Connecticut River Coordinator's Office
Northeast Region
 
Photo of a volunteer stocking fry in the Sawmill River - Photo credit:  Draper White
Photo of a volunteer stocking fry in the Sawmill River. Credit: Draper White

The historic North American range of Atlantic salmon extended at least as far south as western Connecticut. The Connecticut River not only hosted one of North America's southern-most salmon runs but also its longest salmon run. Salmon once ascended the mainstem Connecticut River to its very headwaters (as far north as Beechers Falls, Vermont, nearly 400 miles upstream from the river mouth at Long Island Sound) and entered all major tributaries not blocked by natural barriers such as waterfalls. Precise numbers of fish that entered the various tributary systems are not available because the date of extirpation predated the development of fishery science and the ability to enumerate fish migrating upstream.

Recently, the size of, and even the presence of the historic Connecticut River Atlantic salmon run have been challenged in some archeological papers because of the failure of researchers to find salmon remains at archeological sites. Lack of evidence at such sites has fueled speculation that early colonists deliberately exaggerated stories of salmon abundance in the river. However, the assumptions about salmon habitat requirements used in the analysis of results have been questioned by salmon biologists who have refuted the theory that the salmon run was small or non-existent. Biologists speculate that failure to find salmon remains is due to the deterioration of such remains over time and/or inappropriate sampling techniques. Though some individuals, both colonial and contemporary, have likely been guilty of exaggerating the size of the salmon run, it is generally accepted that salmon existed in significant numbers though their numbers were never as great as those for Pacific salmon in the Northwest. Biologists have concluded that Atlantic salmon returned to the Connecticut River and its tributaries by the thousands when Europeans first arrived in this watershed. This is based on evidence from first person historical accounts, current understanding of salmon biology and habitat requirements, and present day salmon populations in Spanish rivers located at the same latitude as the mouth of the Connecticut River.

The native salmon population declined upon colonization by Europeans and development of water power sites throughout the basin. The major cause of the decline was the construction of dams that blocked salmon migration to upstream spawning habitat. Initially, dams for sawmills and gristmills were constructed across small tributaries. By the mid-1700s, major spawning tributaries such as the Salmon and Farmington Rivers were dammed, reducing the number of adult salmon returning from the sea. By the late 1700s, all of the tributaries in the lower portion of the watershed were devoid of salmon. All returning salmon had originated from and were destined for tributaries in the northern portion of the watershed where the human population was still very low. The first dam across the mainstem Connecticut River was constructed in 1798 near the present site of Turners Falls, Massachusetts. It blocked the access of salmon to the spawning habitat in the upper portion of the watershed and the species disappeared from the river within a few years.

An interagency state/federal program to restore salmon to the Connecticut River based on the stocking of fry hatched from eggs taken from Penobscot River salmon was initiated in the 1860s. Although the effort resulted in the return of hundreds of adult salmon for several years in the 1870s and 1880s, the program eventually failed due to uncontrolled harvest of fish in Connecticut waters, the failure to construct effective fish passage facilities at dams in Massachusetts, and the redirection of state efforts to other priorities.

Though interest in restoring salmon to the basin continued, no action was taken for decades. The condition of the river environment continued to deteriorate as a result of widespread pollution and dam construction. By the late 1960s, some tributary dams were removed or washed away and never re-built, and pollution abatement programs were initiated.

Long term cooperative restoration programs became feasible with the passage of the federal Anadromous Fisheries Conservation Act of 1966 (Public Law 89-304) which made funds available for interstate fish restoration programs. The combined effects of all these events set the stage for Atlantic salmon restoration.

The current Atlantic Salmon Restoration Program formally commenced in 1967 when the four basin states, USFWS, and NMFS signed a statement of intent to restore anadromous fish to the Connecticut River. Early stocking was comprised of two-year old smolts of Canadian origin reared in federal trout hatcheries that had recently been converted to salmon production. The first adult salmon return from these hatchery-smolt releases was documented in 1974. Between 1974 and 1977, twelve more salmon returned from the ocean. Penobscot River salmon smolts became available to the Program and were used to stock the river starting in 1976. As a result of this release, 90 adult salmon returned to the river in 1978. Since then, salmon, usually numbering in the hundreds, have returned to the river annually (see Table 4).

