Karl Meyer: Fishy business in our ‘wild’ river

  • KEVIN GUTTINGThis view to the north from Mount Holyoke in Hadley includes Rainbow Beach, foreground, in Northampton and the town of Hadley, center, nestled between bends in the Connecticut River.

  • The Franch King Bridge, over the Connecticut River between Gill and Montague.

Published: 6/4/2016 5:11:03 PM

I’d like to change the name of a Commonwealth agency. What would you think about the Massachusetts Division of “Manufactured” Fisheries and Wildlife? I think it would offer a much better picture of the agency’s focus, particularly here in the Connecticut Valley.

Here you can get daily online information on where to find truckloads of factory-produced rainbow, brown and brook trout before they are dumped into local rivers for hatchery-fish angling pleasure.

But I dare you to find anything more than a several-weeks-old tally of the numbers of wild migratory fish streaming north on the Connecticut beyond the fish windows at Holyoke Dam.

So this would be a “truth-in-labeling” adjustment. New England’s Great River runs for 69 miles through the commonwealth. The state Division of Fisheries & Wildlife is responsible for all migratory fish in that broad reach from the time they enter at Agawam until they remain here for spawning or pass into Vermont and New Hampshire. Those runs are the agency’s “public trust” — to be protected for its citizens, anglers, students and future generations.

As we enter the final weeks of migration season, the only information provided — not just days old, but nearly a month stale — refers solely to fish on the first 16 miles of river from the Connecticut border to the fish lift at Holyoke Dam.

That leaves a full 52 miles of river with just a single and now uselessly outdated May 4 report about the truly wild shad, lamprey and herring moving along New England’s flagship waterway. Salmon are not mentioned because three years after the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service stopped factory production of this hybrid, just a single salmon has been tallied.

Hatchery fish production masks the reality of failing wild populations and deteriorating habitats. To date, there’s been but one report on fish passage from Turners Falls.

As an interested citizen, I’m a bit outraged that as of June 1, I didn’t have a clue about what’s going on with one of New England’s last remaining great migrations. Shad, blueback herring, and sea lamprey have been moving upstream for over two months and the only public information offered is of the 54 shad counted at Turners Falls, almost a full month back.

Really?  This is any agency with an accountability problem.

The state Division of Fisheries & Wildlife offers little to the public as to what it has been doing on the ground to protect our wild fish runs — and that includes struggling populations of state-listed, endangered shortnose sturgeon, also under their purview.

But to not take responsibility for monitoring runs at the river’s choke point, Turners Falls, is an abdication of duty. Here in central and northern Massachusetts we not only don’t see fish because of decimated Connecticut River habitats, we aren’t even offered updated tallies on the ugly mess.

But perhaps that’s by design. Connecticut’s fisheries agency regularly provides more information on fish runs than its peer to the north.

I recently contacted the state’s Anadromous Fish Project leader to ask about fish passage information at Turners Falls. He tersely emailed back that the state no longer does those fish counts and that I should contact FirstLight Power for information. I guess our fish are now fully privatized.

This 2016 season has been the worst for Massachusetts fish passage information since 2010, when FirstLight’s Northfield Mountain broke down, fouling its pumping tunnels with 45,000 cubic square yards of reservoir muck. They didn’t operate from May to November and fish passage at Turners Falls, it was later revealed, jumped 600 to 800 percent above yearly averages.

We didn’t get that information until late as well. Seem fishy to you? Some of us actually care about wild fish and living rivers. Frankly, if I were reduced to thinking that following a truckload of factory fish for a day’s angling was a wildlife experience — well, I’d just as soon get one of those wind-up fish carousels you can hold. You know, the ones with the tiny plastic pole and the revolving, yapping fish mouths.

The state Division of “Manufactured” Fish & Wildlife — sounds about right where wild fish and the Connecticut River are concerned.

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

 

 




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