Biologist Boyd Kynard an expert on behavior and ecology of shortnose sturgeon in Connecticut River

Last modified: Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Boyd Kynard is an internationally respected scientist, researcher and innovator whose passion is to understand fish behavior, and apply that knowledge to improving the viability of migratory fish species. His target is sturgeon, more specifically here in New England, the shortnose sturgeon found in the Connecticut River.

Sturgeon have been around for over 70 million years and there are now more than 20 species throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

Despite that, there is still much to be learned about the behavior and ecology of the shortnose sturgeon, though Kynard’s research has advanced the field significantly.

“Sturgeons have an average life span of 25 to 30 years,” Kynard said. “So if you really want to understand these guys, you have to be ready to hang in there for a good long time.”

Kynard, 76, who has a doctorate from the School of Aquatic & Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, has done just that. For the last 37 years, he has been studying sturgeon in the Connecticut River, first as a marine biologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, then as a research biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey at the Conte Anadromous Fish Research Laboratory in Turners Falls.

Shortly after retiring two years ago, Kynard established his own research and consulting business called BK-Riverfish in Erving, where he specializes in behavior of migratory fish and fish passage at dams.

In 1978, when Kynard began his work on the Connecticut River, not much was known about shortnose sturgeon population dynamics, its habitat preferences, spawning and migratory patterns, feeding habits or other biological and environmental variables that affect survival of the species. The fish had been listed as a federally endangered species in 1967.

“We basically knew nothing when we started,” Kynard said. “Every single year of the study we learned something completely new that we had never known before.”

Kynard’s research reveled that the historical spawning area for the sturgeon was at “Rock Dam,” a natural dam near the Turners Falls Dam.

Researchers also discovered that the changes from natural river flows to regulated flows controlled by the dam occur annually about the time females gather to spawn at Rock Dam between April and May.

Sturgeon won’t spawn unless the environment — the substrate, water velocity, and water temperature — are suitable to its preferences.

Thus, the change in the amount of water and the speed at which it flows affect the ability of sturgeon to spawn and the successful develop of their eggs and larvae. Because females don’t spawn until they are 8 to 12 years old, and then only every few years, compromising successful spawning has an impact on the population.

“For the sturgeon, surviving the first 60 days of life are critical,” Kynard said, noting that despite the significant obstacles created by the Turners Falls dam, some sturgeon are making it downstream past the Holyoke Dam and to Long Island Sound.

For years it was assumed that the sturgeon had two spawning areas, one near the Holyoke Dam, and the other upriver at Rock Dam. It was also thought that the Turners Falls population was “landlocked” and trapped upstream of the Holyoke dam.

“One of the big questions was always, are there two populations of shortnose sturgeon in the Connecticut River? The answer is no there are not. There is no spawning at the Holyoke Dam,” Kynard said.

Kynard described the one sturgeon population as having been “segmented” by the Holyoke Dam when it was built in 1849. The Robert E. Barrett Fishway was added in 1955 to help migrating fish over the dam. Since the dam was built, seven generations of migrating sturgeon have been affected.

“Spawning in Turners Falls is the only reason we have a sturgeon population at all. If that wasn’t happening, we would have lost the population in 1849,” he said.

Today Kynard estimates that 250 adults are in the upstream spawning population, and roughly 1,200 adults are downstream of the Holyoke Dam. This down stream population is considered to be a “reproductive null” because no spawning occurs in Holyoke.

But a population of 250 spawning adults has zero chance of long-term survival, according to Kynard.

It is the limited exchange between the upstream and downstream sturgeon that impedes their population recovery in the Connecticut River. While the Holyoke Dam is not a complete barrier to fish passage, some sturgeon have trouble finding the fish ladder when trying to move upstream, or are killed by turbines when they pass through the power generating units as they head downstream.

“The fish lifts are made for salmon and shad — they are the best swimmers that we have. But sturgeon are slow, gliding fish with long rigid pectoral fins that make it hard for them to stop quickly,” Kynard said. “We did a lot of experiments at the Conte Lab, and we found that it’s no wonder they don’t use these things.”

According to Kynard, new fish passage facilities that will assist in sturgeon migration are currently being installed at the Holyoke Dam.

Once that work is completed, the lower river population should be able to make their spawning run to Turners Falls, and upstream fish should be able to migrate to rich foraging areas in estuaries down stream.

“This is the first fish protective device of its kind in North America, and it is perfectly appropriate that it is in Holyoke and that Holyoke is taking the lead on this,” Kynard said.

Kynard said he does not know of any plans for protective devices or improved fish passages for the Turners Falls Dam.

Research with a purpose

Kynard’s mission is providing the latest scientific data to agencies involved with fish restoration programs, managing river systems or overseeing the construction of dams.

With the science in hand, there are better opportunities to work toward truly sustainable solutions, particularly when it comes to fish passage strategies.

It also gives agencies charged with protecting anadromous fish (those that migrate from the sea to fresh water to spawn) the tools they need to make fact-based decisions.

“Once you publish the data, it is more difficult to argue over the facts. Otherwise it is just an opinion,” Kynard said. “If there is no hard-and-fast data, it’s my opinion versus the opinion of power companies and lawyers. In that situation, they will always win.”

Protecting anadromous fish is particularly critical in developing countries where hydroelectric dams are being built to boost energy supplies.

“Many countries are not equipped to do this kind of research, but the dams are going to be built and that is just a fact,” Kynard said. “If we want anything left after that all that construction is over, we better get it right.”

Through his work at BK-Riverfish, Kynard provides assistance to projects in several countries including China, Brazil and Romania.

Kynard is currently working on a fish passage that will be both economical and versatile for all types of fish.

“So far we have tested nine species from the Connecticut River and it passed all of them,” he said.

Diverse partnerships

Kynard said he is fan of anyone who is dedicated to helping survival of the sturgeon. So he was very happy to see the Connecticut River Watershed Council partner in March with The People’s Pint in Greenfield for a creative campaign to raise awareness about the shortnose sturgeon.

People’s Pint brewer Chris Sellers came up with a new seasonal brew, a traditional dry Irish stout that he aptly named the “Shortnose Stout.” The bottle sported an artist’s rendering of the fish.

“A lot of brewers are using beer as a tool to raise awareness for a lot of things,” Sellers said. “I think it can make a big difference.”

The Watershed Council and People’s Pint held an informational event at the Great Falls Discovery Center in Turners Falls.

“It was a great way to get the word out about this critter that lives right here in the Connecticut, though many people don’t really know about it,” said Andrew Fisk, executive director of the Connecticut River Watershed Council.

Sellers said this year’s batch of Shortnose Stout sold out, but he plans to brew more next March.

Grew up in Mississippi

Now living in Amherst with his wife Janice, Kynard grew up on a plantation in Mississippi.

“I outgrew Mississippi 40 years ago and left to live in a more socially and environmentally progressive climate,” he said.

He is an avid gardener who enjoys hiking, boating and traveling. Kynard has two adult children, a daughter Kari who lives in Leverett, and a son Brian who works with him at his lab in Erving.

From June 22 to 24, Kynard will participate in Fish Passage 2015, an international conference on river connectivity best practices and innovations held in Groningen, the Netherlands.

He will present a session of his work entitled “Upstream passage of sturgeons at dams: Behavior of sturgeons at a fish lift and in a prototype ladder.”

“The conference was actually started at UMass several years ago and now it has gone worldwide and has many impressive researchers and scientists participating,” Kynard said.

“I am hoping that this kind of work will be our biggest role in the 21st century,” he added.


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