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Everything But Salmon

by Ted Williams
Winter 2003

The 407-mile-long Connecticut River dwarfed the continent's other Atlantic salmon streams. Each spring, shoals of salmon, strung like stars across the vastness of the North Atlantic, moved from their rich feeding grounds off Greenland into Long Island Sound, then surged upstream. Through Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire, they veered off into tributaries, climbing high into the Green Mountains and White Mountains, hurdling over falls, waiting out summer droughts, spawning under gaudy leaves, holding through winter, sweeping back to the sea on spring floods.

Then, in 1798, the Upper Locks and Canal Company blocked this ancient migration with a 16-foot-high dam at Turners Falls, Massachusetts. Pollution and more dams followed, and within a few years Connecticut River salmon were extinct. Fish ladders and fry stocking in the 1870s and 1880s failed.

A second restoration attempt was just underway in 1970, when I signed on as wildlife journalist with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. Quoting state and federal biologists, I assured the public that the Connecticut River system would sustain "thousands" of salmon within a decade. Today, it sustains about seven million. Unfortunately, they're fry-stocked by the four states and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Annual returns of adults in 2001 and 2002 were 40 and 44, respectively.

Something has gone dreadfully wrong with Atlantic salmon restoration, but not in the river. Juvenile salmon thrive in freshwater, then vanish at sea. It's happening not just to Connecticut River fish, but to the species throughout its range. Satellite imagery reveals drastic cooling of ocean habitat. One favored theory attributes the cooling to runoff from the melting ice cap.

Among anglers, impatience has turned to pique. For example, the Lawrence (Massachusetts) Eagle-Tribune's respected outdoor columnist, Roger Aziz, charges that Atlantic salmon restoration "is perhaps second only to [Boston's] Big Dig in wasteful spending of other people's money." He suggests that funds go instead to more trout stocking, and he scolds managers for endangering upstream game fish by not killing all the parasitic sea lamprey when they're in the fish lift at Holyoke, Massachusetts.

Meanwhile, restoration is being defunded by the Bush administration to the point that some hatcheries and holding facilities don't have money to feed fish or even pump water.

About the Author
Ted Williams is the conservation editor for Fly Rod & Reel magazine.