Of all North America’s Atlantic salmon rivers none compared in size or productivity with the 407-mile-long Connecticut River that drains Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut. But early in the 19th century all strains of salmon uniquely adapted to this sprawling system (at least 25) had been rendered extinct by dams.
Salmon restoration on the Connecticut began in earnest in 1967. It was a dream that energized the fishing and non-fishing public and elicited enormous investments of time and money from feds, power companies and the four states. The partners obtained fertilized eggs from northern rivers (most recently Maine’s Penobscot, the nearest) and reared and stocked millions of juvenile salmon, taking eggs and milt from the few returning adults and rearing more. Each generation was better-adapted. In 1980, 529 adults returned. Success seemed assured.
Then something went dreadfully wrong at sea. Young salmon thrived in a river cleansed by federal law and reconnected by fish lifts and ladders. They just vanished when they hit saltwater. By 2012 the Connecticut River run numbered only 54, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pulled the plug. A similar restoration effort was abandoned on the Merrimack River, which drains New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
“In my mind a major factor has been climate change,” declares Connecticut’s supervising fisheries biologist Steve Gephard. “We’re at the southern extent of the range. Long Island Sound is getting warmer every year.”
As returns dwindled, managers were pilloried by the hook-and-bullet press. “Sportsmen ought to be incensed at this waste,” asserted one well-known outdoor writer in 2002. “It would be better to use the money toward updating hatcheries and providing more trout.” He then scolded fish-lift operators at the Holyoke, Massachusetts dam for not dispatching sea lampreys which “literally suck the life out of their host fish.” After all, Maine was killing their lampreys.
A few salmon still return to 13 Maine rivers, but they’re federally endangered. In 2016 only 509 were counted in the Penobscot, 14 in the Machias, 12 in the East Machias and single numbers in the others.
But while Atlantic salmon recovery was failing, the monumental effort to make it happen created successes unforeseen and frequently unnoticed by critics.
“Salmon restoration was incredibly important for getting us in the diadromous-fish game,” says Gephard. “And it allowed us to develop expertise in fish passage. When I started 37 years ago, salmon were the charismatic species driving all fishways. In 1982 a flood took out a bunch of small dams, and I argued long and hard that if these dams were rebuilt, they should have fishways. I was told, ‘No, we don’t build fishways for anything but salmon.’ That’s changed.”…
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