shortnose sturgeon

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Spawning shortnose sturgeon denied flow at Rock Dam Pool

Posted by on 08 May 2015 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, American shad, Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Dr. Boyd Kynard, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Endangered Species Act, ESA, Extinction, Federal Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federal trust fish, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC, GDF-Suez FirstLight, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, Rock Dam, Rutland Herald, shortnose sturgeon, The Greenfield Recorder, University of Massachusetts, US Fish & Wildlife Service, Vermont Digger

PRockDamPoolDewatered (2)
(to view lager image, click on photo).

NOTE: the photo above documents conditions found at the Rock Dam Pool on the Connecticut River on May 3, 2015. Seventeen years of published studies conducted by federal and University of Massachusetts fisheries researchers at the adjacent Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center show that these river conditions cause spawning failure for federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon at the Rock Dam Pool, their only documented natural spawning site. The May 3rd river conditions found at Rock Dam mimicked mid-summer flows on the Connecticut–conditions that research shows drives spawning-ready females from the site, and de-waters the cobble-strewn pool where eggs and embryos attach and develop. April 25 to May 22 is the documented spawning window for the shortnose sturgeon on the Connecticut. It is a crime to kill, injure or interfere with endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon under federal and state law. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the US Fish & Wildlife Service, and the MA Division of Fisheries & Wildlife are responsible for the protection of the Connecticut River’s only federally-endangered fish under the Endangered Species Act(ESA). GDF-Suez FirstLight controls river flows to this site via spill gate operations at the Turners Falls Dam, just upstream.

A RIVER PRESERVED IN PLASTIC Copyright © 2015 by Karl Meyer

(The following essay–with minor variation in each, appeared recently in The Recorder, The Rutland Herald, and at Vtdigger.org)

A lifeless, three-foot long Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon sits on display at the Great Falls Discovery Center in Turners Falls, MA. The shortnose has been this river’s only federally-endangered fish since 1967. That plastic sturgeon has sat amidst other replica fish for a dozen years now—a plastic American shad, a blueback herring, a trophy-size Atlantic salmon. They’re framed beneath a slightly-ruffled acrylic surface representing the Connecticut River at this flagship site of the Silvio Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge.

That display is the basic message offered to visitors here: ‘This is a river with congenial flows supporting populations of shad and herring, big native salmon, and federally-protected sturgeon.’

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Few upstream migrants reach Vermont and New Hampshire today. That’s part of the legacy of failure of federal and state fish agencies and watchdog groups claiming to safeguard an ecosystem and its native migratory fish. That legacy will remain intact until they confront ongoing conditions in Massachusetts that have been crippling the river here for decades.

That Discovery Center depiction falls apart if visitors simply walk outside onto the deck of the Turners Falls Bridge, adjacent to Turners Falls Dam. There, often for months on end, what they’ll see is the hollowed-out heart of New England’s Great River–a waterless chasm, or one teased by just a trickle from the power company’s dam. Conversely, when rain or snow send more river downstream than can be profitably sent through FirstLight’s power canal or stored upstream for their Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, those spill gates open wide–producing violent, see-sawing flows few fish can fight or follow.

Meanwhile a 200 million year-old evolutionary gem, the Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, remains all but abandoned just downstream–teetering on the verge of extinction for decades. Likewise, American shad can’t move upstream in the river here at all. They’re forced into that turbine-lined power canal where less than 1-in-10 will emerge alive beyond the dam. And those blueback herring–protected on paper as a “federal trust” species, have not been counted here in almost a decade. Just 20 years back they passed by the thousands.

That plastic salmon, showcased for decades as the darling of this river’s fisheries restoration, has been extinct here since 1809. It should not be presented as a living native fish. In science, extinct isn’t subject to interpretation.

That trophy-sized model derives from a massive hybrid hatchery program created by cross-breeding salmon imported from Canadian and northern New England rivers. For 43 years federal and state fish farms produced the millions of tiny fry dumped into the river each spring. Those fish factories repeatedly proved vectors for the potential spread of disease throughout the river system. Though those tiny fish proved great for public relations, no spawning population of engineered salmon ever took hold.

Hybrid salmon became the red herring that masked the massively broken ecosystem that exists on an eight-mile stretch of New England’s Great River from the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station to the tailrace of the Turners Falls Power Canal. Those salmon were the stand-ins for agencies including the National Marine Fisheries Service, the USFWS, and MA Division of Fish & Wildlife that had failed to protect living migratory species here–and an ecosystem suffocating right in their backyard.

The plight of the only state- and federally endangered fish here represents the ultimate failure of responsibilities. Dr. Boyd Kynard spent decades studying the shortnose and documented it’s only natural spawning site–the Rock Dam Pool, less than two miles downstream of Turners Falls Dam. Dam operations there were annually creating conditions that crippled spawning success for the remaining 300 sturgeon still able to reach their ancient rendezvous site.

Kynard’s federal- and state-funded findings were given to fish agencies a decade back. Each bore legal responsibility for that sturgeon. Yet no agency or non-profit stepped-in to monitor and enforce Endangered Species Act protections. None intervened to halt the trickle-and-torrent flows preventing reproduction. That step alone would’ve put living waters back into the river here–aiding the shad and herring attempting to reach Vermont and New Hampshire. Likewise in 2012, when Kynard published a book on the shortnose–documenting its life history and the river conditions necessary for its recovery, again, no one went to court to protect this public legacy.

Had agencies and watchdog groups taken responsibility years back for protecting spawning sturgeon at that Rock Dam Pool below FirstLight’s dam, native migratory fish and the river ecosystem would be in a far better place today. Instead, that work was left to become part of the current studies in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s 5-year relicensing process for the Turners Falls and Northfield hydro sites, where I’m on the Fisheries and Aquatic Studies Team.

Sturgeon spawning is not monitored today. It’s unconscionable to have waited for a 40 year relicensing process to come around before broaching concerns for an endangered fish and broken ecosystem. Hopefully it won’t prove the difference between a living river, and one merely depicted in a museum model.

Greenfield, MA journalist Karl Meyer is participating in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s relicensing process for the Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls hydro sites.

Sturgeon spawning program at Rock Dam on Sat., April 25

Posted by on 23 Apr 2015 | Tagged as: Dr. Boyd Kynard, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, Rock Dam, shortnose sturgeon, Turners Falls power canal

Public invited to sturgeon spawning program in Turners Falls Saturday

Montague, MA. On Saturday, April 25, from 10:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. the UMass Student Fisheries Society sponsors federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon expert Dr. Boyd Kynard and environmental journalist Karl Meyer on a science/natural history walk to the Rock Dam in Turners Falls, the preeminent spawning site for this 200 million year old species. Kynard, who helped establish the federal Conte Fish Lab and logged 25 years as a federal researcher there, will explain the shortnose sturgeon’s life cycle and share results from three decades studying its life history and behavior. Meyer will sketch out a four-century history of the Rock Dam site, a natural, partially-inundated cliff bisecting the river, “This is a timeless place, unique both ecologically and historically in Connecticut River history” says Meyer.

