratt and Whitney plant, and not long after, another.  It astonishes me at the time how much of our wealth is derived from the implementation of industry in service to warfare.  What a sad use of the earth’s good soil.

In the center of East Hartford, beneath its looming spire, I chat briefly with another cyclist while stopped at a busy intersection.  He’s pleasant, though he can’t offer much in the way of good directions heading south.  I just try to keep on Main Street, ever leaning toward the river, which should lead me into Glastonbury.  Though I do lose the trail at times, I eventually make it to a back street intersection that is tempting: Naubuc Avenue.  It’s again a quiet, colonial path—very likely of Native American origin, and it goes through an old, and unpretentious colonial neighborhood, interspersed with modest, early and mid-20th century houses.  Plain, working people.

This is another fine, straight, route, which takes me a few miles, including down a short side chute to Keeney Cove, and old meander of the Connecticut.  Here, in the 80 degree morning sun, people have parked a few pickup trucks and cars.  They are angling for fish at the lip of the Cove, which has yet to be unburdened on the recent spring floods.  Part of the pavement is under water.  I ask one shirtless, tattooed young guy who has just waded in from a small, dry rise in his bare feet if the guys fishing there have caught anything.  He can’t say for sure.  I head back out, not knowing if this is a shad or herring site, with a connection to the main stem Connecticut.

It is warm.  I fidget my way onto Main Street in Glastonbury, where it’s sunny, flowery, and well-off.  Hills and narrow roads close in, a function of the ancient geology here, and plate tectonics.  The road gets busier as I head south toward Portland and Cobalt.  I pass Moodus, the place of a memorable earth quake in the 1700s.  Suddenly I’m adjacent to the motel/inn that I’ve scoped out for the end of today’s journey.  It looks ok, but a bit forlorn on its little siding, with the nearest commerce a gas station 1/3 of a mile away, and no where to walk on narrow Rt. 66.  It’s 11:15 a.m.; there are no rain clouds apparent.  If I stop now, I’m stuck in a boring pocket for the day.  I head on, not knowing where I’ll end the day.

I grab an iced coffee in Cobalt, against the heat, and find I’ve missed a turn south.  A woman tells me I can take the adjacent road I’ve been eying, back over the Rt. 154.  It’s Hog Hill Road, an interesting old colonial route dating back at least 2-1/2 centuries.  I hear wood thrush and oven birds, and yellow warblers.  Soon I’ve scooted down to my river route and the entrance to Hurd State Park.  It’s hot, but, I want to keep rolling.  One hill, then another, takes me over the ridges of Haddam Neck, a rocky ridge reaching to the Connecticut’s shore that once hosted a nuclear plant.  It was shut when valve problems threatened to uncover the reactor’s core, which the public never learned.  Repairs were too pricey to ever restart it.  Today, it has been dismantled, but its toxic nuclear legacy remains stored and guarded on site, costing citizens a million bucks a year to safeguard it.

I shoot down a long curve and up along the last few miles of the Salmon River, stopping on the bridge above to scan for fish.  I walk down an old side road, where the Leesville dam has long had a set-up to pass—wouldn’t you know, salmon.  The place is posted up and down about salmon, and how to ID them.  But I see not a single leaping salmon.  However, as I crouch down nest to the gurgling waters before the dam as silver-grey fish writhes and disappears in an instant.  Its perhaps a little more than a foot long, and the only fish I can equate with this behavior in the shallows is American eel.  Gone in a flash.  As I’m left pondering this I note the head of a smallish northern water snake lifted out of the water just a few feet beyond.

I drink in the heat and get back on the bike.  Soon I come abreast of Salmon Cove, the long marsh leading to the river’s intersection with the Connecticut.  Two boats sit fishing just beyond where the Salmon flows in.  Quickly, I’m in Haddam, tourist town and home to the Goodspeed Opera House, and a bridge across the river.  It’s busy.  I’m heckled by two punks in a pickup, and can’t resist giving them the finger.  Not a place for a cyclist to linger today.  I cross the river and bridge in good traffic, stop on the other side at Tony’s Market, where they have “Connecticut River shad and roe” for sale.  But I’m just there for a Gatorade at this point, which I slug down.

