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‘Resurgin’ Sturgeon’: Fish behaviorist Boyd Kynard shares his passion for conservation with kids

  • From left to right: Naomi Durbin, Ben Dambrov, Stella Shine and Lucy Herman look at a fish ladder in Boyd Kynard’€™s research lab in Erving. STAFF PHOTO/VIVIAN MYRON

  • Boyd Kynard explains how fish ladders are constructed to children from Our Place Summer School at his research lab in Erving, MA on Wednesday July 25, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/VIVIAN MYRON

  • Zachary Brennan and Piper Johnson reach into the fish ladder that Boyd Kynard has built as a prototype on Wednesday July 25, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/VIVIAN MYRON

  • Boyd Kynard, at right, shows children from BioCitizen summer camp how a fish ladder works at his research lab. STAFF PHOTO/VIVIAN MYRON

  • Boyd Kynard uses a fan to explain how water turbines kill fish to Isaac Nelson, Emma Johnson, Piper Johnson, and Oliver Herman at his lab in Erving, MA on Wednesday July 25, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/VIVIAN MYRON

  • Willa Reptelis, left, Oliver Yau, and Lucy Herman listen to Boyd Kynard speak at his research lab in Erving, MA on Wednesday July 25, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/VIVIAN MYRON

  • Amelia Durbin touches a sturgeon at Boyd Kynard's lab in Erving, MA. —STAFF PHOTO/VIVIAN MYRON

  • Boyd Kynard shows the campers how sturgeons feed. STAFF PHOTO/VIVIAN MYRON

  • Campers from Our Place Summer School look at sturgeons at Boyd Kynard's research lab on Wednesday July 25, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/VIVIAN MYRON

  • Zadie Silver, left, and Stella Shine react to touching a sturgeon. STAFF PHOTO/VIVIAN MYRON

  • Children from BioCitizen summer camp touch sturgeons at Kynard's lab. STAFF PHOTO/VIVIAN MYRON



For the Gazette/Hampshire Life
Thursday, August 09, 2018

Boyd Kynard is a 79-year-old fish behaviorist with a lifetime of knowledge in sturgeon ecology and an unrelenting passion for conservation. His lab, located in an old factory building in Erving — a town of just 1,768 residents that’s about 45 minutes from Northampton — houses two large tanks of young sturgeon. It’s also home to one of his early fish ladder prototypes. For the uninitiated, a fish ladder is a structure with water channels built in a body of water to facilitate the passage of fish beyond dams and waterfalls. What makes Kynard’s creation unique is that it was designed specifically for river fish with a moderate swimming ability. Made from a mix of materials including concrete and steel, the ladder is implemented on or near the river bed to allow the velocity of the water to guide the fish into it. 

On a recent summer day, Kynard could be found at his desk, wearing a T-shirt that read “Resurgin’ Sturgeon” and preparing for the kids who would descend upon his lab later that morning to learn about his research. Kynard likes talking to kids about his work — he got interested in conservation at the age of 10 in his native Mississippi. “I had an epiphany, laying on a stream bank on a bed of moss, looking at the fish in there and thinking, ‘That is just too neat,’ ” Kynard said, in his soft southern accent. “I’m just one of those guys that’s kind of always known what I would do.” 

As an undergraduate at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, Kynard was a triple major in biology, chemistry and English. After graduation, he accepted a position as an assistant marine biologist at Mississippi’s only marine lab — the Gulf Coast Research Lab in Ocean Springs. This first post-graduate job was Kynard’s opportunity to decide more specifically what he would do in marine science, and he started by reading every book on the subject he could get his hands on. “You could study anything, down to the cellular level, up to the whole animal, all kinds of things,” he said. “A guy at North Carolina State had written a book called ‘Behavioral Ecology’ in 1964, and I checked that book out from the library and went home and read it all night. And I said ‘Well, that’s what I’m going to do.’ ” 

Fate seems to be a recurring theme in Kynard’s stories — the idea that he’s doing what he was meant to do. He got his PhD in Fisheries Biology from the University of Washington, in Seattle. An adjunct professor in the Department of Environmental Conservation at the University of Massachusetts Amherst since 1978, Kynard has had decades of experience to reinforce the work he does in his lab. He has studied the behavior and migratory patterns of river fish in North America, South America, China and Europe, with each location presenting new challenges. 