Much of Adjunct UMass Professor Kynard’s shortnose sturgeon work was accomplished with the assistance of University researchers. Those collected long-term studies were published in book form in 2012, and include details on the changes required to currently-damaging hydro flows that would allow this federally-endangered species to once again successfully gather and spawn at its natural Rock Dam Pool spawning site, and begin the journey toward recovery. This public program is free, no pre-registration necessary. Meet, rain or shine, in Turners Falls, MA, at the public lot on G Street (left at first stop sign after crossing TF Canal on the 11th St. Bridge). Participants are advised to wear sturdy shoes and bring lunch if desired.

For information: 413-773-0006, and visit: www.bk-riverfish.com

New Comments to FERC, RE: Turners Falls Fisheries Studies

Posted by on 08 Apr 2015 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, American shad, Cabot Station, Connecticut River, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Conte, Dr. Castro-Santos, Dr. Haro, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC, FirstLight, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, Mr. Colton Bridges, New Hampshire, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Revised Study Plan, Secretary Kimberly Bose, shad, shortnose sturgeon, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey's Conte Fish Lab, USFWS, Vermont

NOTE: the following comments were submitted to Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Secretary Kimberly Bose respecting FirstLight’s withdrawal from its stated position of using video-monitoring equipment at the Turners Falls Dam’s Spillway Ladder to compile study data and information on aggregations of migrating American shad.

This is information that has been the fisheries restoration’s Black Hole these last forty years. It can only be gathered at this site. However, with the withdrawal of these tools, fisheries agencies and the public will be relying on just a few hundred radio-tagged and tracked fish as substitutes for on-site, real time monitoring of aggregations of what are understood to be perhaps hundreds of thousands of migratory shad. (Comments to FERC were slightly abbreviated due space limits in E-filing.)

Karl Meyer, MS
Greenfield, MA 01301 April 8, 2015

Kimberly D. Bose, Secretary
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
888 First Street, NE
Washington, DC 20426

Re: P-1889; P-2485

Dear Secretary Bose:

Please accept the following comments in the matter of the hydro-power licensing studies for P-1889, the Turners Falls Project; and P-2485, the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project. These comments focus on changes FirstLight made to the Revised Study Plan. I first aired my objections to these RSP changes at a meeting on March 24, 2015–as a member of the Fisheries and Aquatics Study Team. They highlight a lack of Existing Information and a Need for Additional Information that FirstLight’s RSP revisions will not satisfy.

FirstLight has summarily excised all video monitoring in the vicinity of the Spillway Fishway at the base of Turners Falls Dam—a technique they’d agreed was needed in the initial RSP.

3.3.2 Evaluate Upstream and Downstream Passage of Adult American Shad

Existing Information and Need for Additional Information

Passage through the Turners Falls complex:

Study Goals and Objectives: (18CFR; 5.11(d)(1)

“Evaluate attraction, entrance efficiency and internal efficiency of the Spillway Ladder for shad reaching the dam spillway, under a range of conditions.”

FirstLight stated the following in their initial RSP response: (bolded italics below, mine

“Video monitoring will be used for specific study areas such as the Spillway Fishway. Use of video monitoring of the Spillway fishway will provide data on fishway efficiency; shad attempting to pass would be monitored versus only those shad that have been tagged.”

Task 2: Study Design and Methods:

FirstLight then wholly eliminated that key video information gathering technique that would help inform these studies with aggregate numbers of shad reaching the Spillway Entrance, versus only those few tagged fish approaching and passing the Spillway entrance.

From FirstLight’s March 14, 2015 RSP changes distributed to the Fisheries and Aquatics Study Team:

“The study will monitor shad migration within the study area using a combination of active and passive radio techniques and video surveillance.”

This needed information gathering was eliminated by FirstLight despite their description in the initial RSP that this was a proven and inexpensive technology:

“FirstLight proposes to conduct video monitoring using the Delta System commercial series of underwater video camera and lighting manufactured by Ocean Systems Inc. This system was recommended by A. Haro (Conte Lab) and has proven effective at other facilities. Video data will be recorded on a dedicated video recorder (DVR).”

“Video monitoring of the Spillway would add a modest cost to this study.”

As to why gathering information about aggregations of American shad at the Spillway adjacent to Turners Falls Dam is needed at this time–that need was stated in FirstLight’s initial RSP response as well:

“In general, the numbers of tagged fish passing through the Spillway Fishway were too low for vigorous evaluation (Haro and Castro-Santos 2005).”

Information about aggregations of migratory fish moving upstream to the base of Turners Falls Dam and the Spillway has been paltry to nonexistent these last 40 years. In the last 15 years, Dr. Haro and Dr. Castro-Santos of the USGS Conte Lab have focused nearly all their work in FirstLight’s power canal, while the Connecticut River passage route for these federal trust fish has been almost wholly ignored.

As to the huge gap in the information for American shad aggregations at this site, I herein cite expert testimony delivered before Commission members four decades back:

On August 21, 1975, in hearings before the United States Federal Power Commission in Boston, Mr. Colton Bridges, Deputy Director of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife delivered the following expert testimony on the need for Spillway Fish Passage at the Turners Falls Dam:

To Mr. Bridges: Question: “Would either the Cabot power house fishway or the gatehouse fishway be effective in passing those early arriving shad?”

Answer from Mr. Bridges: “No, because with spill conditions at Turner Falls the major source of attraction water will be coming down river from the Turners Falls Dam and emanating from Cabot Station. Consequently, the conditions that existed at Holyoke with spillway flows limiting fishlift efficiency will prevail at Turners Falls Dam with only a Cabot Station fish passage facility in operation.”

Question: “What, in your opinion, would be the effect of the construction of the proposed fish passage facilities at Turners Falls Dam without the inclusion of the spillway fishway?”

Answer from Mr. Bridges: “Without a spillway fish passage facility, fish approaching Turners Falls during periods of spill will be attracted to the base of the dam and those isolated pools located immediately below it, and be subject to the same conditions that exist below Holyoke without the spillway fish collecting facility, i.e., migration delay and mortality due to lack of flow, increased water temperatures, and decreasing oxygen content.”

Given that, as of this date, FERC is refusing to allow the USFWS any in-situ access for snorkeling to get a general assessment of fish using this passage route to Turners Falls Dam during migration season–and that FERC is further disallowing any seining for fish or shad eggs in this reach due to concerns for endangered shortnose sturgeon, this is the only key place where any new information about Spillway aggregations of shad can be gained. This was stated as a result of FERC internal policy, though NMFS indicated a willingness to consult—and NMFS is the ultimate key-holder in decisions concerning Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon.

Hence, denying the gathering of this needed information at the Spillway effectively limits the public’s understanding of what is happening at this site. Though overall successful fish passage through the Spillway Ladder has proven ineffective these past 30 years, it should not limit the Entranceway as the key place to collect long-absent information on aggregating shad.

These are the early arriving fish that have long been known to be the key migrants–most likely to move upstream to Northern Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire spawning sites on the Connecticut. As of this date, 40 years after Deputy Director Colton Bridges testimony, those fish are still not making it past Turners Falls Dam, and we don’t have the information about their numbers and when, where, and in what flow conditions they gather at the Spillway site.

For these reasons I respectfully request that Spillway video monitoring be returned to the Revised Study Plan for this season–to gather the data that cannot be gained simply by monitoring a few hundred radio-tagged fish.

Thank you.