Quickly I’m heading downstream toward Chester, and traffic thins.  Pretty views of the Connecticut roll toward me.  One of the lovely things that you rarely get on roadways while moving through beautiful spaces is the quiet.  Suddenly, every now and then the cars disappear, and you can experience the beauty and the quite in tandem.  And it is lovely.

Chester is so compact, old, and set up so neatly in the landscape that it’s hard to deny its charm, despite the obvious tourist and money bent.  I stop to say hello to a friend’s brother, who I’ve yet to meet.  He the chef at little place called Simon’s.  I get the cook’s tour, including the little alewife stream out back that bisects the town center.  Alan buys me an iced tea, and tells me its not too many miles to the coast—I’m guessing less than twenty.

The roads continue good, and I pass through Deep River, and am just on a southward roll, smelling the salt and that final destination—the Connecticut’s mouth.  The skies are holding.  I reach the turn-off for Essex, which I’ve never explored.  The sign-posts say I’m only six miles from crossing into Old Saybrook, and the skies are holding.  There’s still a little gas in my tank so I pedal toward town.  It’s old, the architecture is interesting, but the place is so meticulously preserved, and already chockfull of tourists, that it’s hard to see beyond the opulence and check for a soul.  The landing and harbor in this tidal section look out on a broad reach of river.  There’s a regatta in progress, and I can already see that the water will be overwhelmed by the expensive boats sitting, Saran-wrapped in the marinas, within just weeks.  I quickly put Essex behind me.

The last miles into Old Saybrook are uneventful.  I find my way to a siding on the wrong side of the railroad tracks and Rt. 1, but get directions from a friendly woman who runs a bric-a-brac shop.  Tired now, she sends me back over the railroad bridge, and gets me on track to Springbrook Road and the Liberty Inn.  The place, it turns out, is curiously wedged between the road and I – 95.  It’s literally at eye level with the highway, and not 100 yards off.  Remarkably, it’s quiet in my room, and comfortable.  After a shower and the end of a losing Red Sox game, I drag myself, tired, back into Old Saybrook Center to pick up the family-size pizza special, advertised in the Inn’s pages.  The package stores are closed, so I am forced to leave my bike, pizza attached, outside, while I have a celebratory Sam Adam’s at a counter of Pat’s Kountry Kitchen.  The beer is cold, and goes down nicely in honor of the river, and a fine day’s ride.  No storms yet in sight.

First fish: the nose of the run

Posted by on 24 Apr 2010 | Tagged as: alewives, American shad, blueback herring, Connecticut River, salmon

First fish: the nose of the run © 2010, Karl Meyer

April 5, 2010, Connecticut River mouth

Head down to the mouth of the Connecticut River on an unusually sun-warmed April 5th, and you’ll find the coastal plain opening onto Long Island Sound shrouded in a cool, 50 degree fog on an Easter Sunday.  It’s a dozen degrees warmer just a mile inland.  Looking out across the small state access, restaurant lot, and private marina, you can make out Saybrook Light just off Fenwick Point—a place probably best known as the former haunt of Katherine Hepburn.  What I also see in my mind’s eye as I look across that sandy lip is the massive storm surge of September 1938, thundering, Katrina-like, directly up this river opening.  Some 800 people died.

But I am here to find fish, and to plot out a route to take upstream by bicycle early next month.  Still, the pull of history and landscape in this place is strong.  Here golf courses and manicured lawns spread right to the edge of Long Island Sound.  Old money.  But, I get a feeling if I looked a little harder, I might be able to find some of those bank bailout funds us earthly folk have been forced to fork over in the name of the inflated desires of others. I spend much of an hour scratching around the town’s historic representations of Fort Saybrook, 1635, and how the Pequot, Niantic, and Mohegan seem to eventually get ticketed with bringing about their own demise here.  It’s a recounting full of holes in logic and history, interesting nonetheless.

