This year, 89 adult Atlantic salmon returned to the Connecticut River from the Atlantic Ocean. This compares with previous years as follows: 57 in 2012, 111 in 2011, 51 in 2010 and 75 in 2009.
This year, four returned to the Salmon River in Connecticut, six to the Farmington River in Connecticut, 11 to the Westfield River and 68 reached the Holyoke Dam. That was the most salmon that returned to the Westfield River since approximately 34 returned in 2008.
As mentioned in previous columns, the Connecticut River Salmon Restoration program is ending. Both the US Fish and Wildlife Service and MassWildlife will no longer support it. In addition to Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire are also out of the restoration program.
The last stocking of salmon fry into its feeder streams in Massachusetts took place this past spring. They will remain in our streams for a couple of years until they turn into smolts and make their migration to the sea. After a couple of years, with luck, they will return to their home streams to spawn. That means the last Connecticut River spawning run into Massachusetts will probably take place in 2017.
So what will happen to the 89 Atlantic salmon that returned this year? Caleb Slater, DFW anadramous fish biologist, said the fish were captured and brought to the Richard Cronin National Salmon Station in Sunderland. They are going to be spawned there this fall and the eggs will go to a Connecticut salmon station. Next year, those salmon fry will be stocked exclusively into Connecticut waters.
Next year he thinks that the Cronin station will no longer be available and the adult returning salmon most likely will be allowed to continue their spawning migration upstream. Wouldn't that be something if they spawned in the wild and established an annual salmon run on their own.
The salmon program started in 1967 and the first returning salmon arrived in 1974. Things looked promising for the program in 1981 when 529 returned. In fact, some groups were already looking at potential salmon lies (resting places for the salmon) in areas of Vermont and an effort was under way to purchase the adjoining land so that the public would have access to fish for them.
The Massachusetts/Rhode Island Council of Trout Unlimited donated funds for this effort. That's how confident people were that the program would succeed.
In the mid 1980s, the returns averaged around 300 a year, and 1992 was a good year when 490 returned. However, as the above figures show, the most recent returns have not been that great and the program's days were numbered.
Based upon shocking surveys, the salmon parr survived in our feeder streams just fine, but after they migrated downstream to the sea, very few returned. Its anyone's guess what was happening to the salmon in the ocean. DFW Director Wayne MacCallum feels that climate change is a chief suspect, but not the only one.
MacCallum wrote an excellent article detailing the history of the salmon program in the No. 1, 2013 issue of Massachusetts Wildlife, entitled "Letting Go of a Dream." In it, he stated that with the decision of the USFWS to withdraw from the program, Massachusetts had little choice but to reluctantly cease its annual production of 1 million-plus fry.
The USFWS was producing 75-80 percent of all the fry released, and the states simply did not have the resources to make up the difference. He said that if, by some miracle, adult salmon returns increase significantly between now and 2017, they will consider renewing the restoration efforts.
The late US Congressman Silvio O. Conte, referred to as the "Father of the Return of the Atlantic Salmon to the Connecticut River," must be turning in his grave over this turn of events. He devoted so much of his time supporting this program.
I feel badly, too. I have been a volunteer stocking the salmon fry each spring for many years, first stocking them with my wife Jan and over the last 10 years or so with Dave O'Clair of Richmond. We helped stock brooks in Becket, Washington, Middlefield and Chester.
Over the years, many Taconic Trout Unlimited members joined college students and local MassWildlife personnel to stock them. Several local schools also raised the salmon from the eggs and cared for them until they were released as fry into the waters.
The Merrimack River is the other Massachusetts river where Atlantic salmon run. It too is having problems, with only 22 of them returning this year. Could that be the next program to be eliminated in the near future?
Of course, there were critics of the program who believed that it was a waste of money and the poor returns did not justify its continuance. Well, I don't agree -- nor do the school teachers and elementary students who raised and released them. They built wonderful school curriculum around these programs and sparked interest in aquatic biology, which may lead to pursuit of careers in that field.
The USFWS and MassWildlife efforts may be redirected to other anadromous fish returning to the Connecticut River such as shad, eel and herring. Although it is also important to protect these fish, I personally can't get excited about them, not the way I did with the Atlantic salmon, which is called the "king of the sportfish." It is hard for me to let go of that dream to which MacCallum referred.
Other 2013 returns to the Connecticut River this year include the following: 397,689 American shad, 995 blueback herring, 823 gizzard shad, 24,926 sea lamprey, two shortnose sturgeon and 245 striped bass. Approximately 4,900 American shad and 726 sea lamprey returned to the Westfield River.
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