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ONE WILDLY ILL-ADVISED RIDE

Posted by on 31 Jul 2016 | Tagged as: AMC, American Whitewater, Appalachian Mountain Club, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Connecticut River Watershed Council, CRWC, Dead Reach, Dr. Boyd Kynard, EOEEA, Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, Fish and Aquatics Study Team, GDF-Suez FirstLight, Jack Buckley, John Bullard, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, NMFS, NOAA, Regional Director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, Secretary Matthew Beaton, Society of Environmental Journalists, University of Massachusetts, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey's Conte Fish Lab, Wendi Weber

The following piece appeared in The Recorder, www.recorder.com on July 30, 2016, under the heading, “Rafting over prime sturgeon habitat unwise; State officials need to be smarter.”

Copyright © 2016 by Karl Meyer

ONE WILDLY ILL-ADVISED RIDE

A photo from May 25, 2016 posted on American Whitewater’s website shows Massachusetts’ Secretary of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs Matthew Beaton and his staff lumbering across a small run of Connecticut River whitewater on a large raft. The short rapid they just surfed over is at a place called Rock Dam. It drops directly into a small, crescent-shaped pool–the sole natural spawning and nursery site for the federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon.

That Turners Falls site is the last place you’d want to see the Commonwealth’s highest environmental official rafting in May. Rock Dam is critical habitat for survival of the river’s most endangered migratory fish. There’s no other place like it in the ecosystem. It’s also where the state-endangered yellow lamp mussel was last recorded in this reach. Ecological protection is key to preserving the natural heritage there for future generations.

Why Secretary Beaton was at Rock Dam on the heels of the state’s failure to protect endangered timber rattlesnakes in their remaining habitat is a puzzlement. That site is literally where the Connecticut has long been left for dead. Each spring it is alternately starved and inundated—making spawning and survival of young for shortnose sturgeon nearly impossible. Rapid pumped storage hydro fluctuations also help make successful upstream passage for wild American shad, sea lamprey, and blueback herring a 1-in-10 proposition above Turners Falls.

The EOEEA was joyriding on “test” flows returned there specifically for environmental protection. They were meant to allow wild fish to reenter critical habitats where they might successfully gather; then spawn—in a natural pool that would subsequently nurture developing young in critical weeks lasting through mid-June. Those flows were delineated by John Bullard, Regional Director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, to not drop below minimum thresholds that would drive spawning sturgeon out. NMFS mandated the higher limits through June 3rd to ensure sturgeon had sufficient time there. That meant healing water for the most impoverished 2.7 miles of habitat on the entire 410 mile Connecticut.

The shortnose is a dinosaur-age fish—a yard-long creature with a shark-like tail and toughened leathery “scutes” instead of spindly scales. It’s the second species listed under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act, and the most exhaustively studied endangered migratory fish in the river. It has long had a federal recovery plan, one now including the boatload of science documenting building blocks necessary for its survival. None call for boaters bashing over them during spawning gatherings, or beaching in shallows where developing embryos shelter. If this iconic fish is ever to begin the road back from the brink of extinction, mandated protections and uninterrupted flows are critical at Rock Dam.

Dr. Boyd Kynard, formerly of the US Fish & Wildlife Service, the USGS Conte Lab and UMass, led the 17 years of studies that documented Rock Dam as the species’ sole natural spawning site in the ecosystem. He recently stated, “As to protection of the pre-spawning, spawning, and rearing area at Rock Dam, exclusion dates for boating should be the same as the dates for water flow, 15 March to 15 June.”

A “watered” Rock Dam had long-offered sturgeons a wide choice of depths and flow levels they could selectively adjust, and readjust to, when natural surface flow or river temperatures fluctuated beyond optimal conditions for spawning. And that cobble and sand pool was ideal for dispersing tiny eggs and young. Only when flow is present does Rock Dam regain its function as an ancient species shelter, protecting early life stages in currents circulating through cobbled shoals.

In the current 5-year Federal Energy Regulatory Commission relicensing process that will govern hydro operations and ecological conditions here for decades, the Connecticut River Watershed Council and Appalachian Mountain Club are jointly advocating new access points into this delicate habitat for whitewater interests. Both have sat at FERC hearings where Rock Dam has been delineated as critical habitat. In joint AMC-CRWC testimony to FERC they’ve argued their interests in increased flows stem from aquatic habitat concerns, as well as recreation desires. Yet it was AMC that posted dates of those ecological study flows to their website, urging whitewater enthusiasts to exploit them: “Fish Study to Provide Paddling Opportunities: May – June 2016”

Secretary Beaton needs better advice.

Several expert appointees represent the Commonwealth on the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission. Jack Buckley, Director of MA Fisheries and Wildlife studied Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon at UMass. Mr. Buckley’s Anadromous Fish Project Leader Caleb Slater is also well versed on critical Rock Dam habitat. And the US Fish & Wildlife’s Region 5 Director Wendi Weber also sits at that CRASC table. Dr. Weber studied shortnose sturgeon in Georgia’s rivers. Ultimately, turning a failing Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration in Massachusetts into a success story will require government leaders embracing solid government science.

Karl Meyer is on the Fish and Aquatics Study Team for FERC hydro-relicensing studies of the Turners Falls and Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage projects. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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.