The other piece I see here is that the myth of a grand salmon run on the Connecticut River is amply represented, right from the first—at the very mouth of the river.  An historical story-board notes an anecdote stating the salmon on the Connecticut were so numerous at times that one could walk across the river’s mouth on their backs—if a person had snowshoes on.  Snowshoes?!  Who came up with this one?  The species base on this river in terms of sheer numbers and the ecological pyramid had been anchored by foot-long alewives and blueback herring, followed by waves and waves of nearly two-foot American shad, steaming up the shoally currents here—for millennia.  Salmon never accounted for more than one fish in ten thousand, and that tiny run died out in 1809.  But the hype begins at the very entrance to this river.  Is there any question why we are losing ground on migratory fish on the Great River here?

Still, it’s wonderful to be along this shore.  I put on my yellow windbreaker and cycle south along the shore road against a good headwind.  There are just a few places the public can actually access the shoreline.  I scoot along a broadened bit of salt marsh, and also down to a little public viewing spot.  Here a pair of osprey sits in vigil, resting at their nest on a wooden platform.  Surely they know there is a growing compliment of fish soon to blossom nearby.

I head the 5 – 6 miles into Westbrook, around salt marsh curves, and then along what is the old Post Road in places.  I pass a house over three centuries old, and another, scrappier looking place that’s nearly as antique–the Jacob Chalker House from 1735.  This, I’m thinking, was an old fishing shack at its inception, and perhaps a trading site.  I snap a few pictures, and then one more of a fish market, with its salmon advertised on the sign board.

I head back along the Post Road and down through the center of Old Saybrook.  Nearing my start point at the old fort site at Saybrook Point I pass a house built in 1671, before King Phillips War.  But that is not the war that decided things in this neighborhood.  The battle for this turf was settled decades earlier, when a significant proportion of the Pequot were massacred in their fort at Mystic, just northeast of here, in 1637.  Part of that siege was engineered from this very spot.  I spend some time poking around in the 17th century cemetery just up the road from the fort site.  Here, most stones are effaced by time.  Perhaps the most interest thing is the racket made by the nesting parrots—an introduced species here.  Their large, rounded nest with a bottom opening occupies an old red cedar.  They are both curious and annoyed with me.

I head out onto the public walk bordering the Sound and the river’s headlands.  It’s not particularly busy here, too early in the season.  However, I do find two salted fishermen with poles and tackle about to be put away.  One is well into retirement age.  I ask them about the fishing.  Nothing much today.  I ask about the shad.  “Not in yet.”  Soon, they think.  The younger one, in his fifties, says that maybe two years ago the shad came in all at once, and were just pushing up against the seawall in a big, waving froth.  Here, I’m thinking–is the remnant of those true fish of old, fantasized into salmon by those desirously in need of something more “sexy” than the waves of green-gold, two foot long shad that brought this spawning river to its peak year in, and year out.  No snowshoes needed.

These guys are chatty, full of stories.  The older fellow is “sure” they are already getting stripers up at Chicopee.  That’s a stretch for April 5th, I’m thinking.  He takes out his fishing license, showing me that you now need one for saltwater here too.  It’s a one-time fee for seniors, good for the rest of his days as long as he does the renewal paperwork.  I agree with them that it does seem a shame its come to this—a salt water fishing license, just to toss out a hook.

I jump in the car, head north a bit, having noted a sign for pedestrians and cyclists to use the I-95 Bridge over the river.   I find it, and even though I’m pooped, I can’t resist the idea.  It’s warmed inland, mid-sixties at least.  I find a place to stash the car, and the next thing I know I’m looking upstream and down, over Long Island Sound and the tidewater meadows of Lord Cove, with traffic roaring by at 70 mph.  I’m delighted to be able to cross here.  I shoot down into Old Lyme, and simply must explore further.  I make it into town after intersecting Rt. 1, and head upstream a bit through the old, outlaying sections.  Here is an art colony complex, but also hints of tributaries and fish runs.

I follow a promising ancient way, Sill Road, upstream, as it follows the Lieutenant River,  then stop at a tiny bridge crossing and change out of my sweaty shirt.  Suddenly, I look down into the sun-dappled waters and twenty herring shoot under the bridge, as if I’ve startled them.  It’s so quick, I can’t quite believe my eyes.  I look for more in the afternoon current, but don’t see any more fish.  I walk across the little road, not expecting anything, and a similar number of herring dash forward, out of the shadows and upstream.  They are here!  Here are the first fish, my first fish.  As far as identity goes, they are most likely alewives who generally head upstream first.  This is also the species reported in runs here.