Sincerely,
Karl Meyer, MS, Member, Fisheries and Aquatics Study Team for P-1889; P-2485

New CT River Stakeholder Comments Submitted to FERC

Posted by on 14 Nov 2014 | Tagged as: American shad, By Pass Reach, Cabot Station, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Dr. Boyd Kynard, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, FirstLight, GDF-Suez FirstLight, National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, shortnose sturgeon, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont

The following Stakeholder Comments/Requests on FERC Projects P-1889 and P-2485, Turners Falls Hydro and Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage were submitted on November 13, 2014 to the Secretary of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Karl Meyer, M.S. Environmental Science
85 School Street # 3
Greenfield, MA, 01301                                                              November 13, 2014

The Honorable Kimberly D. Bose, Secretary
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
88 First Street, NE
Washington, DC 20426

ILP COMMENTS–including: Disagreements/Modifications to Study/Propose New Study on Turners Falls Hydroelectric Project P- 1889, and Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project P-2485.

Dear Secretary Bose,

The Turners Falls Hydroelectric Project, P-1889, and the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, P-2485, are currently undergoing studies through the 5-year FERC relicensing process in order to continue plant operations beyond 2018. An Initial Study Report Meeting Summary has been filed by GDF-Suez FirstLight. Please accept these comments on the ISR and my proposals for modifications and new study requirements in the FERC ILP for these projects.

3.3.11 Fish Assemblage Assessment:

Further information/study needed:

FirstLight has declined to undertake any study in the By Pass Reach of the Connecticut River due to stated concerns of interference with spawning and development of embryos of federally endangered shortnose sturgeon in this area. Information from the 2009 EPA study is insufficient to quantify presence and abundance of resident and migratory fish in this reach during critical migration and spawning periods—April through June. That investigation used only 3 sites in the By Pass Reach and was not undertaken to illuminate key species requirements in the current ILP for this critical reach.

NMFS notes that FirstLight has failed to consult with stakeholders on SNS issues here. I am in agreement with USFWS that a dedicated snorkeling, SCUBA, or hookah diving assessment of this critical reach of the four-state CT River be conducted in the riverbed between the Turners Falls Dam and downstream of Cabot Station during the April-June migration and spawning window–and that it continue after FirstLight’s suggested June 30 beginning target date.

I personally snorkeled parts of this reach in May 2013 and found that identification of migrants and resident species was easily attained. An in-situ investigation of this river reach in order to assess species presence and relative abundance is necessary groundwork for making decisions that will impact the 45-year long fisheries restoration on the Connecticut.

Dr. Boyd Kynard, who FirstLight cites in their argument and who spent decades investigating shortnose sturgeon on this reach of the Connecticut told me (personal communication 11/12/2014) that this study method can be accomplished without impacting SNS from the pool below the Rock Dam upstream to the base of Turners Falls Dam.

3.3.12 Evaluate Frequency and Impact of Emergency Water Control Gate Discharge Events and Bypass Flume Events on Shortnose Sturgeon Spawning and Rearing Habitat in the Tailrace and Downstream from Cabot Station.

Further information/study needed: FirstLight has supplied a grid of information for emergency gate and by pass flume openings for the years 2005 – 2012, though 2010 is missing, and we have no information on gate openings and placement for 2011 and 2012 in some instances, other than that there were no instances when greater than 4 emergency flume gates were open.

This study information should be updated with full information for years 2011, 2012—as well as 2013 and 2014 gate opening numbers, placements and CFS information.

Study findings from Kynard and Keiffer, as well as the long-term study of SNS in this reach catalogued in Life History and Behaviour of Connecticut River Shortnose and Other Sturgeons, published by the World Sturgeon Society, 2012, specifically delineate emergency and canal flume gate spill as having a profound and deleterious impact on shortnose sturgeon spawning and early life stage development.

As was stated recently by sturgeon biologist Micah Kieffer at a fall 2014 meeting of the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, “one instance” of ramped-up or ramped-down flow from TF dam or emergency spill gate and flume operation can abruptly terminate or abort spawning attempts at Rock Dam and below Cabot Station by federally-endangered SNS for the entire year. Operations of emergency and by pass flume gates on the TF canal also can have deadly parching or burying impacts SNS embryos.

FirstLight contends that its operations of Bypass flume gates above Cabot Station are aimed at either emergency load rejection at Cabot Station, or opened to flush debris. They also contend that it is rare to have more than one flume spill gate open, though most of the numbers belie this statement–and the number of days when 4 or more gates have been open during SNS spawning window is highly significant and impactful. Opening of 4 flume gates needlessly diverts flows approaching 4,000 CFS out of the Connecticut’s By Pass Reach at TF Dam, and sends it into the canal to be needlessly flushed back into the river in a configuration that impacts migratory species and imperils annual spawning attempts of the federally-endangered CT River shortnose sturgeon.

In May 2014, I personally witnessed 3 consecutive days when two or more spill gates were open at the TF canal bypass above Cabot—all at the same time of day: 12:25 pm. These openings occurred while both Station 1 and Cabot were generating, which would appear to indicate that the spill gates had been left in this position for hours, or perhaps days, as part of flow regulation in the canal–rather than emergency or debris clearing. I have sent this information to both FERC and the federal and state fisheries agencies.

It is clear to anyone who examines the TF power canal that it is mostly a lake-like, slow-water habitat, save for the thalweg. It is rare to see debris of any significant size floating in the canal. It gets culled off at the trash racks in front of the TF Gatehouse, or at racks on the canal that dog-leg off to Station 1, or it simply settles out in the lake section of the TF Canal.

The minor amount of small, floating debris that enters the fat part of the canal is culled off by the trash rack skirt above Cabot that steers it to the east side of the canal where a bascule gate can be operated to pass anything of significant size.

The continuous openings of two or more bypass gates, up to six and seven gates open on a “non-emergency” basis on the TF canal above Cabot Station during SNS spawning and early life stage periods threatens the recovery of the Connecticut River’s only federally endangered migratory species.

As I have witnessed, multiple gates open on the canal while both Station 1 and Cabot were in operation indicates that canal flow is at times being regulated at this site, rather than at the TF Gatehouse, where excess flow could be delivered to the river in the Bypass Reach, which would nourish, rather than destroy SNS chances for successful spawning at Rock Dam and below Cabot. During SNS spawning season, mid-April – June 30th, endangered species protections dictate that all flow, save for documented, specific emergency situations, by controlled at the Head Gates of the Turners Falls Dam.

Information for years 2013 and 2014 should further be included, and a Study and study season for 2015 should be implemented that documents both the reason and instances when emergency gates were open—and any flume gates above 1 that were open to vent flow from the canal to the ByPass.

I would also like to FERC to have FirstLight include information for 2010, as the May 4 time of 8-gate emergency spill operation occurred exactly at the time frame when Northfield Mountain had burped up a massive sediment spill into its intake, and was trying to flush that pollution downstream. It would be helpful to know the position of both the Bypass flume gates and the positions of TF Dam headgates and bascule and tainter gates at that juncture—as it most definitely impacted SNS present for spawning that year. This would again offer data on whether the TF canal flows were being regulated via emergency by pass flume operation.

