NEW HAVEN REGISTER
Connecticut scales back salmon stocking program
By Mark Zaretsky
firstname.lastname@example.org / Twitter: @markzar
It was a romantic idea and a grand experiment — a vision of thousands of powerful, instinct-driven silver-blue Atlantic salmon once again fighting their way up the Connecticut River and other New England waters to spawn.
Since 1967, Connecticut, working with the federal government, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire, fought to restore the once-native Atlantic salmon population. The goal was for them to return and spawn as they did for thousands of years before pollution and dams caused the salmon to disappear from the river.
But after more than 40 years of stocking millions upon millions of baby salmon hatchlings, or “fry,” in rivers throughout Connecticut and the other states — and after floods during Hurricane Irene wrecked the federal hatchery in Vermont — the U.S. government and Connecticut’s three salmon restoration partners have called it quits.
The grand experiment appears to have failed — at least for now, officials say.
Connecticut alone will continue, but with a significantly scaled-back “legacy” program, said Steve Gephard, supervisor of the Diadromous Fish and Habitat and Conservation Enhancement program for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s Inland Fisheries Division.
The legacy program will keep some salmon in a less ambitious set of state rivers, but not in great enough numbers to restore stocks, he said.
“It’s a sad realization because ... we’ve put a lot of hard work into it and I’ve developed a real love for the species and the vision of wild Atlantic salmon is a great one,” Gephard said.
“I think people would have loved it,” said Gephard, who began working on salmon restoration as a seasonal employee of what was then the Department of Environmental Protection in 1978. He has been doing it full time since 1980.
But changing times — including insurmountable difficulties that many officials believe have been brought on by climate change — and tight budgets, combined with consistently dropping numbers of returning salmon since 1986, got in the way.
The numbers are pretty dramatic.
In recent years, Connecticut released 1.4 million fry — each about 1½ inches long — a year into state rivers, but often would get only a few hundred, or sometimes just a few dozen, back four years later.
The salmon grow for two years in the river they were born in into 6-inch to 9-inch “smolts” that then swim out to the ocean, where they migrate to the Davis Straits off Greenland for a couple of years to feed. When they come back, they weigh about 10 pounds and are about 30 inches long, Gephard said.
“Every river has its own unique chemical identity ... the fish can distinguish between the Farmington River, the Salmon River or the Penobscot River up in Maine,” said Gephard.
But that doesn’t guarantee good results.
“We’re at 47 (returning salmon) right now for this year” for all of the Connecticut River watershed, said Ken Sprankle, Connecticut River coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Sunderland, Mass.
“I would say that certainly within the Fish and Wildlife Service, for a few years now ... maybe 10 years back” officials were unsure “based on the measures that we’ve seen, that it was going to work,” Sprankle said.
Sprankle and Gephard, as well as Bill Hyatt, chief of the DEEP Bureau of Natural Resources, which includes Gephard’s Inland Fisheries Division, said the salmon appear to have done well during the first two years growing in fresh water.
“But something is happening in the North Atlantic,” said Hyatt.
“We felt that we were doing a really good job” hatching the fish, “and the fish would survive” long enough to head out to sea, said Sprankle.
“But we can’t control” what happens after they hit saltwater, he said.
“The numbers just continue to be very poor — and more so for the creatures that we are on the very southerly reach of their range,” Sprankle said.
“The streams seem to be doing very well. ... It’s what happens in the ocean that’s biting us,” said Gephard. “Numbers have been going down since 1986” and “this has corresponded with the same trend elsewhere — New England trends and the Canadian trends have been going down, but it’s also true in Europe.”
He pointed out that salmon “never were found further south than Connecticut. They weren’t in the Hudson, they weren’t in the Susquehanna. Connecticut is really on the southern range of the salmon,” Gephard said.
For Atlantic salmon, Maine “is the only place in the United States where they’ve persisted,” Sprankle said. Atlantic salmon have been listed as an endangered species there since 2000, he said.
For the past 10 years or so of actively culturing fish, the program cost the Fish and Wildlife Service $1.5 million to $2 million a year, he said.
“The question was whether or not the marine environment was going to improve,” Sprankle said.
The prevailing opinion is that it won’t anytime soon.
“We do feel that there are lots of indicators to suggest that we are talking about large-scale climate change” that has shifted what used to be the southern reaches of the Atlantic salmon’s historic range to become unsuitable habitat, Sprankle said.
“What we’re talking about seeing now is a persistent, ongoing” change in what types of critters are found in New England, both in its waters and beyond, he said.
Among the other evidence supporting climate change are “huge die-offs of Atlantic puffin” and a recent Long Island Sound trawl survey that indicates that croaker, a type of fish “that never used to occur in Long Island Sound,” is now one of the most common fish out there, Sprankle said.
Meanwhile, “what we’re seeing is the loss or, really, the distinctive decline, of winter flounder, lobster, Atlantic cod” and other species, he said.
“The marine survival is an insurmountable obstacle right now,” Sprankle said, although “certainly, the catastrophic loss of the White River hatchery” during Irene “was a big factor” in the federal decision to end its participation in the salmon-restoration program.
That destruction of the White River National Fish Hatchery in Bethel, Vt. — which would cost an estimated $14 million to rebuild — forced the issue.
In July 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it would no longer be producing salmon for the restoration program, which “started a series of dominos tipping over,” said Gephard.
Soon, New Hampshire followed suit. Then Massachusetts decided to pull out — and Vermont was getting its eggs from Massachusetts, so Vermont pulled out, he said.
The good news is that there will continue to be some Atlantic salmon in Connecticut rivers such as the Salmon River in East Haddam and the Farmington River in Windsor.
“We recognized that we could no longer operate a true restoration program,” so DEEP has “transformed the restoration program to a legacy program ... to keep the species present in the watershed at low levels, so people can see the salmon in the river, so they can keep performing a biological function.”
Connecticut also for years has operated the popular “Salmon in the Schools” program with the Connecticut River Salmon Association, in which students learn about salmon and its history in the state and hatch their own salmon eggs, and that also will be able to continue, Gephard said.
The legacy program will be supported by DEEP’s own Kensington Fish Hatchery in Berlin and “we will be stocking much smaller numbers in selected tributaries,” Gephard said. “The real salmon habitat has been in tributaries, not the Connecticut River.”
Begin next fall, instead of releasing 1.4 million salmon fry, DEEP will release 200,000 fry, he said. Until now, “we’ve been stocking the main stem Farmington River (in Windsor) and maybe 20 of its tributaries and the Salmon River (in East Haddam) and maybe 13 of its tributaries.”
Under the legacy program, it will be more like a half-dozen total tributaries, Gephard said.
Changing the salmon program also will free up one full-time person and one spring seasonal employee to do other work on species, such as shad and brown trout, with which DEEP has been having greater success, he said.
Gephard’s boss, Hyatt, who is chairman of the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, said the soon-to-be absence of salmon in other New England waters is likely to bring additional fishermen to Connecticut rivers.
“Quite honestly, this is a 180-degree flipflop from the way the salmon program used to be,” Hyatt said. “Up until a year ago, the sport fishing” in waters such as the Shetucket and Naugatuck rivers “was just a (fringe benefit) of the restoration program.”
Now, “the sport fishery is the principal reason for growing the salmon and the restoration” will become ancillary, he said.
He estimated that the cost to run the salmon program next year, with more than half the hatchery now dedicated to trout production, will be about $200,000, less than half of the previous $450,000 annual cost for a full restoration program.
Hyatt pointed out that the cost is “supported heavily” by the purchase of fishing licenses and federal excise taxes on fishing tackle.
Call Mark Zaretsky at 203-789-5722.