I linger for a bit, imagining these fish having traveled a thousand miles or more in the ocean—at least to the Bay of Fundy and back.  Now, here.  A sweet moment to witness.  There is a sign at this site forbidding the capture of any herring.  I walk back over to my bike for the few miles back across the river to my car, tired, satisfied.  As I reach for my helmet, maybe a dozen alewives shoot forward, then aside and back into downstream shadows–having somehow seen my shadow or sensed a presence.  They’ve fallen back temporarily, but I quickly relinquish their upstream destination to the sunshine and this unusually warm, early April afternoon.

Heading home, I check for commercial seiners up toward the Goodspeed Opera House and bridge near Haddam.  The crusty fisher guys said a few still pursue shad up that way.  But, it’s too early in the season.  I snap a shot or two of the famous “shad shack” up along that stretch, and head home on back roads until I reach Middletown.

*    *    *

Salmon eggs in school: a few things schools, teachers, and students should be questioning if they intend to raise salmon in their classrooms

Posted by on 14 Mar 2010 | Tagged as: Connecticut River, Nature, salmon, Salmon eggs, teachers

Salmon eggs in school: a few things schools, teachers, and students should be questioning if they intend to raise salmon in their classrooms

In the last three years, Connecticut River hatchery fish have been found to harbor deadly diseases that could be tragically dispersed through egg, fry, and smolt stocking programs:

Didymo was discovered two years back in the White River’s waters above the White River National Fish Hatchery—water that the hatchery used to grow salmon eggs and fry.  Didymo smothers river bottoms like a gooey sponge and suffocates aquatic habits.  Hatchery eggs and fish can easily be didymo carriers, schools a volunteers could have unknowingly spread this disease far and wide.

Infectious Pancreatic Necrosis: in 2007, IPN—a deadly salmon disease spread to salmon populations mixing in rivers and at sea, was discovered at the Cronin National Salmon Station in Sunderland, MA.  Tests confirmed that Atlantic salmon broodstock used in the Connecticut Migratory Fish Restoration Program tested positive for a viral disease.  Dr. Jaime Geiger announced that 718,000 eggs were destroyed at the White River National Fish Hatchery, in Bethel, Vt. The eggs were collected in the past month from wild salmon, known as “sea-run” salmon, at the Cronin National Salmon Station in Sunderland, Mass., where infectious pancreatic necrosis was discovered in two fish on Nov. 16.  Scientists believe the salmon tested at the Cronin station may have picked up the virus in the Atlantic Ocean.

Hatchery fry are half as likely to survive to reach the ocean as wild-spawned fish that grow with all the environmental influences, signals, and genes they received from evolving in a natural environment over time.

Cataracts: In 2009 a sampling of one of the groups among the thousands of one-year old hatchery salmon raised for stocking each year were examined at the White River hatchery.  Sixty percent were shown to be developing cataracts.  This cripples their ability to feed.  Thousand of fish had to be destroyed.

Dying spawning specimens: Also in 2009, ten of 21 returning adult hybrid salmon recaptured at the Holyoke turned a blood-red and were found to be dying by the time they reached the North. Attleboro hatchery station.   There, they were to be “reconditioned”—bulked up and pampered, before being used for spawning new salmon.  Hatchery managers had no explanation for this deadly turn.

Below, from CRASC Meeting minutes,  July 11, 2007

Cold water disease: Roger Reed State Fish Hatchery experienced an outbreak of cold water disease this spring. The hatchery lost 250-300,000 salmon fry to these bacteria. Losses were curtailed when the hatchery obtained an INAD permit for the use of Chloramine-T and then treated the fish. It is unknown whether the Roger Reed broodstock are carriers of the bacteria.

