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

History of Atlantic Salmon in the Connecticut River: When Europeans first settled the Connecticut River valley, Atlantic salmon were found throughout the watershed. Historic records indicate that Atlantic salmon ascended the mainstem Connecticut River to its very headwaters (as far north as Beechers Falls, Vermont) and likely entered all major tributaries not blocked by natural barriers. Precise numbers of salmon that entered the river and its various tributary systems are unknown because early settlers did not enumerate the migrating fish as extirpation predated the development of fishery science.

The native salmon population disappeared soon after the construction of impassable dams. The first dam to be built across the mainstem Connecticut River was constructed in 1798 near the present site of Turners Falls, Massachusetts. It blocked the access of salmon to spawning habitat in the upper portion of the watershed, and the species disappeared from the river a few years later.

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. This effort resulted in the return of hundreds of adult salmon for several years in the 1870s and 1880s but the program eventually failed due to uncontrolled freshwater harvest of salmon, the failure to construct effective fish passage facilities at dams, and the redirection of state efforts to other priorities. Program history specifics are further detailed in Appendix D.

The Current Restoration Program: The Atlantic Salmon Restoration Program became feasible when the federal Anadromous Fisheries Conservation Act (1965) made funds available for interstate fish restoration programs. Additionally, pollution abatement programs initiated as a result of the Clean Water Act (1967) helped to improve the quality of the river environment. The current Program formally commenced in 1967 when the four basin states, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service signed a statement of intent to restore anadromous fish to the Connecticut River. The combined effects of all these events set the stage for Atlantic salmon restoration. Subsequently, Congress passed the Connecticut River Basin Atlantic Salmon Compact (1983), which formalized the state and federal agreements. This action created the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, authorized to guide the restoration of salmon to the basin. Another more recent federal law, The Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge Act (1991), recognized past expenditures and reaffirmed the importance of migratory fish restoration. The law established a role for the Refuge in conserving, protecting, and enhancing the salmon, shad, herring, and sturgeon and their habitat, supporting research, and environmental education.

Early in the Program, emphasis was given to stocking smolts. Initial releases were limited in number and comprised of two-year old smolts of Canadian origin reared in federal trout hatcheries. The first adult salmon return from these hatchery-smolt releases was documented in 1974. Between 1974 and 1977, ten more salmon returned from the ocean. Penobscot River salmon smolts became available to the Program and were used to stock the river in greater numbers beginning in 1976. As a result of the 1976 release, 90 adult salmon returned to the river in 1978. Since then, salmon returns have usually numbered in the hundreds (see Appendix D, Table 5). In 1983, hatchery smolt production shifted from a two-year to a one-year rearing regime in an effort to increase the quantity of smolts. Widespread fry stocking was initiated in 1987, in order to add the production of stream-reared smolts to smolts reared in hatcheries. Fry stocking has continued to increase, and, by the spring of 1997, the total number of fry stocked in the basin was nearly 8.5 million.

Providing upstream fish passage at dams on the river has always been an important aspect of migratory fish restoration. Many of the mainstem Connecticut River fishways were constructed to assist in rebuilding depleted populations of American shad which had never been extirpated from the river. The fishlift at the Holyoke Dam, originally built for shad, was expanded in 1975 and 1976. Fishways were built at the next four upstream dams on the mainstem river: Turners Falls, Vernon, Bellows Falls, and Wilder. Passage on tributaries has been constructed at sites including the Leesville Dam on the Salmon River, Rainbow Dam on the Farmington River, and the Decorative Specialties International (DSI) Dam on the Westfield River. These fish passage facilities not only provide access into a large portion of the basin targeted for restoration but also permit enumeration and/or capture of salmon for broodstock. The majority of returning salmon are captured for broodstock though ten percent are released upstream of the Holyoke Dam to spawn naturally. A complete list of existing fish passage facilities and current 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 the construction of fishways at the seven originally targeted dams, nor were they initially mandated at most of other dams in the watershed. As the number of fry stocked in the basin increased during the 1980s, so did concern about the deleterious effect of hydroelectric turbines on smolts. Efforts to provide downstream fish passage on both mainstem and tributary projects were initiated in the 1980s. In 1990, agreements were signed with two major utility companies that operate six mainstem hydroelectric facilities (New England Power Company and Northeast Utilities Service Company). These agreements established timeframes for downstream passage facility construction and evaluation studies. Passage at these sites will greatly increase the annual number of outmigrating smolts.

The Commission acknowledges the cooperation and genuine commitment of the electric utilities, including Northeast Utilities System and New England Power, to the restoration of salmon in the Connecticut River. They have played a particularly important role on the mainstem and some tributaries, making the effort, in good faith, sometimes at great expense, to ensure the success of the Restoration Program.