“Big guys, 15 feet long in the Yangtze River — how do you study those guys?,” Kynard asked rhetorically. The answer is you track them through something like a fish GPS. “You put telemetry packages on them, so you can actually follow them,” he said. “That’s how I did it in the Connecticut River, and in doing that, you understand where these sturgeon spawn.” 

In gathering the data over a period of two decades, the study became an exercise in patience for both Kynard and his son Brian, now 44, a fellow fish behaviorist. That data is now compiled in Kynard’s book, written with several of his colleagues, “Life History and Behaviour of Connecticut River Shortnose and Other Sturgeons,” which they wrote to help local agencies make decisions about nearby power plants, such as the Cabot Station hydroelectric project in Turners Falls. The data proved the hunch that Kynard had had for his whole career — that the diversion of rivers for dam or hydropower purposes does not allow the river fish species to reach the point in the river where they need to spawn. If a fish, such as the Connecticut River Shortnose sturgeon, cannot find the velocity and substrate necessary to spawn, the species will leave the area and not return until it has the biological opportunity to spawn again. The fish ladder allows smaller fish to get to where they need to be to spawn in the river. “They’re gonna have three times in their life to spawn, and so it’s just that’s the strategy that they have evolved, and if it’s not right, they just leave,” said Kynard, who now runs the research and consulting operation BK-Riverfish, LLC in Erving.

“We thought if we could devise a fish ladder that river fish in great numbers would actually use, that would give the information to these guys that these fish need to migrate,” said Kynard, who has a penchant for calling sturgeon “these guys.” “On the business side, we could sell it, so now we had a new business model. Rather than just doing research on fish behavior, we would devise something that we could manufacture and sell.” The first implementation of their fish ladder was August of 2017; their ladder was installed in Indiana with the help of Manchester University students. “Recently, we received info on the excellent performance during May-July of our prototype fish ladder installed at Stockdale Dam, Eel River, Indiana for passing diverse species,” Kynard said. He notes that of the 52 total fish species in the river, 73 percent were able to pass through the ladder. 

When Kynard isn’t doing research, he shares his passion for conservation with the campers at Biocitizen, a Westhampton-based camp with a focus on learning about the environment with a hands-on approach. He invites groups, ages 5-15, into his lab to understand the inner workings of his ladder, and to inspire the kids to be catalysts of change, too. The younger campers climb onto makeshift benches to see over the ladder, and Kynard turns on the rushing water, mirroring the power of a river’s velocity. The kids ask questions about how the fish know where to go, and Kynard readily explains the power of instinct and how the ladder works when applied in a real situation. The camp’s director, Kurt Heidinger, notes that they encourage kids to interact with conservationists who are “making a real difference” in their field. Visiting Kynard’s lab meant that the campers would comprehend the systems before driving down the road to see Rock Dam, a naturally occurring dam in Turners Falls where the fish congregate.

The implementation of new technologies always comes at a cost, and Kynard has seen how his data has impacted various towns: water diverted to help fish reach their spawning grounds upstream means less water released downstream for generating electricity. “Every bit of the water that they release here, that doesn’t go down this canal and into those turbines down here, doesn’t generate electricity,” Kynard said. “So it costs them. There’s some serious tugging going on here.” The prospect of towns taking a hit financially is not lost on Kynard, though in some cases he doesn’t see a way to compromise that would still save the fish population. 

“Anybody that’s trying to protect the resources is always going to stir up trouble — they always do,” Kynard said. “I have more stories than I have time to tell you.” 

“The only reason the power company built those facilities is because guys like me went out and showed them that these fish need to go upstream, and other fish need to go downstream,” he added. “And then you’ve basically put the power companies in a box.” 

Despite dedicating his whole career to the cause, he sees it as a work in progress. “We’re still trying to understand the biology of these guys so that we can have our industry,” he says, referring to the power plants. “But put it in the right place, operate it in the right way so that it doesn’t really hurt these guys,” he said. “That’s our whole mantra — conservation.”