“Time to redirect the effort”: a point-by-point reply to the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission response to my OpEd by CRASC’s Technical Committee Chair Dr. Caleb Slater

Posted by on 13 Mar 2010 | Tagged as: American shad, blueback herring, Connecticut River, CRASC, federal trust fish, salmon

© 2010, Karl Meyer                                                                             March 10, 2010

All Rights Reserved

“Time to redirect the effort”: a reply to the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission response by CRASC Technical Committee Chair Dr. Caleb Slater

In rebuttal to my OpEd in the Greenfield Recorder on the shortcomings of the salmon program and migratory fish restoration on the Connecticut, Dr. Caleb Slater, of CRASC, chipped in a defense of his program in a piece entitled: “Not time to abandon effort: What’s working with the salmon restoration”

Since I was not accorded a chance to respond in the paper, I will reply to Dr. Slater’s assertions here:

To open, I must mention that Dr. Slater and CRASC did not respond to the central argument of my OpEd: how many millions of public dollars go into creating a few dozen hybrid salmon annually while the other federal trust fish on the Connecticut founder?; how much, total, has been spent by taxpayers on salmon to get to this point after 43 years?

CRASC offers the public good-news tidbits about salmon, but turns away from informing people of a now-extinguished blueback herring run that returned a half million fish just twenty years back.  Dr. Slater today describes a blocked shad run as “stable,” though it’s half of what it was just ten years back.  It should be noted too that CRASC did nothing when an already-hobbled shad run past Turners Falls virtually tanked by 85% beginning in 1999, and has continued to bleed along at that level to this day.

That came almost a decade after an incomprehensible silence when, just upstream, the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant gained permission to by-pass its cooling towers and dump thermal effluent into the river just upstream of Turners Falls at Vernon, heating the river up a full five degrees.  Just another in a long line of disasters for the living, native fish runs, while CRASC led the salmon charge.  Vermont Yankee is now trying to dump still-hotter water in the river, and fish passage at the Vernon dam is hovering close to zero.

Why isn’t CRASC educating the public on these developments?

None of this is in keeping with a mandate for the protection of federal trust fish.

My reply to Dr. Slater’s assertions:

1. “The fact that we have regular annual returns of sea run salmon is a testament to the success of the core strategy of the program.”

Response: the most recent five-year returns for hybrid salmon at Holyoke dam, the first dam upstream from the sea on the main stem Connecticut are: 2005—132 fish; 2006—115 fish; 2007—107 fish; 2008—86 fish; 2009—60 fish.  There seems to be a pattern.  This is after four decades and at least a half billion dollars of stated expenses to create a run to replace an extinct native strain, gone since 1809.

The founding goal of the state and federal restoration partners in 1967 was a run of 38,000 salmon.  If 60 fish making it to the river’s first dam is considered success after four decades, what constitutes failure?

2. “These fish were not bred in test tubes or designed by computers—the program allows natural selection to act on the fish that are stocked;”

Response: today’s “Connecticut River” salmon are manufactured from eggs fertilized in the sterile environments of hatcheries, by mixing the genes of the few dozen returning hybrid-salmon trapped at Holyoke dam in as mathematically complex a way as they can–in the hopes of not creating inbred-hybrids.  This “natural selection” is guided by computers.  Hatchery fish have been plagued by diseases.  The survival rate of hatchery fry in the real world of rivers and the ocean is half that of wild, naturally-breeding salmon.  Hatcheries are stirring in weak fish, with poor survival traits.

You could liken hatcheries to giant “test tubes” but I didn’t use the term.  I wouldn’t argue with fish factory, or fish farm—a term I did use.

3.  “Salmon returns to the Connecticut are following broader North American population trends.”

Response: since these are hybrids and not a true species that evolved naturally over the course of centuries in Connecticut River tributaries, it is disingenuous to compare these fish with the native salmon strains further north that are hanging on by a thread.  Dr. Slater never mentions the one factor agreed upon by all: native Atlantic salmon are a COLD WATER SPECIES, and the planet is getting hotter.  CRASC won’t use the term “global warming,” it’s just one more third rail for this program.

The southern-most runs in northern New England are all endangered, and more than half are extinct.  The further north into Canada you go, the more viable the native salmon runs are.  In the North Atlantic, the footprint of the prey species salmon feed on are shrinking northward, closer to the cold waters of now-melting polar ice flows.

The Connecticut River’s runs disappeared first because this is one of the southernmost rivers they ever briefly colonized.  Hence, from a basic, common sense standpoint, this river is among the poorest choices for “restoration”—one where there were no fish to start with.