Early in the Program, emphasis was given to stocking smolts. The USFS joined the effort in 1979 because of the impact of that agency's land-based holdings on salmon habitat. Shortly thereafter, the USFWS built a large, modern salmon hatchery in Bethel, Vermont, and the CTDEP and MAFW converted trout hatcheries for salmon production. In 1983, hatchery-smolt production shifted from a two-year to a one-year rearing regime in an effort to increase the quantity and quality of smolts. Early experimental stockings of salmon fry into nursery habitat showed the potential for natural, instream rearing of high-quality smolts (referred to as "stream-reared" smolts) which are comparable to wild smolts. Evidence from the Farmington River indicated that stream-reared smolts produced from fry stocking yielded substantially greater adult return rates than hatchery-reared smolts. Production of stream-reared smolts was combined with smolts produced in hatcheries to increase total smolt emigration from the river. A major effort began in 1987 to stock as many fry as were available into appropriate habitat in the basin. Although numbers of fry stocked to date have been inadequate to fully stock all habitat, stream-reared smolts produced from those releases have contributed substantially to adult returns. Stocking totals are shown in Table 5.

Action to provide upstream fish passage on the river began prior to the salmon project when, in 1955, a fishlift was constructed at the dam in Holyoke, Massachusetts, to pass American shad. The Holyoke facility was expanded in 1975 and 1976 when a second lift, a flume, and a trap were built. Other fishways were built between 1974 and 1987 at the next four upstream dams on the mainstem river, Leesville Dam on the Salmon River, Rainbow Dam on the Farmington River, and later at the DSI Dam on the Westfield River. These fishways allowed returning salmon access to a larger portion of the basin targeted for restoration. Although most salmon are currently captured at the lowermost dams and retained for broodstock, fishways constructed at the upstream dams pass released salmon, and American shad and other species (which migrate upstream by the thousands). Fish passage at dams above Vernon Dam have been built specifically for salmon. A listing of fish passage requirements for Atlantic salmon in the Connecticut River basin is provided in Appendix G.

Downstream passage facilities, designed to safely guide smolts past hydroelectric sites, were not included in fishway construction at the seven originally targeted dams nor were they mandated at most of the other dams in the watershed. As the number of fry stocked in the basin increased during the 1980s, concern grew for the deleterious effect of hydroelectric turbines on outmigrating smolts. Responding to that concern, releases of most hatchery-reared smolts were moved downstream of the lower-most dam. Stream-reared smolts, however, were still forced to pass through turbines at numerous hydroelectric generating stations as they emigrated downstream to the ocean. Efforts to provide downstream fish passage on both mainstem and tributary projects were initiated in the 1980s. In 1990, memoranda of agreement were signed with two major utility companies that operate six mainstem hydroelectric facilities. These agreements established timeframes for downstream passage studies and construction. Efforts to provide effective fish passage at these projects and throughout the basin are ongoing.

 

Table 4. Documented Adult Atlantic Salmon Returns to the Connecticut River
(as of 11/07/1997)
  Number of adult salmon documented passing upstream of the following dams:
Year Doc. Returns Leesville
Dam
Trap Catch Salmon
River
Rainbow
Dam
Trap Catch Conn.
River
DSI Dam
Trap Catch Westfield
River
Holyoke
Dam
Trap Catch
Conn.
River
Misc. Doc. Angling Holyoke (Mile
86)
Turners
Falls
(Mile
123)
Vernon (Mile
142)
Bellows
Falls
(Mile
174)
Wilder (Mile
217)
Townshend (West
River)
1974 1 - - - 1 0 0 0 - - - - -
1975 3 - - - 1 1 1 0 - - - - -
1976 2 - - - 2 0 0 0 - - - - -
1977 7 - 0 - 2 2 3 0 - - - - -
1978 90 - 56 - 23 10 1 0 - - - - -
1979 58 - 32 - 19 5 2 0 - - - - -
1980 175 1 26 - 126 18 4 0 1 - - - -
1981 529 118 62 - 319 17 13 0 9 8 - - -
1982 70 11 41 - 11 5 2 0 0 0 - - -
1983 39 0 14 - 25 0 0 0 0 0 - - -
1984 92 11 6 - 66 4 5 0 0 0 - - -
1985 310 5 9 - 285 7 4 5 5 4 2 - -
1986 318 12 39 - 260 5 2 13 10 4 2 - -
1987 353 10 126 - 208 9 0 18 13 10 7 3 -
1988 95 5 14 - 72 4 0 7 7 5 3 2 -
1989 109 3 24 - 80 2 0 8 2 0 - - -
1990 263 36 37 - 188 2 0 18 16 10 5 1 -
1991 203 11 33 - 152 7 0 15 4 6 3 1 -
1992 490 18 97 2 370 3 0 36 14 13 4 1 -
1993 198 0 14 10 169 5 0 17 8 7 0 - 1
1994 326 12 42 7 262 3 0 25 5 8 3 1 1
1995 188 7 22 6 151 2 0 14 4 5 0 - 0
1996 260 4 29 21 202 3 1 18 3 9 3 * 1
1997 199 3 60 39 96 1 0 9 2 4 0 - 0
TOTAL 4378 267 783 85 3090 115 38 203 103 93 32 9 3