3.3.14 Aquatic Mapping of Turners Falls Impoundment:

Further information/study needed:

If migratory fish targeted for restoration in Northern Massachusetts and Vermont and New Hampshire are to continue to be diverted into the TF Power Canal, where few emerge upstream, then an addition to this study should be conducted: Aquatic Mapping of the Turners Falls Power Canal—as it is technically an extension of the Turners Falls Impoundment, and the public has a right to understand the habitat where their fish get privatized.

3.3.18 Impacts of the Turners Falls Canal Drawdown on Fish Migration and Aquatic Organisms

Further information/study needed:

The 2014 Canal Drawdown study was flawed as it occurred over the course of two days, due to an error in spill gate function. Since this is a study of live and dead fish and organisms, as well as the presence of dissolved oxygen, a two-day study time frame represents a flawed evaluation. A night of drying, predation, and fluctuating oxygen presence confounds the results of this work. FirstLight does an annual drawdown of the canal—has down so for decades, thus a mistake at the time of a critical habitat study should corrected by conducting a second year of study.

Further, since FERC has ordered that FL conduct a study of American shad spawning in the TF Canal, it is important to note another anomaly in their canal drawdown work. At five-year intervals the TF Canal receives a full canal muck-out during drawdown. The last one occurred in 2009. This would have been the fifth year—a time when the major muck-out would occur. It did not happen. What occurred was canal “light”, with a large snafu in the middle of the one day study, making it a two day effort. Whether FL agrees that this should have occurred in 2014 or not, a big-dig in the canal is needed regularly, as the sludge, silt and muck settles out and fills in the wide part of the basin.

This must be figured into the “impacts” of the drawdown, as it has profound implications for forcing migratory fish into this habitat, as well as the survival of resident fish and aquatics.

Please see attached photo of the canal muck-out that I took in 2009.

This is the habitat all upstream migrants are diverted into at Turner Falls

This is the habitat all upstream migrants are diverted into at Turner Falls

 

3.3.19 Evaluate the Use of an Ultrasound Array to Facilitate Upstream Movement of Migratory Fish to Turners Falls Dam by Avoiding Cabot Station Tailrace

Further information/study needed: the need for this 2016 study will be fully realized if planned studies of American shad movement and spawning in the canal confirm that these fish are experiencing significant migratory delay, and are being coralled into a migratory spawning trap by confused and insurmountable flows or pre-mature warming in artificial habitat that induces spawning in the canal—preventing fisheries restoration on the river in Northern Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.

3.3.2 Evaluate Upstream and Downstream Passage of Adult American Shad

Further information/study needed: I concur with FERC’s requirements of an intensive array of radio and telemetry receivers throughout the TF Power Canal to track migrating shad in the canal.

However, I request that FERC require FirstLight, in consultation with stakeholders, add an array temperature monitors calibrated to the radio and telemetry sites to understand whether canal delays for American shad–lingering for an average of 8 days in the TF Canal, are forcing these fish to spawn in this privatized, lake-like habitat because of warmed, shallow, and slow water conditions.

3.3.6 Impact of Project Operations on Shad Spawning, Spawning Habitat and Egg Deposition in the Area of Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls Projects

Further information/study needed:
I concur with FERC that a full spawning study of the Turners Falls Power Canal be conducted in 2015, undertaken in consultation with stakeholders. Temperature monitors should be deployed to assess impact on migratory delay and spawning on-set; and cumulative impacts of head gate and by pass use of spill gates should be factored into the study to determine the impact of silt deposits on spawning success.

3.3.9 Two-Dimensional Modeling of the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project Intake/Tailrace Channel and Connecticut River Upstream and Downstream of the Intake/Tailrace

Further information/study needed: In the Initial Study Report Study Meeting Summary for stakeholder in October 2014, a request was made that FirstLight provide vector maps with arrows and indication of directional flow around the Intake and Tailrace Channel at the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project. This is critical information for flow, erosion, and sediment displacement and needs inclusion.

This is information that has been missing on Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Impacts since at least 1974. See attached at end of document.

Thank you for this opportunity to comment on these critical relicensing issues.

Sincerely,
Karl Meyer, M.S. Environmental Science
Greenfield, MA

1974 attached file below.

 

Double Standard on the Connecticut

Posted by on 09 Jul 2013 | Tagged as: American shad, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River ecosystem, ecosystem, EPA, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federal trust fish, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC license, FirstLight, GDF-Suez FirstLight, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, New Hampshire, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, Riverkeeper, Rutland Herald, shortnose sturgeon, Times Argus, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont

The following piece appeared in the Rutland Herald and the Barre-Montpelier Times-Argus during the first week of July.

Copyright © 2013, by Karl Meyer

This is the habitat all upstream migrants are diverted into at Turner Falls

This is the habitat all upstream migrants are diverted into at Turners Falls


                               A River Double Standard

On June 28, 2013, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Director of Energy Projects Jeff C. Wright ruled against the US Fish & Wildlife Service as it sought two extra weeks to review hundreds of pages of just-released Proposed Study Plans for the relicensing of five Connecticut River hydro projects. “The request for a 15-day EOT to file comments on the licensee’s proposed study plans is denied.”  EOT is FERC-speak for “extension of time.”  Those studies will impact this four-state river for the next 20-40 years. Agencies joining that request included the National Marine Fisheries Service, MA Div. of Fish & Wildlife, The Connecticut River Watershed Council, The Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, NH Dept. of Environmental Service and The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.

One big reason for that request was the difficulties in evaluating the impacts of FirstLight’s Northfield Mountain/Turners Falls hydro operations on the entire Connecticut River ecosystem.  Beginning last fall, FERC began deviating from its standardized relicensing model when it scheduled public site visits to FirstLight sites weeks before the company released a publicly-required 500-page Pre-Application Document describing its complex pumped storage operations and machinery.

This spring FERC also supported FirstLight’s expedited-request to conduct a series of complicated river flow studies this summer—an allowance falling well outside FERC’s strict licensing timelines.  In doing so they let the company schedule three days of river visits by fed/state agencies smack in the middle of their deadline to comment on FirstLight’s 434-page Updated Proposed Study Plan.  FirstLight released that document June 28th; comments to FERC are due July 15, 2013.  Even after nine meetings with the power company and FERC, many agency representatives continued to decry the lack of critical scientific detail provided in FirstLight documents.  Those were put together by its team of five consulting firms.  Ironically, those handpicked FirstLight firms will conduct the next two years of river studies—the ones meant to protect the river.  A fox and chicken coop analogy applies.

FERC is employing a legal double standard here on the Connecticut.  If you a public agency or citizen seeking protections for the ecosystem—well, even little rules are THE RULES.  At the same time it appears corporations can continuously and sometimes massively ignore federal license requirements with impunity.

In FERC’s own words, the Commission “enforces the conditions of each license for the duration of its term, and conducts project safety and environmental inspections.”  Yet today Holyoke Gas & Electric is half a decade–and counting, in violation of its 2002 agreement to construct facilities to end the evisceration of federally endangered shortnose sturgeon and other “federal trust” fish migrating downstream at their Holyoke Dam facility.  So, why have a license at all? 