* Below, is what NOAA–the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, predicted for those endangered salmon runs further north in Maine, via research published in 2006.  NOAA is a member of CRASC:

“Even with current conservation efforts, returns of adult Atlantic salmon to the Gulf of Maine DPS rivers remain extremely low. The 2006 status review [pdf] [2.8 MB] reports an estimated extinction risk of 19% to 75% within the next 100 years for the Gulf of Maine DPS even when current levels of hatchery supplementation are considered.”

4. “Research has implicated large scale changes in ocean current and sea surface temperatures that correlate with the observed declines in marine survival.  Scientists believe that these changes are cyclical and we can only wait for ocean conditions to change and again become favorable for salmon.”

Response I: This is called Global Warming.

Response II: below is the cycle that Dr. Slater may be referring to.  Until recently the only substantive science on when, and why, Atlantic salmon colonized the Connecticut River for a few centuries landed solidly on the colder temperatures of the Little Ice Age in New England.  Today there is some new science reexamining archeological fragments that support a cyclical southern migration of salmon into the New England region of North America.  From what has been pieced together that migration appears to occur about every 4,000 – 5,000 years.  The salmon visit for a few hundred years before retreating to more northerly haunts.  So, according to Dr. Slater’s own statement of intent, it appears CRASC will be spending public money on this restoration until the climate changes for salmon again.  That could be a very long time.  This is available through your library:

“Atlantic salmon, archaeology and climate change in New England”

From Brian S. Robinson et al, at the Univ. of Maine, Orono, in The Journal of Archeological Science, October 2009.


A paucity of archaeological remains of Atlantic salmon in Northeast North America has been cited as evidence that the species may have been present in the region only during and after the Little Ice Age (ca. 1450–1850 AD), one of coldest periods of the Holocene. However, significant problems of preservation, recovery and identification remain. Here, improved methods of identification use vertebra structure to distinguish salmon from trout, and strontium/calcium ratios to differentiate sea-run from landlocked salmon. In addition to the Little Ice Age, Atlantic salmon is identified in tightly dated contexts at 7000–6500 and 3500–3000 calendar years BP, during climate periods that were comparatively warm and wet.

Keywords: Atlantic salmon; Calcined bone; Strontium; Northeast; Climate change

5. “The salmon restoration program was designed to benefit all migratory fish in the Connecticut River.  Far from being ignored, the American shad has been the greatest beneficiary.”

Response: Well before there was even a fish lift at Holyoke, a million or more shad were spawning every spring in the lower Connecticut, and knocking their heads on the base of Holyoke dam.  The main “vein” of the Connecticut River is virtually blocked at Turners Falls–to a point that could be compared to a time just prior to the patient having a stroke.

* Fact: American shad is the first fish mentioned in the federal and 4-state partnership’s 1967 Statement of Intent.  Without those living shad as impetus—and fishermen catching them, no one ever could have come up with the misguided concept of creating a new salmon strain out of whole cloth on a river this far south.

6. “Fish passage built as part of the salmon restoration program now allows free access from the Atlantic to above Bellows Falls in Vermont.”

Response: Patently misleading!–98 % of the American shad swimming up the Connecticut River can proceed no further on their own than Turners Falls dam, the site they reached back in 1956.  The idea that this constitutes “free access all the way to Bellows Falls” is patently ridiculous.  The salmon proponents demanded, and got, fish ladders built for salmon at Turners Falls in 1980.  They are a disaster for the other public trust species slated for upstream restoration in CRASC’s mandate.  CRASC receives money and in-kind assistance from the power company operating Turners Falls/Northfield Mtn. for its salmon work.  Is it possible this is why they have never demanded the fish elevators that would benefit the other public trust species at the site?  According to contractual agreements, those changes could have been implemented over ten years ago, in 1999.

CRACS’s own partnered research (USFWS Conte Lab research, Alex Haro, et al) at Turners Falls unequivocally concluded that only about 1% of the American shad that reach there–sometimes less, are able to make it past Turners Falls dam.  They exhaust themselves trying to ascend salmon ladders.  Most give up, though the few that make it often languish for weeks in the Turners Falls canal, unable to exit upstream.

This is one of the key reasons why the failed shad and blueback herring runs into Vermont and New Hampshire are generally not discussed today.  In the past dozen years they have all but disappeared; the public has nearly forgotten them.  That’s convenient, since it’s only salmon that CRASC talks about upstream of Massachusetts.

