Guest columnist Karl Meyer: The (un)natural history of Connecticut River salmon

  • Turners Falls Cabot Stn. ladder Kynard photo

Published: 8/19/2021 4:00:04 PM

Earth Matters writer John Sinton’s “Salmon story: Squeezed out by dams,” part 2, July 31), reminded me of old generals still arguing their last, lost war — claiming they’d won.

In truth, the 1967 Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration program should never have put a species extirpated here since 1809 at the center of a federal restoration. That ghost-salmon focus and the hundreds of millions spent on its hatcheries have crippled the upstream revival of infinitely-restorable American shad and still-living blueback herring runs past Turners Falls Dam to this day.

American shad was the first fish mentioned in the 1967 charter for that federal/state program. But leaders quickly flipped basic biology on its head to put an extinct salmon strain at the center. Thus, they ignored the successful fish lift in place downstream at Holyoke Dam since 1955 — already passing hundreds of thousands of American shad by the mid-1970s.

Instead, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries and state fish agencies — entities still steering river management today as the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC), ultimately chose a disastrously-complex fish ladder system to accommodate spawning runs. Based on Pacific salmon on the Columbia River, their Turners Falls complex immediately failed for all but the hardiest few migrants when completed in 1980.

That system also kept in place the half-emptied river wasteland and the miles of reversing river currents existing today in the reaches between Turners Falls and the brutal Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project. Annually it has left hundreds of thousands of Holyoke-lifted shad exhausted and unable to reach Vermont and New Hampshire these 40 years.

Of their original promised run of 38,000 salmon, with 9,600 available for elite angler catch, no salmon licenses ever got issued. While kids received salmon-in-the-schools hype and a fat hatchery salmon was displayed at Holyoke Dam annually, their biggest run was in 1992 — when 350 fish returned.

Ironically 1992 was also the year Catherine Carlson, then completing UMass doctoral work in anthropology, published her thesis: “The Atlantic salmon in New England prehistory: social and environmental implications?” Like Sinton, Carlson offered detailed colonial records showing salmon as once a small but significant part of the river’s migratory runs. But she highlighted the massive runs of American shad as this river’s breadbasket — ancient sustenance of the Norwottuck, Pocumtuck, Abeneki and later the invading English.

Carson documented a lack of evidence of any long-term salmon presence across a large swath of New England archeological digs. She elegantly argued that salmon were but brief colonizers here — drawn-in by a centuries-long period known later as the Little Ice Age whose cold Atlantic currents led to natural runs for those limited centuries of unusual cold on this river.

Simultaneous with disastrous colonial dam building and massive forest-felling here — when the climate and river rewarmed, the footprint of those pioneering salmon shrank back north to reliable colder rivers. Yes, dams were a dead end symptom, but climate, even back then, was always the tipping point for salmon on the Connecticut. That program’s hatchery stock hailed from cold Maine and Canada rivers — conservation efforts could have been centered.

Carlson’s work was attacked by scientists and salmon acolytes, even though fish expert Boyd Kynard (who Sinton mentions) was on her thesis committee. She was a circumspect scientist who didn’t romanticize trophy fish. I was inspired by her science, just as I was later by Kynard’s work on endangered sturgeon in the spawning miseries at Turners Falls.

Carlson, semi-retired today in her native Canada, should have been commended. Instead it took 20 more years of dismal returns before USFWS Region 5 Director Wendi Weber bravely ended the program.

I spent years writing about the blind spot in state and federal agencies to the downward spiral of once huge spring runs (721,000 in 1992) of shad and herring (632,000 in 1985) passing Holyoke, while a hundred salmon made headlines. Sanctuary Magazine published my “Turners Falls Turnaround,” detailing the canal miseries for shad, lamprey and herring seeking upstream habitats in 2009, and my “How to Keep a Dead Fish Alive” ran widely in New England that year.

In 2012, I penned the Gazette story announcing the end of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife salmon program. At the Green River Festival that August a ticket seller looked up at and exclaimed, “You’re the guy that killed the salmon program!”

Today American shad, guaranteed safe up and downstream passage since 1872 by the Supreme Court, remain massively blocked at Turners Falls while the nearby Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project eviscerates millions of juvenile migrants annually. It’s time to restore a living river here.

Karl Meyer lives in Greenfield. His in-depth “Endgame Looms for New England’s Great River” can be downloaded, free, from the Center for Biological Diversity’s The Revelator at:
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