Upstream in 2010 GDF-Suez FirstLight dumped some of 45,000 cubic square yards of reservoir sludge directly into the Connecticut at Northfield Mountain over a 90-day period—the equivalent of 40 dump truck loads of muck per day, smack in the middle of fish migration season. Yet in current documents FERC states their inspections have never found FirstLight in violation of its license.

The US EPA found FirstLight in violation of the Clean Water Act in August of 2010 and ordered a massive clean-up, though the ecosystem damage was already done.  In an August 4, 2010 letter EPA sanctioned FirstLight for violating “FERC License No. 2485” and polluting the “navigable waters of the United States.”  A subsequent letter dated August 10, 2013 from FERC’s Biological Resources Branch Chief Steve Hocking to FirstLight Manager John Howard specifically referenced the EPA’s sanctions, directing him to “article 20 of your license.”  Yet there is virtually no FERC mention of that egregious violation in current relicensing documents.

That’s the standard that for-profit companies are held to here.  It rivals the Pirate Code.  Currently there is no watchdog entity on this river willing to go to the mat to protect the ecosystem.  If, like on the Hudson, there was an organization like Riverkeeper—which cites “enforcement” as one of its main responsibilities, these egregious injuries to the Connecticut would not likely stand.  Holyoke Gas & Electric would have been in court long ago for killing endangered sturgeon; and the full range of FirstLight’s lethal impacts on the Connecticut’s migratory fish when all are diverted into their turbine-filled power canal would’ve been fully investigated.  FERC’s inaction is a disgrace.

FERC Director Wright requested that questions regarding that EOT denial go to Ken Hogan at: 202-502-8434, or Kenneth.Hogan@ferc.gov. Ken has presided over the CT River relicensing hearings.  Also, you can find FirstLight’s 434-page “Updated Proposed Study Plan” at: www.northfieldrelicensing.com under Documents.  The public has until July 15, 2013 to send comments on that plan to FERC.  You do that at: www.ferc.gov/docs-filing/efiling.asp .  You must cite FirstLight’s project numbers, P-2485 and P-1889, and be sure to note that you are commenting on the “Updated Proposed Study Plan.”

Karl Meyer is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists. He lives in Greenfield, MA. Read more at: www.karlmeyerwriting.com

The Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon

Posted by on 21 Apr 2013 | Tagged as: American shad, Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Endangered Species Act, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federal trust fish, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, MA Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, National Marine Fisheries Service, shortnose sturgeon, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS

 

Copyright © 2013, by Karl Meyer

The following piece appeared earlier this April in the Rutland Herald, Vtdigger.org, The Recorder, Daily Hampshire Gazette, Shelburne Falls Independent, and on other sites.

                       The Shortnose Sturgeon and Spring’s Teachable Moment 

There’s a watershed opportunity for teachers investigating migratory fish this spring.  It’s the final season classrooms will raise Atlantic salmon eggs from a massive federal hatchery program, dismantled after 46 years.  It’s a chance to teach kids that “extinct,” in evolutionary biology terms, means exactly that: gone, forever.  It’s a profoundly simple lesson, with ramifications that can be fully grasped in a week.  I’m hoping teachers will put a living dinosaur of a fish in that salmon’s place—one still here, though teetering on the edge of extinction these 46 years: the federally endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon.  As teachable as T. Rex, this marvelously adapted, 3-4 foot fish has survived for 100 million years. 

On April 20, 1967, two federal agencies and four states signed the Cooperative Fisheries Restoration Compact for the Connecticut River.  It specifically targeted American shad and blueback herring, plus salmon–extinct here since Darwin’s birth in 1809. Within two years its emphasis had overwhelmingly veered to conjuring up a new salmon.  Still, with a little help shad and herring populations blossomed.  Combined runs reached 1,000,000 fish in the 1980s; then dropped precipitously.  Bluebacks are now rare as hen’s teeth. 

By 1975, what was then the Federal Power Commission had heard testimony that Long Island Sound had warmed to a point that might prevent cold-water salmon from entering rivers in its basin.  The climate had changed.  Still, in 1980 MA and US Fish and Wildlife Service officials insisted a series of salmon ladders be built, leading all migrants into a power canal at Turners Falls.  It failed instantly; yet skewed logic continued.  In 1983 Congress renamed the restoration The Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission.  It continues today. 

Those extinct salmon had only visited here–the southern tip of their range, for a few centuries.  Importing eggs from Canada and Maine, the program proved futile, costing millions annually.  It left the real problem for native shad, herring and endangered sturgeon—a broken Connecticut River, quietly untended.  Those species had returned here for thousands of years.  Bony-plated sturgeon had been vacuuming-up freshwater mussels eons before the present valley took shape. 

On March 11, 1967, the shortnose was listed as “endangered” in the original Endangered Species Preservation Act.  No one knew how they’d survived, or how many remained.  Shortnose were sometimes landed downstream of the 1849 Holyoke Dam; and a few were recorded upstream below Turners Falls.  By 1980, researchers discovered embryos and larvae upstream–proof shortnose spawned somewhere below Turners Falls.

Beginning in 1990, Dr. Boyd Kynard and colleagues began 17 years of continuous federal and state-funded sturgeon research.  Kynard ultimately uncovered the structure of the population, its migratory patterns, and ancient spawning grounds.  A key finding established that all shortnose head upstream to an ancient spawning pool between Greenfield and Turners Falls known as Rock Dam.  Less than 2,000 survive today.  They exist in two groups of a single genetic population, separated over 150 years ago by the raising of Holyoke Dam—which luckily had left some adults upstream with access to spawning.  Fish trapped downstream were out of luck.  

Today, the bulk of the population lives in the river below Holyoke Dam.  Known as “reproductive nulls,” some 1,500 sturgeon linger in a forced limbo created by agencies charged with protecting them.  If one manages to slip into Holyoke Gas & Electric’s fish lift for a spawning ride upstream, it is trapped and pointedly dropped downstream—per orders of the National Marine Fisheries Service and the MA Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program.  Surviving for 40 years or more, adults will repeatedly attempt to pass the dam until, genetically unfulfilled, they expire.

NMFS, MA NHESP and USFWS claim this protects sturgeon from being sliced up in HG&E’s turbines, if they return downstream after spawning.  All the while HG&E is 5 years in violation of license agreements mandating construction of safe downstream fish passage.  The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has done nothing to enforce environmental statutes that were key to Holyoke receiving a new hydro license in 1999.

Today, some 300 sturgeon cling to life upstream of Holyoke.  An unknown number are adults.  Some attempt to spawn near Rock Dam each spring (females spawn once every 5 yrs).   According to Kynard et al, success is far from guaranteed.  Unregulated flows emanating from FirstLight’s Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls dam and canal imperil that endangered process.  Annually, spawning fails 79% of the time at Rock Dam; and 29% of the time at a default site just downstream.  Fertilized embryos are also killed when waffling flows flush them out, or leave them parching on river banks.  Many years, no young are produced.

Laws ignored; habitats decimated, river groups mum: it’s a blueprint for extinction.  Yet, amazingly, our dinosaurs persist. It’s this spring’s teachable moment.  Anyone up to a challenge? 

Karl Meyer’s Wild Animals of North America won a 2008 Teachers Choice Award for Children’s Books.  He lives in Greenfield, MA.