7. “Meyer’s contention that we should ignore salmon and concentrate on shad perpetuates a discredited single species model of mismanagement that lead to the sort of myopic approach that, ironically, he accuses us of.”

Response: in fact, American shad are the ONLY remaining fish in CRASC’s “public trust fish” mandate that still exist in numbers large enough for people to actually SEE.

But by and large they must encounter them at Holyoke, because so few succeed past Turners Falls.

There are today no blueback herring making it even as far as Holyoke.  They are today all but extinct above that site.   And the public doesn’t see any salmon because returns are in the dozens.

OK: CRASC does host a “salmon day” for people to see a salmon each May at Holyoke dam, and sometimes Turners Falls.  But the public is shown a captive salmon, in a tank.  It’s a fish on leave from artificial spawning from the hatchery program.

So–why the upside-down logic?

Why is CRASC NOT sounding the public alarm about herring runs going extinct, nor the languishing shad runs essentially blocked anywhere upstream of where they could reach 55 years ago—the Turners Falls dam.  And these fish do have the same ocean problems Mr. Slater claims prevent the success of a non-existent salmon run.  Common sense would lead anyone to the conclusion that you fix the river first–and prioritize the still-viable, age-old, native, “public trust” runs.  That’s where you start.

8. “We continue working toward the resolution of the fish passage issues at the Turners Falls Dam.  In fact, the poor performing Cabot ladder will be replaced with a fish lift (like the very successful one at Holyoke) when the project gets a new federal hydroelectric license in 2017 and the fisheries agencies are working with the utility to get this project completed well before then.”

Response: this is parroting the response FirstLight officials made at a CRASC meeting in December.  I attended the meeting.  The meetings are full of promises.  CRASC and FirstLight representatives seem to have a comfortable relationship.  FirstLight finances some of CRASC’s salmon work. Before that ,Northeast Utilities–the long-time owners of the Turners/Northfield complex, did the same.

Mr. Slater is saying, de facto, that the other public trust fish—including the 98 % that can’t pass today, can languish in the river at the base of Turners Falls dam where they have been stuck since 1956.

Also, Dr. Slater knows that the license expires in 2018, not 2017.  If you read the public notes on CRASC meetings over the last decade ( ), you’ll see again and again where CRASC deferred pushing for fish elevators at Turners Falls—while they continued accepting money and in-kind donations for salmon research from the dam’s owners.  CRASC’s excuse was always that they were waited for “new ownership.”

The Turners Falls/Northfield hydro operations have changed hands three times in the last decade.  CRASC, as always, has stood up for little more than protecting their salmon experiment throughout these changes.  The power company, which makes millions upon millions of dollars using the public’s river, tinkered a bit recently with the canal and dam.  They spent a nominal sum in an attempt to pass a few more fish through the dam without spending money on elevators and a real fix.  The power company chose their own engineers for the study, and then applied a band-aid to a deep, decades-old, wound choking off the river’s runs.  It came to naught.

CRASC’s shad/herring subcommittee–under the guidance of Dr. Slater, has not held a meeting in years.  Under the name of FirstLight, the Turners Falls/Northfield Mtn. hydro complex is now owned by GDF Suez, the world’s second largest utility company. What’s the excuse for not getting fish elevators and a working canal exit built today?

Dr. Slater well knows that fish elevators and exit fixes are already overdue by ten years under the CURRENT federal license.  The idea of making fish elevators part of the NEXT 40-year license continues the ongoing theft from present and future generations of their biological heritage.  It’s been acknowledged at the CRASC table that on-the-ground changes negotiated in new licenses often take years to implement.  Power companies are motivated to use the public’s river in a way that maximizes shareholder profits.  This comes at the expense of migratory fish.  CRASC’s current “wait, and maybe” position with the power company is a repudiation of their own mandate to safeguard the public trust and the living fish runs.  This is not demanding a contractual public right, it is capitulation.  This lack of resolve further robs the Connecticut and its native migratory fish of desperately-needed relief at Turners Falls.  Vermont and New Hampshire have paid a price for this for far too long.

« Previous Page