Notes:

Data designated with a dash indicate that trapping facilities and/or upstream passage were not available or operational during that year.

* 1996 - Wilder operated but not monitored. CRASC closed the mainstem to fishing in 1986, all subsequent documented angling was illegal.

1986 5% sea runs released upstream; 1987 to present 10% sea runs released; 1996 Turner's Falls count is incomplete.



Table 5. Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Stocking Totals by Year and Lifestage.
Year Fry UFry FFry 0+ Parr 1 Parr 1+ Parr 2Parr 3Parr 4Parr 1Smolt 2Smolt 3Smolt 4Smolt Total
1967 3,100       1,900                 5,000
1968     50,000               5,000     55,000
1969             6,700       10,300 300   17,300
1970 50,000           2,300 300     43,000 4,300   99,900
1971 60,000     15,000 7,800   2,900     5,600 12,400     103,700
1972         2,700   500   1,800 4,600 10,500   2,600 22,700
1973       15,000 1,000   21,100     1,400 31,900     70,400
1974 16,000       9,400   11,600 4,000   10,400 31,300 12,700   95,400
1975 31,900       1,700   16,400     2,800 70,000     122,800
1976 26,600       5,000   24,200     4,000 30,500     90,300
1977 49,500           15,100 300     92,800 6,400   164,100
1978 50,000           36,600       94,300     180,900
1979 24,500 29,000         38,400       145,100     237,000
1980 89,000 196,700         11,500       51,800     349,000
1981 112,500 17,600 38,200 182,650 1,900   3,600     5,300 73,300     435,050
1982 127,600 166,300   9,400 25,100   9,500     28,100 178,700     544,700
1983 24,700 156,700 45,000 115,400 293,800   400     89,100 8,900     734,000
1984 364,200 219,700   178,600 241,200 11,400       312,300       1,327,400
1985 112,700 200,200 109,400 130,500 110,700         255,000       918,500
1986 7,800 79,200 88,900 188,400 267,100         290,500       921,900
1987 227,800 642,900 298,600 383,200 345,200         205,900       2,103,600
1988 100,000 685,000 524,600 72,200 75,200         395,300       1,852,300
1989   622,600 620,800 268,700 76,800         217,700       1,806,600
1990   831,800 514,500 341,300 25,400         476,300       2,189,300
1991   1,007,200 717,400 306,200 33,100         349,700       2,413,600
1992   1,193,300 815,200 313,900 11,500         313,300       2,647,200
1993   3,419,500 727,600 237,100 28,700         382,800       4,795,700
1994   5,104,600 874,400 37,000 2,300 10,600       375,100       6,404,000
1995   6,015,600 802,500 4,500           1,300       6,823,900
1996   5,966,700 708,600 12,400   3,600       11,500       6,702,800
1997   7,769,000 757,600             1,400       8,528,000
Total 1,477,900 34,323,600 7,693,300 2,811,450 1,567,500 25,600 200,800 4,600 1,800 3,739,400 889,800 23,700 2,600 52,762,050

“Fry” are an unrecorded mix of fed and unfed fry; “UFry” are unfed fry; “FFry” are fed fry to 8/14 of the year of hatching; “0+ Parr” are 8/15 - 12/31 the year of hatching; “1Parr” are 1/1 - 8/14 one year after hatching; “1+ Parr” are 8/15 - 12/31 one year after hatching; “2Parr,” “3Parr,” and “4Parr” are two, three, and four years after hatching, respectively, and less than 150 mm in length; “1Smolt,” “2Smolt,” “3Smolt” and “4Smolt” are one, two, three, and four years after hatching, respectively, and at least 150 mm in length.


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Last updated: September 13, 2010
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