THE RIVER FIX FOR FATAL ATTRACTION

Posted by on 12 Dec 2012 | Tagged as: American shad, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, ecosystem, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, FirstLight, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, salmon hatchery, shad, shortnose sturgeon, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, Uncategorized, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Service’s Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Lab, US Geological Survey's Conte Fish Lab, USFWS

NOTE: The following piece, slightly edited, appeared earlier this month in Connecticut River Valley publications and outlets in CT, MA, and VT. The original version is below.

http://www.rutlandherald.com/article/20121206/OPINION04/712069975/1018/OPINION

http://www.recorder.com/home/3161519-95/falls-shad-fish-canal

Copyright © 2012, by Karl Meyer

The River Fix for Fatal Attraction

With a salmon hatchery program no longer clouding issues, the US Fish & Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, and directors from MA, VT, NH and CT have a singular opportunity to redeem the Connecticut River restoration. They’re currently making choices for restoring migratory fish north to Bellows Falls, VT, begun under the 45 year-old New England Cooperative Fisheries Compact. The decisions stem from the 1965 Anadromous Fish Conservation Act. They’ll seal this ecosystem’s fate at four federally-licensed dams and the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station until 2058.

US F&WS’s Region 5 Director Wendi Weber, John Warner, and Ken Sprankle will join National Marine Fisheries’ Daniel Morris, Julie Crocker, and MA Fish & Wildlife’s Caleb Slater in making the decisions—with input from state directors. Their 1967 mandate is restoration of shad and herring runs to offer the public “high quality sport fishing opportunities” and provide “for the long-term needs of the population for seafood.”

Sadly, in 1980 their predecessors abandoned two miles of the Connecticut to the power company operating at Turners Falls and Northfield Mountain. By allowing privatization of the river at mile 120, they killed chances of passage success for millions of American shad barred from spawning at Greenfield, Gill and Northfield, MA, right to the foot of Bellows Falls at Walpole, NH at mile 172. Unwittingly, they also continued the decimation of the ancient spawning grounds of the river’s last, 300, viable federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon.

Instead of mandating river flows and a direct route upstream to a lift at the dam, they acquiesced to diverting migrants into a power canal. That Rube Goldberg–a three-trick knot of currents and ladders, proved an utter failure to the hundreds of thousands of shad moving upstream annually through elevators at Holyoke Dam. There, via a lift built in 1955, 380,000 American shad streamed north in 1980. It’s the East Coast’s most successful fish passage; it by-passes the city’s canals.

Half or more of those shad swam upstream; but foundered in the treacherous Turners Falls complex. At the dam, just as today, some depleted their energies by treading water for weeks—washed back and forth by a power company’s deluge-and-trickle releases, finding no elevator or upstream entrance. Many eventually turned back, only to be tempted by spill from their power canal. Fish unlucky enough to ascend the ladder there found a desperate compromise. Over 90% wouldn’t exit alive. Just as today, alien habitat and extreme turbulence overwhelmed them. Only 1-in-100 emerged upstream. For the rest, a turnaround spelled almost certain death in turbines. Others lingered for weeks in an alien canal environment, until they expired. Just as today.

This year over 490,000 shad passed Holyoke. Half or more attempted to pass Turners Falls. Just 26,000, or 1-in-10, swam beyond the dam–a percentage consistently reached in the 1980s. This is described as “success” by US Geological Survey Conte Lab scientists, Dr. Alex Haro and Dr. Ted Castro-Santos, after fourteen seasons of canal study. In work garnering annual power company subsidies, they’ve attempted to model that canal is a viable migration path.

I interviewed Dr. Haro in 2007, subsequent to a 1999-2005 study finding shad passage at Turners Falls had plummeted to “one percent or less” directly on the heals of Massachusetts 1999 energy deregulation for the Northfield Mountain-Turners Falls’ complex. I asked why passage had failed there, “I wouldn’t call it failure,” Haro replied. Fish passage saw no significant rebound until 2010, when the effects of GDF-Suez’s Northfield Mountain plant were stopped cold for 6 months—sanctioned by the EPA for massive silt dumping. Likewise, Dr. Castro-Santos’s claims to passage of one-in-ten fish as progress seem deeply troubling when his findings, after 14 years, are just now revealing shad dying “in droves” in that canal, “We don’t know why.”

In 1865, James Hooper, aged 86, of Walpole, NH reported: (from The Historical Society of Cheshire County (NH) “The area just below Bellows Falls was a famous place for catching shad because they gathered there but did not go up over the falls. The fish were caught with scoop nets. One spring Hooper helped to haul out 1300 shad and 20 salmon with one pull of the net.”

Citizens upstream of the 1798 Turners Falls Dam need not accept the dead shad runs and severed ocean-ecosystem of the last 214 years at a dam operated to cull price-spikes from the electricity “spot market.” An 1872 US Supreme Court decision against owners of Holyoke Dam mandates passage of the public’s fish. Nor do citizens from Old Saybrook, CT to Bellows Falls have to accept endangered sturgeon, a lethal canal, and a dead river at mile 120. After 32 years of fatal attraction at Turners Falls, its time to stop steering fish into a canal death trap. Holyoke proves that’s possible.

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

On the Hook: on WHMP, Tuesday, May 1st, 6:30 & 8:00 a.m.

Posted by on 29 Apr 2012 | Tagged as: American shad, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, federal trust fish, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, shortnose sturgeon, Turners Falls power canal, Vernon Dam Fishway

On Tuesday morning, May 1st,  at 6:30 a.m., I  join Morning Show Host Bob Flaherty on WHMP Radio in Northampton for a short segment best described as “On the Hook,” a dam-by-dam, power plant-by-power plant assessment of the regulations and laws being broken and skirted that continue the institutionalized failure of the 45 year migratory fish restoration  on the Connecticut from Holyoke, MA to Vernon, VT.  The segment repeats at 8:00 a.m.

Get a snapshot of who’s doing what, where–and why misdirected science continues to stress sending “federal trust” American shad and blueback herring into a black hole at the Turners Falls power canal while no one is talking about the Connecticut’s federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon.  Should be of interest to anglers, teachers, artists and anyone concerned with the Connecticut River ecosystem.

Tune in if you can at: http://www.whmp.com  Locally@ 1400, or 1240 AM.

The DEAD REACH CHRONICLE on LOCAL-BIAS

Posted by on 31 Mar 2012 | Tagged as: American shad, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Dead Reach, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Endangered Species Act, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, shortnose sturgeon, teachers, Turners Falls dam, Vermont

THE DEAD REACH CHRONICLE on LOCAL-BIAS: Why the Connecticut River Ecosystem dies in the two mile stretch between Greenfield and Turners Falls, MA—and what could fix it right now!

Tune-in Greenfield Community Television’s (GCTV) Local-Bias Host Drew Hutchison and guest Karl Meyer, and find out why it would be compelling to hold a “DEAD REACH FESTIVAL” in Turners Falls and Greenfield–and how it could help artists, teachers, anglers, and school kids get to the truth about our River and begin fixing the ecosystem right here in our own back yard.

