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INFORMATION BLACK HOLE on the Connecticut

Posted by on 05 May 2016 | Tagged as: American shad, Connecticut River, federal trust fish, FirstLight, GDF-Suez FirstLight, Greenfield Community College, Holyoke Community College, Holyoke Fish Lift, Jack Buckley, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, New Hampshire, Northfield Mountain, shad, shad fishing, Station 1, teachers, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont, Walpole, Wendi Weber

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INFORMATION BLACK HOLE

Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer

On this May 5th, 2016, they have no idea in Sunderland–or in Deerfield for that matter. Nor do they know anything in Greenfield, Turners Falls, Gill, Northfield or Millers Falls. Upstream, Vermont folks in Vernon, Guilford, Brattleboro and Putney don’t have a clue. Across the river, New Hampshire people in Hinsdale, Chesterfield, Walpole and Charlestown remain in the dark.

What these towns all have in common is that nobody can tell them anything of the whereabouts of their share of the spring American shad run. The fish have been in the river and upstream of Holyoke for a full five weeks now, and there hasn’t been a single fish count provided from the Greenfield Community College students hired by GDF-Suez FirstLight to monitor fish passage at Turners Falls. An accounting of the public’s fish remains in the hands of a private company—and, as I’ve said before, many or most are likely struggling to survive a trip through their private power canal.

For a migrating shad, the 36 mile swim from Holyoke to Turners Falls is a walk in the park. It’s a day—maybe a day-and-a-half trip, ostensibly on the way to spawning habitats in Vermont and New Hampshire. But thousands of the public’s fish have gone missing on the Connecticut River this spring. And it seems no one can say exactly where they are. If you had to make an educated guess, you could surmise many are somewhere between Greenfield and Turners Falls, with many not in the actual river at all.

A significant number are fighting currents in the debased habitats of the Turners Falls power canal, where murky flows delay most by over a week before they even approach the site that could route them past the dam. Others are in the river, trying to find a path to the base of a fish ladder whose construction back in 1980 was based on Pacific salmon. And still others are sidetracked and stalled in the riverbed like sardines, expending precious migratory and spawning energy in front of the ramping outflows at a mini overflow power site known as Station 1. Wherever those fish may be, we do know that, on average over time, just 4% of those shad ever make it beyond Turners Falls Dam toward Vermont and New Hampshire. In the very few “good” years, one fish in ten wriggles upstream.

We also know that the first two American shad were lifted past Holyoke Dam five weeks ago. As of May 4, 2016, some 25,000 had been passed upstream at the Holyoke Fish Lift. What happened to them next is anyone’s guess. Once they pass Holyoke, accounting for them is left in the hands of a private power company—currently GDF-Suez FirstLight Hydro, now going under the corporate aegis Engie. These are the folks responsible for passing the public’s fish at Turners Falls Dam, and giving public accounts of fish passage for anglers, teachers, the general public, and the state and federal fish agencies.

It’s been documented that at least half of all the shad passing Holyoke will attempt to pass Turners Falls. It’s wholly possible the actual number is significantly higher. It matters little though, as all fish get diverted into the Turners Falls Power Canal once they attain this easy upstream reach, and only that average of 4% make it past the TF Dam. The rest simply go unaccounted for once they arrive and are tempted into that turbine-lined pit.

Five full weeks since fish have been heading upstream, and that includes sea lamprey as well. Yet we still do not have a single fish passage update at Turners Falls. What’s wrong here? Who is responsible?? Well, obviously FirstLight GDF-Suez is responsible. But, nobody is holding them to it. These fish, while moving through Massachusetts, are the responsibility of the US Fish & Wildlife Service. But, while here, they in large part fall under the responsibility of the MA Division of & Wildlife. Why aren’t they ensuring the public gets daily fish updates—like those that have been available at Holyoke Dam for years? Again, go fish…

At Holyoke Dam there are actually humans on-site that can witness real-time conditions, fish passage, and provide the needed public info in a timely manner. These come via students from Holyoke Community College. Not so at Turners Falls, where the Commonwealth has largely left responsibility for the chicken coop up to the fox. All monitoring is done remotely by video, with equipment provided by FirstLight. Prior years show repeated equipment failures. And then you have to wait—often many WEEKS, before those videos are handed off and analyzed by GCC interns. Its only then that we are treated to weeks-out-of-date info about where our fish are.

This privatization needs to change. Wendi Weber, Region 5 Director at the USFWS might be able to help. Or MA Division of Fish & Wildlife Director Jack Buckley. Or, perhaps, MADFW’s Caleb Slater, Anadramous Fish Passage Project Director. The guy at FirstLight responsible if Bob Stira.

