sea lamprey

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FISHY MISSING INFO

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

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

Fishy Missing Info Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DEAD REACH REPORT: the BLACK HOLE continues…

Posted by on 09 May 2016 | Tagged as: American shad, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Dead Reach, federal trust fish, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FirstLight, GDF-Suez FirstLight, Greenfield Community College, Holyoke Community College, Holyoke Fish Lift, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, New Hampshire, NMFS, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, sea lamprey, shad, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont, Vernon Dam Fishway

DEAD REACH REPORT: the BLACK HOLE continues…

Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer
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Forty-one days after the first fish were reported being lifted at Holyoke Dam, we still have not a shred of information on fish passage in the Connecticut River’s Dead Reach at Turners Falls. That’s the beleaguered, half-emptied, 2.7 miles of riverbed that all migrating American shad, sea lamprey, and blueback herring must pass in order to make progress toward Vermont and New Hampshire spawning grounds. Within that Dead Reach is the Rock Dam, the only documented natural spawning site for endangered shortnose sturgeon in this river system.

Thus, again, GDF-Suez FirstLight continues in sole control and possession of information on the public’s federal trust migratory fish—every one of which, in trying to reach upstream sites, gets diverted into their turbine-lined power canal. Once corralled and essentially privatized in that miles-long trench, very few ever emerge alive beyond Turners Falls Dam.

Holyoke Fish Lift numbers have been handed off daily to Ken Sprankle, USFWS’s Connecticut River Coordinator, for weeks now. Students from Holyoke Community College are staffing that site, overseen by the MA Division of Fisheries & Wildlife. MA Fish & Wildlife is responsible for those shad, lamprey and herring while they are traversing the Commonwealth’s reach on the Connecticut. They’re responsible for getting the public’s fish counted as well. That role up at Turners Falls is clearly not working or being taken seriously. We have no information from there whatsoever–with the video-counting apparatus controlled by FirstLight, and the review, tallies, and the hand-off of that public information left in the hands of Greenfield Community College students.

None of this speaks well for any safeguarding of the public trust.

Nevertheless, USFWS’s Ken Sprankle did provide these updates from Holyoke Dam this morning. Fish counts there as of Sunday, May 8, 2016 are: 32,937 American shad; 239 sea lamprey; and 14 federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon—all of which were brought to the top in the fish elevator, lifted out, and dropped back downstream. Virtually none of them will get an opportunity to spawn yet again this year.

To give you a sense of the miseries, one egg-laden female lifted up there had been tagged in the Dead Reach in Turners Falls 2004, as a female on a spawning site. This year, a dozen years after that tagging—she was apparently full of eggs and attempting to reach the Rock Dam for spawning once more. They plopped her back downstream on orders of the National Marine Fisheries Service. If that aging female dies over the winter, the genetic material in the hundreds of thousands of eggs she was carrying gets lost to eternity, and becomes yet another signpost on extinctions path.

Just what exactly is being accomplished by not letting these endangered fish spawn?

Meanwhile, here’s a tiny Dead Reach report of my own. I stopped by the TF Dam at mid-morning on Mother’s Day. It was drizzly, water was spilling from Bascule Gate 1(Turners Falls side), and no one was fishing at the site.

Downstream at 9:40 I met a lone angler exiting from the Rock Dam pool site at Cabot Woods. He said he’d had a few, earlier, but that it was slowing down. When I went out to the Rock Dam it was fairly quiet, with the water only moderately clear with the recent rain. Still, looking down from the rocks, schooling swirls of shad can sometimes be seen when the light is good. I saw nothing. Nor did I note any lamprey tails slapping the rock faces as they suctioned their way upstream through the notches.

According to this angler who fishes the mouth of the Deerfield as well, Rock Dam fishing on Saturday was pretty decent: “I had a dozen shad,” he noted. Thus, it’s become fairly obvious these last two springs that when flow is left in the riverbed, Rock Dam is one of the finest shad fishing sites on the Connecticut.