New England’s Great River system essentially withers and dies in the miserable dearth-or-deluge conditions caused by flows and manipulations below Turners Falls dam—conditions largely imposed on this critical reach to operate the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station just upstream.  For the sake of creating a total of 8-1/2 hours of reserve electrical generation, the River’s ocean connection and the American shad run upstream to Bellows Falls, VT is sacrificed—while the Connecticut’s ONLY federally endangered migratory fish, the shortnose sturgeon, is literally brought to the brink of total reproductive failure, year-in, and year-out, by miserable instream conditions forced upon them by dam operations.

This show airs tonight: Saturday, March 31, 2012, at 9 pm, on Local Channel 15; and repeats this coming week on Weds., April 4 at 5:30 pm; Thurs. April 5 at 9; and Sat. April 7 at 9.  You can also view it online.  Go to:  http://www.gctv.org/node/5264

See also: http://www.gctv.org/schedule

THE “BIG GAME” PROSECUTION of RYAN MCCULLOUGH: another red herring in a failing Connecticut River restoration

Posted by on 19 Jan 2012 | Tagged as: American shad, Atlantic salmon, Bellows Falls Fishway, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River ecosystem, Conte, CRASC, Dead Reach, didymo, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Endangered Species Act, ESA, federal trust fish, FERC license, FirstLight, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, Pioneer Valley News, Rock Dam, salmon, salmon hatchery, shad, shortnose sturgeon, The Pioneer, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Service’s Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Lab, USFWS, Walpole

© Copyright 2012 by Karl Meyer    All Rights Reserved

The “big game” prosecution of Ryan McCulough: another red herring in a failing Connecticut River restoration

(NOTE: the following article first appeared in The Pioneer, January 5, 2012, available now on free newsstands from Springfield, MA to Bellows Falls, VT.   Find it online at: www.pioneervalleynews.com )

Legend has it a reporter once asked career criminal Willy Sutton, aka Slick Willie, to explain his long history of thefts, “Willy, why do you rob banks?”  Sutton, a master of disguise, purportedly answered in terms as honest as a crisp January day: “Because that’s where the money is.”

At criminal proceedings in a jtrial scheduled for January 12, 2012 in State Superior Court at Windsor, VT, accused Atlantic salmon poacher Ryan McCullough will likely be asked why he was fishing downstream of the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s White River National Fish Hatchery(WRNFH) last July 25th.  With the Connecticut River and a failed migratory fish restoration looming as backdrop, I’m hoping McCullough replies with a similar bit of direct irony: “Because that’s where they make the fish.”

Last August a hatchery-bred Atlantic salmon created in controlled environs at the White River hatchery in Bethel, VT, was traced via a receiver to a radio-tag blipping away in the freezer of a nearby home.  That tag, hidden inside a 31-inch, 9-1/2 lb. salmon, landed the 22 year-old fisherman in hot water.  McCullough, an aspiring fishing guide, contended he mistook the fish for a huge brown trout.  He’s now charged with taking a “big game species” under Vermont fish and wildlife statutes.  Conviction carries a $1,500 fine and a possible 3-year suspension of his hunting and fishing license.

That big game fish McCullough caught was not even remotely connected to a healthy river system.  It was homing back from the sea to an artificial environment only a factory fish would recognize as habitat—the climate-controlled conduits of WRNFH.  That aqua-culture facility is part of a 19th century industrial idea: factory production substituted for a working ecosystem under the 44-year old banner of the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRACS)’s Connecticut River migratory fish “restoration.”

The fly-fishing community was abuzz about this incident.  Yet the only “wild” thing about that salmon was its public perception.  It had been conceived at the hands of humans.  The egg and milt (sperm) that spawned it had been matched up by computer models, those genetic fluids were mingled together in plastic tubs, swirled by human hands.  In that immaculately-sterile conception a tiny fish was produced—one of ten million “fry” that were later flushed into Connecticut River tributaries to swim to the ocean.  Every tiny fish produced and released that year along with the one McCullough was to catch two years later was at least two generations removed from any salmon that had ever tasted the salt sea.

In the months just prior to McCullough’s apprehension fisheries personnel at the Holyoke, MA, fish lift on the Connecticut had intercepted the entire spring salmon “run” from the decades-old, half-billion-dollar-plus effort—still politely referred to as a “restoration.”  They trapped all 107 returning fish.  Of those, all but nine were put in trucks and rushed to sterile, hatchery-lab settings where they were weighed, genetically profiled, vaccinated, quarantined, had their fins clipped, and tissue samples taken.  All would ultimately be needed as breeding “stock” for next years dump of millions of “state-farmed” salmon babies into Connecticut River tributaries.

However, ensuing developments at White River will make it interesting to see if Vermont Fish & Wildlife continues in its attempt to make an example of Ryan McCullough.  Tragically and ironically, WRNFH was all but washed away by Tropical Storm Irene just weeks after he was brought up on poaching charges.  A storm surge of White River water entered pools, conduits, wells and buildings throughout the facility—overwhelming well-water fed fish ponds and carrying in the seeds of didymo, aka Rock Snot.  Didymo is an easily-spread invasive alga that was discovered upstream of the hatchery 3 years back.  It smothers river bottom habitats.

Suddenly, tiny salmon fry and over a half-million surviving hatchery fish had become potential carriers of a Rock Snot plague–if they were to be spread in the annual truck-and-dispersal system into Connecticut tributaries and the lakes and streams of four New England states.  Annual production costs alone for five salmon hatcheries around New England can reach a million bucks per facility.  Mistakes and the necessity for new “bio-security” protocols and upgrades repeatedly send costs skyrocketing.  And, after 44 years of trying to create a new strain of cold-loving salmon on the southern-most river it ever colonized, the number of hybrid salmon returning to a warming Connecticut River averages between 40 -100 fish.

A quick damage estimate by USFWS for White River was put at between $10 – 14 million.  But the hatchery would have to be “depopulated;” then sterilized, before any rebuilding could start.  They’d likely have to kill and landfill half a million fish, including hatchery trout and salmon.  Desperate to put a good spin on this second million-dollar disaster at WRNFH in 3 years, USFWS and CRASC scrambled to find a feel-good PR angle.

Ultimately they “reached out” to federally-recognized Native American tribes, inquiring if they would like a “gift” of expensive hatchery salmon—some 8,000 of the table-sized fish were still swimming on site.  Some tribes immediately accepted.  CRASC convened quickly to take a unanimous vote legalizing the “donation.”  They then began killing, gutted and icing the largest salmon, happy to pass them along to indigenous peoples of the Northeast.  Within hours of that vote, CRASC’s feel-good ‘fish-to-the-Indians’ story hit the media via the Associated Press.

Ironically, the 600 largest of those choice “gift” salmon were near replicas–in size and weight (30 inches, 9 lbs), to the fish Ryan McCullough sits accused of poaching months earlier.  But at this point it appears the angler can mount a pretty decent defense.  Back in July he’d actually let a local paper photograph him holding his prize “brown trout” prior to placing it in that freezer.  Though the photo showed a fish appearing to have the slightly hooked lower jaw of a “cock” salmon–that PR move would have been a hugely naïve bit of bravado, something a knowing, and aspiring, fishing guide would never do.  His supporters, including fish and game people, contend he simply may have made a rookie mistake.