As a side note: many other states have actuarial tables that put specific monetary values on migratory and resident fish. Then, if they are killed in project operations, or fish do not reach their spawning grounds, the public is reimbursed for the ecological damages.

Updated HOLYOKE fish counts can be accessed at:
www.fws.gov/r5crc under Recreation.

Greening Greenfield’s “Green Hero” for September

Posted by on 11 Sep 2015 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC licensing process, Fish passage results, Greenfield Recorder, Greening Greenfield, Holyoke Fish Lift, National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS, Northfield Mountain, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Rock Dam, shortnose sturgeon, teachers, The Recorder, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS

Greening Greenfield’s “Green Hero” for September

I’ve had the honor of being selected as Greening Greenfield’s “Green Hero” for September, 2015. The award was announced in the pages of The Recorder on September 9th; the text from that piece is attached below.

Thanks to all the people of Greening Greenfield for extending me that recognition—as well as focusing on the importance of the critical artery in Western New England’s ecosystem, the Connecticut River. Greening Greenfield has been hard at work locally on issues of climate and sustainability for over a decade. Their efforts reach into all aspects of local energy, economy, and quality of life issues. They’ve made great strides in steering Greenfield toward an environmental future that will nourish coming generations. www.greeninggreenfield.org .

A special thanks from me to Susan and Dorothy.

Text of The Recorder piece follows:

A Passion for the Connecticut River

The first thing you notice about Karl Meyer is that his eyes light up when he speaks about the Connecticut River and the fish that live in it. His commitment and enthusiasm shows through in his words and in every action he takes.

In the 1970s’, Karl was interested in the river for its scenic qualities. But in the 1980’s, he visited Holyoke fishway during May spawning season and observed some of the more than a million fish moving through lifts there. One year 720,000 American Shad and 500,000 blueback herring came through the river at Holyoke. That image never left him.

Since that time, Karl has concentrated on the needs of the fish in the river, with a particular concern for American shad and the shortnose sturgeon, an endangered species. Karl believes the Connecticut’s restoration concentrated on the wrong species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put a great deal of effort into stocking the river and building fish ladders for Atlantic salmon, a fish extinct here since 1809. That emphasis diverted attention from shortnose sturgeon, shad, and blueback herring, none of which benefit very much from those Turners Falls fish ladders which diverted all migrants into the Turners Falls power canal.

In 2015, 410,000 American shad passed through Holyoke, but because they are diverted out of the river and into the power canal only 60,000, fewer than 15%, made it past Turners Falls to reach open, upstream spawning grounds. This is clearly unsustainable. Today’s US Fish & Wildlife Service passage goal is 60% passing Turners Falls. Their original 1967 target was 75%.

With fewer fish making it to food-rich, open habitats, fewer newborn fish survive. There will be fewer fish for eagles, herons and osprey, and fewer for anglers and the public to consume. Eventually 15% of very little will result in the failure of the restoration to return vibrant shad runs to three target states.

Karl has a simple solution for this problem. Require life-giving flows in the river throughout spawning and migration season. When fish aren’t diverted into a turbine-lined power canal they’ll have a much greater possibility of making it to spawning grounds in MA, VT and NH. It’s a last chance for river restoration.

The other great danger to river health is the Northfield Mountain Pumping Station. It draws on the 20 miles of river backed up behind Turners Falls Dam, pumping it uphill to a 5 billion gallon reservoir. Northfield hugely impacts river flows and migration.

“An original design proposal had Northfield closing during migration and spawning season. Implementing that today would return more natural flows to the river. It would allow fish to migrate directly upriver in natural habitat, and let sturgeon gather and spawn successfully at their ancient Rock Dam spawning site,” stated Karl.

So how do we encourage this change? Easy. Right now the Northfield and Turners Falls/Cabot Station facilities are both up for 30-year relicensing with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). We can all comment on the relicensing of these plants at http://www.ferc.gov/docs-filing/ecomment.asp. The FERC project number for Northfield is P-2485; Cabot Station is P-1889. Advocating that our river run free during spawning and migration season could make a huge difference in improving the health of the Connecticut.

Karl would like to see local high schools adopt the National Marine Fisheries Service’s SCUTES Program and encourage monitoring of tagged, adult shortnose sturgeon at their ONLY documented natural spawning site, The Rock Dam in Turners Falls. By developing an awareness of the numbers and needs of these endangered fish, students will build a new relationship to this river. http://www.greateratlantic.fisheries.noaa.gov/prot_res/scutes/kits.html

For his tireless work to create a healthy Connecticut River and a vibrant fish population within it, Karl Meyer is our Green Hero for the month of September.

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

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

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

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

© 2010 by Karl Meyer

May 24, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Below, from CRASC Meeting minutes,  July 11, 2007

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