So, American shad have been reaching Turners Falls for 5 weeks now, we just don’t know how many are passing upstream—and we have yet to get count information from TransCanada about numbers passing Vernon Fishway. Thus parts of Massachusetts and all of Vermont and New Hampshire remain in the dark as to the whereabouts of their share of the ocean’s spring bounty.

Holyoke Fishway opened last week. You can visit, Weds. – Sunday from 9 – 5. Its on the CT, where Rt. 116 crosses into Holyoke from South Hadley. The public fish viewing facilities at Turners Falls have yet to open.

On Monday the Holyoke Fishway passed 21,198 shad; the Turners Falls season total as of 5/17 was just 22,499 shad

Posted by on 21 May 2015 | Tagged as: American shad, FirstLight, Holyoke Fish Lift, New Hampshire, sea lamprey, TransCanad, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, Vermont

May 21, 2015: The Holyoke Fishway lifted 7,360 American shad on Tuesday and 21,198 shad Monday according to today’s update fro the Connecticut River Coordinator’s office. Fish passage reports from FirstLight’s Turners Falls fishways are always days behind–due to having no real-time fish counters there reporting. Howsoever, as of their last report from Sunday, May 17th, the season’s total number of shad passing upstream there toward VT and NH spawning grounds was 22,499. That’s a decent DAY’S count at the Holyoke Fish Lift.

Holyoke has also passed 10,849 sea lamprey this season, while 794 have been reported at Turners Falls. This morning test flows from the Turners Falls Dam had been reduced to 2,500 cfs. At 7:30 am head gate flows into the Turners Falls Power Canal were generally quiet as well, with a nearly mirror-like surface and shuffle-along flow visible 100 feet downstream. At 3:30 pm, head gate flows were perhaps a tad more vigorous, but so mild that there we no bubble in the current whatsoever 60 feet from the gates. With more timely fish passage reports it might be possible to tease out how some of these settings are impacting upstream fish passage success.
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The photo above is of an American shad in the bubble-filled window of the Vernon Fishway on Sunday, May 17th. TransCanada has yet to submit fish passage reports to the USFWS website this season.

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

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

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

LASTLY, here’s today’s full POST:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Its about the River, AND the Fish…

Posted by on 19 Jan 2012 | Tagged as: American shad, Atlantic salmon, Bellows Falls Fishway, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River ecosystem, Conte, CRASC, Dead Reach, ecosystem, federal trust fish, FirstLight, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, river steward, salmon, Salmon eggs, salmon hatchery, sea lamprey, shad, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Geological Service’s Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Lab, Vermont, Vernon Dam Fishway, Walpole

© Copyright 2012 by Karl Meyer   All Rights Reserved

The following Opinion piece appeared in publications and media sites in CT, MA, VT, and NH.  It is a reply to writing in support of the status quo on the Connecticut River fisheries restoration, emphasizing extinct salmon.  The writer, Mr. Deen, is a river steward, flyfishing guide, and VT representative.  This piece appeared mainly in a shorter, Letter to the Editor format.  Here it appears in an expanded OpEd, this version from The Vermont Digger.  Find them at www.vtdigger.org. 

                        It’s about the river, AND the fish…

The Connecticut River Watershed Council’s Vermont River Steward David Dean asks the public not to judge the 45 year-old Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission’s fisheries restoration by numbers of returning fish, while 74 salmon reached the CT’s first dam at Holyoke, MA in 2011.  As someone advocating rededicating funds away from an extinct salmon strain, I found the piece well-intentioned but short on fact.

After decades and hundreds of millions spent on the science, genetics, and hatcheries dedicated to a centuries-extinct, cold-water salmon on the southern-most river it ever briefly colonized, the public has a right to a return on investment in this time of demonstrated climate warming.  I agree that that return should be an improving river ecosystem.  Useless dams should be eliminated; hydro operations damaging rivers and skirting regulations protecting fish should be prosecuted.