Curiously, if he’d purchased a MA fishing license and landed a tagged salmon there, the Bay State penalty would have been akin to a parking ticket: $50 – $100.  Why??  MA doesn’t have a hard classification for exactly what these hybrid fish are.  They aren’t considered a native Connecticut River migratory fish in MA, where the Connecticut’s minor salmon strain has also been extinct for over 200 years.  This is also likely the reason there isn’t a federal prosecution looming for McCullough.  Connecticut River Atlantic salmon are officially classified as “extirpated” by the US Fish & Wildlife Service.  To prosecute him they’d have to hold a monkey trial with a hybrid fish at its center, a spectacle Darwin himself would shake his head at. Considering the fish give-away status at the WRNFH–and the endlessly-failed Connecticut River salmon restoration program, Vermont is going to look foolish if they don’t let young Ryan McCullough off the hook.

But the Green Mountain State has long had a blind spot about all other native migratory fish on the Connecticut save for extinct salmon.  Fisheries officials there long-ago staked Vermont’s idea of pristine environments and elite sport fishing on the creation of a new salmon strain to replace one not seen since 1809.  Decades later, Vermont anglers, as well as those just across the river in New Hampshire, are left without a nifty shad run anglers could be tapping into all the way to Bellows Falls and Walpole.  They get no fish at all, save spawned-out hatchery lunkers dumped into local lakes as salmon program PR (*USFWS Region 5 put out an official advisory on consuming hatchery salmon way back in 2004).  Meanwhile, their rivers and tributaries face the ongoing specter of new and potentially-catastrophic emerging fish diseases being spread through hatchery operations in a time of warming climates.

The full ironies of last summer’s comedy of errors become even more apparent looking just south of the Vermont/New Hampshire border to the federal Conte Fish Lab where CRASC meetings are held beside the dead stretch of Connecticut River in Turners Falls, MA.  CRASC and USFWS are responsible for all the “federal trust” migratory fish on the Connecticut including blueback herring, American shad, and federally endangered shortnose sturgeon.  Yet there, state and federal fish guardians continue to ignore the river’s most-critical 2-1/2 mile chasm—one that’s been key to migratory fish restoration to Vermont and New Hampshire for decades.

Thirty years ago VT and NH should’ve begun crying foul due to the lack of accommodating flows and a fish elevator (still yet to be built) directly upstream at Turners Falls dam.  Implementing those proven remedies–required under federal and state license regulations for migratory fish to reach upstream waters, would long ago have revived those “dead reach” flows during spawning season—concurrently providing easy upstream passage for very fishable runs of American shad all the way to Walpole, NH and Bellows Falls, VT.  Today, the Connecticut’s federal trust run of American shad expires in the dead reach below Turners Falls dam, deflected into the treacherous environs of a power canal.  For decades now VT and NH anglers have been denied fishing for what would’ve amounted to millions of 3 – 6 lb. shad, a tasty catch that makes for excellent fishing in anyone’s book.

Today, funded in part by FirstLight-GDF-Suez, (the global power company manipulating pulses sent downriver from their Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, and flows diverted into their Turners Falls Power Canal) USFWS, CRASC, and federal Conte lab researchers continue ignoring the devastation to migrating and spawning river fish from company flow regimes.  In deference to FirstLight’s preferences, annual agency studies continue emphasizing sending migrating fish into miserable habitats, cross currents, and slicing turbines of the Turners Falls Power Canal.  Meanwhile, virtually next door to the federal Conte Fish Lab, federal trust American shad runs and whole season’s production of eggs and young from the river’s only spawning population of federally-endangered shortnose whither in a dying reach of river annually.

Perhaps most shameful of all is that there is virtually no federal enforcement or prosecution for the year-in, year-out, damage to those federally endangered sturgeon.  US Endangered Species Act protections are wholly ignored for this population, which measures only in the hundreds.  The beleaguered two-mile reach behind the federal Conte Lab has served as their historic mating ground for untold centuries.

Annually, successful shortnose sturgeon spawning in this reach occurs less than half of the time.  Much of the loss is preventable, and could be stemmed in large part by enforcing environmental statutes that would quell the punishing effects of the water pulses and parching trickles sent downstream by Northfield Mountain/Turners Falls dam operators toward an ancient, low escarpment in the river known as the Rock Dam.  Shortnose sturgeon have spawned at this site since before well before Columbus sailed.

More losses arise from the company’s spawning-season water diversions into—and out of, the Turner Falls Power Canal.  That flow can be, alternately, either so strong, or so halting, that it can stop an entire season’s worth of sturgeon mating dead in its tracks.  Or, those same vacillating pulses will either wash downstream, or strand, a season’s worth of tiny sturgeon embryos–leaving them to decay beneath the silt, or desiccate on barren riverbanks.  Either way, a year’s worth of endangered shortnose sturgeon production regularly gets sideswiped to oblivion.

The penalty to an individual for catching, killing or interfering with a federally endangered shortnose sturgeon is up to a year in jail, and a $100,000 dollar fine per instance.  That penalty is increased to $200,000 for corporations, which seems a bit out of balance.  Right at Turners Falls–adjacent to the US Geological Service’s Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Lab and just downstream from the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s Great Falls Discovery Center, there is documented evidence of annual damage to the Connecticut River’s only spawning population of endangered shortnose sturgeon, yet here no one is being dragged into court…

At the November 10, 2011 CRASC meeting in Turners Falls, USFWS’s Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle announced the outlines and some preliminary observations from a multi-year American shad migration study he’s begun.  With assistance, Sprankle caught and radio-tagged over a hundred shad, some at the mouth of the Connecticut, some at the Holyoke fish lift.  This allowed him to track their movements via receivers placed along the river as they made their upstream runs.  Partly funded by FirstLight Power, federal Conte Lab researcher Dr. Ted Castro-Santos partnered on the Sprankle study.  Castro-Santos was the point person responsible for siting receivers along the river from downstream of the Turners Falls Power Canal up to the Vernon dam in Vermont.

Sprankle termed the undertaking a “whole river study for shad,” one that would help in understanding how they use the river in migration.  He further noted that Dr. Castro-Santos had placed radio receivers throughout FirstLight’s Turners Falls Power Canal.  At that point I asked how many receivers had been set up in the “actual river bed”—referring to the Connecticut’s embattled, 2-mile “dead reach” just beyond Conte Labs west windows.  As expected, he answered that none were in place to monitor that section or river.  It’s remains the river’s missing link.

Thus, from the foot of the Turners Falls canal to the base of Turners Falls dam, Sprankle and Castro-Santos will have no data on shad movement in a critical river reach.  I pointed out to Sprankle that the undertaking could not then be considered a bona fide “whole river study for shad.”  This is decidedly a broken river study—missing the miles of streambed where a river’s ocean-connected ecosystem dies.  I further observed that the section Castro-Santos has chosen to monitor promotes a power “canal restoration”—a configuration that has failed for the past 40 years, and one that let’s the power company wholly off the hook in terms of sustainable flows for federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon and working, direct, upstream fish passage for federal trust American shad.

Ryan McCullough is scheduled to appear on Thursday, January 12, 2011, in Room 1 of Vermont Superior Court in Windsor at 9:00 a.m.  He is pleading not guilty to the charge of knowingly taking a “big game species” and has chosen to be tried by jury, represented by attorny Jordanna Levine.

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