Though the USFWS was forced to suspend the rearing of hatchery smolts for the Connecticut River Program after 1994 due to budget constraints, it was determined that the Pittsford National Fish Hatchery could engage in limited smolt production beginning in 1998. Thus, two-year old smolts may again be released beginning in 2000. A summary of salmon stocking in the Connecticut River basin since the inception of the current Restoration Program is found in Appendix D, Table 5.

One of the major environmental forces affecting salmon restoration involves an increase in oceanic mortality of Atlantic salmon. An historic decline in the size of wild runs of Atlantic salmon, worldwide, has occurred during the same years that the Commission has been attempting to restore a run to the Connecticut River. The reasons for the poor survival of salmon in the ocean are not fully understood. However, during the same period, great strides have been made in fish health management, fish culture, fish passage, fish stocking and regulation of high sea fisheries. As a result, the Commission remains optimistic that the current fortunes of Atlantic salmon can be reversed and that the original goal of the Restoration Program can be accomplished.

Looking to the Future: When the Restoration Program began in the 1960s, it was understood that it would take a long time to completely restore salmon to the basin and allow a recreational fishery. No one had previously attempted a comparable, basin-wide restoration effort on such a large river, and especially a river in which native stocks have been extinct for about 200 years. A rapid increase in numbers of returning salmon from 1978 to 1981 prompted optimistic expectations that progress would be sustained at that pace. However, the number of returning salmon has not changed much during the past ten years for a variety of reasons. Given the difficulties inherent to this Program, the steady numbers are a sign of success but it will still take a long time to restore salmon to the basin.

The Program can be understood as a long-term, multi-phase effort. The first phase of the program has succeeded: the identification of suitable donor stocks, natural spawning, and the establishment of an annual return of sea-run salmon. This Strategic Plan addresses the next phase of restoration. Specific milestones to be reached during this second phase will include: 1) an increase in the number of fry stocked in the watershed to 10 million; 2) an increase in the number of adults returning to the river; 3) an increase in the number of adults released into the river upstream of trapping facilities to support natural reproduction; 4) completion of the construction of downstream fish passage facilities; 5) re-establishment of hatchery smolt production and stocking; and, 6) the beginning of the development of tributary-specific stocks of salmon. This Strategic Plan provides the framework to achieve these milestones. It is not possible to identify a specific time when the second phase will be complete due to the dynamic nature of science, technology, government funding, and the riverine and oceanic ecosystems. It is expected that specific milestones of the second phase will be accomplished sometime within the next thirty years.

The final phase of the Program to be addressed in future Plans is the realization of full restoration as defined by the Commission.

 

What Does Restoration Mean? Restoration means different things to different people. The Commission defines restoration as an ongoing process that will always require fisheries management with hatchery support.

Successful restoration means:

  • realizing targeted adult returns as defined in this Plan,
  • having salmon present throughout the basin as defined in the Plan,
  • having spawning populations in selected tributaries,
  • having a recreational fishery

Current returns are in the hundreds, well below the original projections. However, total annual adult returns may reach 1,000 fish in the lifetime of this Plan and eventually may exceed that figure by a magnitude or more in the future. Certainties in making such projections do not exist. To understand the difficulty in making accurate projections and to learn how these figures are derived, please see Appendix F.

Benefits of Atlantic Salmon Restoration

  1. Atlantic Salmon--Atlantic salmon are a national birthright. So, the most important benefit of the Restoration Program is the return of Atlantic salmon to the Connecticut River.

  2. Angling Opportunities--Atlantic salmon is a premier gamefish. The Restoration Program currently offers anglers the opportunity to fish for domestic Atlantic salmon broodstock. These fish are used to produce eggs for fry stocking and afterwards are released into the region=s waters to support recreational fishing. Providing opportunities to fish for sea-run salmon is an as yet unrealized part of the Program mission.

  3. Non-angling Recreational Opportunities--Salmon are enjoyed by many non-anglers. Popular activities include watching the fish pass through fishways, seeing the fish in the river, assisting with fry stocking, and visiting various facilities where young salmon are reared and where adults are held prior to spawning. When people observe and learn about salmon, they learn about the inter-relationships between fish, rivers, their personal lives, and our shared environments. Such lessons are important in reinforcing the value of stewardship and responsibility in the Connecticut River watershed, and in helping people understand global management of natural resources.

  4. Other Species--Although many of the Program activities are focused on salmon, a variety of other species benefit from the Program, particularly the anadromous species of American shad, alewife, blueback herring, gizzard shad, striped bass, white perch, sea lamprey, shortnose sturgeon, and sea-run brown trout. These species take advantage of fish passage facilities and move into upstream habitat, enabling them to increase their numbers. Activities to protect and enhance these migratory species produce many of the same public benefits as salmon restoration.

  5. Research--Continued support of research into aspects of Atlantic salmon life history, passage requirements, and fish health issues by the Commission will benefit the Restoration Program within and beyond the basin by expanding the body of knowledge and transferring it to other species and programs. Many technologies developed in the Connecticut River Program have already benefitted other programs in New England and throughout the world.