But Mr. Deen cites as salmon-program benefits “growing populations of other anadromous fish,” specifically shad and lamprey.  Science is, and should be, about measurable results.  Yet in results coming back from a hatchery program dedicated to elite angling, salmon represented less than three-hundredths of 1% of this year’s fish returns, while devouring 90% of funding for all migrants.  As to the 244,000 American shad and 19,000 sea lamprey he touted as reaching Holyoke–that’s a 66% plunge from the 720,000 shad counted there two decades back; and 19,000 lamprey?—only 4 years have seen lower numbers since tallies began.  Personally, I’d note 138 blueback herring–a might shy of the 410,000 Holyoke counted in 1992.

It is time for an ecosystem restoration.  Turn this upside-down species pyramid back on its base–rededicate funds to bedrock species of this ecosystem.  River groups could contribute greatly by opening public discussion about desperate river conditions just below Turners Falls, the second dam on the CT.  Migratory fish there are funneled into an ecosystem death trap: Turners Falls power canal.  Meanwhile the adjacent Connecticut is strangled in its own bed by pummeling and parching flows–deeply impacted by pumping operations at Northfield Mountain just upstream.

Today, the only shad regularly reaching VT/NH waters are a few hundred sometimes trucked there from Holyoke.  However, in 2010 Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station choked on its own silt.  Its mile-long intake tunnel and turbines became massively clogged.  From May 1st to November, it did not add a single watt of energy to the grid.  Few noticed.  There was no energy interruption—even while Vermont Yankee was down for refueling in early May.

Yet something amazing happened: shad numbers passing Turners Falls skyrocketed over 600% to levels not seen in 15 years.  Without Northfield pumping–and with river levels kept steady and artificially high at TF dam as FirstLight Power tried to conceal a 65,000 ton mountain of silt it was dumping in the river, the miserable conditions in the riverbed below the dam actually improved.  With May and June rains arriving, artificially brimming river levels behind the dam meant more steady flows were released directly downstream to the oft-parched and pummeled “dead reach” of river below the falls.  Shad got their ancient migration route back—swimming upriver, rather than being deflected into the punishing currents and turbines of the Turners Falls power canal.

Even with suspect tallies and FirstLight’s counting equipment inoperable for parts of 37 days, 16,768 shad were counted passing toward VT–the most since 1995.  Vermont salmon expert Jay McMenemy expressed surprise when all eight free-swimming salmon also used the ancient riverbed to shoot directly upstream to the ladder at the dam.  Since 1967 over 11 million shad have passed Holyoke.  All but a whisper of them ever made it to the Green Mountain State, while they once spawned to Bellows Falls and Walpole, NH.  Ironically, federal studies show 17,000 shad is a shadow of the run that should be passing: at least half of all shad passing Holyoke eventually attempt to pass Turners Falls–95% get deflected into the meat-grinder of currents and turbines of the Turners Falls power canal, never to emerge.

The main reason for no Vermont fish runs: no regulated flows in the riverbed; no easy-access fish lift built upstream at TF dam.   The ecosystem dies in the 2 miles of river directly below Turners Falls—due in large part to floodgate manipulations to accommodating Northfield’s pumping.  There is no working fish passage at Turners Falls.  It is legally required and should have been in place over a decade back.

Northfield Mountain is a reserve energy source that can produce a large amount of energy, 1,000 megawatts, in a very short time.  But it can only run for 10 hours, and then its reservoir is depleted.  It is dead in the water.  Owners must then go out on the market and buy electricity to divert the Connecticut’s flows uphill to its 5.6 billion gallon reservoir again.  Then, they sell our river back to us as expensive energy.  Northfield’s efficiency is just 67%.  Add in its profound river impacts and you have to question: Why is no one talking publicly about this ecosystem-killing elephant in the room?

Karl Meyer is an environmental journalist and award-winning non-fiction children’s author who writes frequently about Connecticut River issues from along its shores at Greenfield, MA.