  6. Tourism/Economic Benefits--New Englanders have a strong interest in salmon. Atlantic salmon are not plentiful in the United States and there are currently few opportunities to see salmon or fish for them. The establishment of a wild population in the heavily-populated Northeast may generate considerable Aeco-tourism@ that will, in turn, provide significant contributions to local economies. A 1989 study on the economic value of restoring salmon to several New England rivers set the projected total economic value at $2.6 to 4.3 billion.

  7. Intangible Benefits--Many of the aforementioned benefits are easy to describe and quantify. However, this charismatic species holds special meaning to the people of New England that defies easy explanation. One factor is the perception of the salmon as an ecological sentinel of water quality. People remember when the Connecticut River was severely polluted, supporting relatively few fish, and there is great pride that salmon have returned. The yearly salmon run is an indicator that conditions are improving and that the environment we all share is healthier. For most residents, Atlantic salmon are not an issue of personal economics, but they are valuable. People care if salmon are out there, to fish for, look at, and celebrate.

Challenges for the Future: While the future direction and potential benefits of the Restoration Program are clear, the work will not be easy. There are challenges that must be overcome to realize the Program=s goals. Perhaps the two biggest challenges are the effect of marine habitat on sea-survival of fish, and the development of stocks that are genetically suited to the Connecticut River ecosystem. Fisheries management can do little to affect the status of the marine habitat. Many researchers believe that the quantity and quality of marine habitat fluctuates cyclically and conditions will soon improve, naturally. Regarding Connecticut River stocks, managers can provide the best conditions by releasing appropriate donor stocks and minimizing artificial selection, but the actual mechanics of developing a river-specific stock is the natural, slow process of evolution. Available data indicate that these two natural factors will proceed in a manner that will be beneficial to the Program.

The Commission has control over many of the remaining challenges to meeting the Program mission. Additional hatchery capabilities are needed to meet production goals. Program biologists have determined that an annual release of at least 10 million fry into the watershed will be necessary to fully stock the available rearing habitat. A level of hatchery smolt stocking is also needed, particularly for the short term. Most production and stocking needs are currently being met at federal and state fish culture facilities. Despite government cutbacks, it is important for agencies to maintain current Program commitments. Additional facilities will be needed to meet the objectives for stocking. There are many creative ways to meet this need, including building new facilities, expanding existing facilities, or sharing facilities with other partners. However this expansion is accomplished, it will be important to fulfilling Program strategies.

There are many potential Program uses for returning adult salmon and often not enough salmon to meet all of the Program needs. Sea-run salmon are very valuable for both captive and in-stream breeding since they possess a proven ability to return to the river. In addition to increasing the quantity of available eggs, sea-run salmon improve the quality of available eggs since they pass on the same genes that allowed them to successfully return to the river. Adult salmon are also needed for research into salmon behavior and fish health, and for education and public relations. The Commission will be challenged in dealing with these potential uses to ensure that returning adult Atlantic salmon are protected and managed to provide maximum benefit to the Restoration Program.

The Program has benefitted from good scientific work being conducted on Atlantic salmon by researchers on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. However, some information is not transferrable between watersheds or continents. To understand what is happening to salmon in this watershed, research must be conducted on Atlantic salmon in the Connecticut River. To ensure that progress is not limited by a lack of scientific knowledge, the Commission must encourage research whenever possible through cooperation, provision of fish and facilities, and communication with researchers. Researchers need to understand program research needs, managers need to learn the results of the research in a timely fashion, and the results need to be applied to resource management decisions.

The quality and quantity of habitat available to Atlantic salmon today are not as good as they were prior to colonization. Without adequate amounts of suitable habitat (even if all targets for salmon stocking are met), salmon will not prosper. Currently, there is a large amount of salmon habitat that is not accessible to returning adults because of the presence of barrier dams. Providing access around these migratory barriers through dam removal and/or the provision of fish passage will allow salmon to use this habitat. In other cases, important habitat is accessible to salmon but it has been degraded by human land-use practices. Siltation of gravel beds essential for spawning and fry habitat is a frequent cause of habitat degradation. The Commission must continually protect existing salmon habitat from further degradation through existing regulatory processes. Furthermore, agencies, industry, local government and non-governmental partners must take advantage of any opportunities to restore or improve habitat that has been previously degraded.

The resource agencies are restoring salmon to the river for the public benefit, however, it is often difficult to keep the public well informed about the progress, requirements, and status of the Program. Because the Program relies on public support and assistance to accomplish Program objectives, it is of great importance that the public understand and value the Program, its goals, current status, and future needs. The Commission and its member agencies must work to ensure that the public understands and continues to permit and support the Program.

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Last updated: September 14, 2010
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