Connecticut River Coordinator's Office
Northeast Region
Photo of an Atlantic salmon held in human hands. Credit: USFWS
Photo of an Atlantic salmon held in human hands. Credit: USFWS

The Connecticut River drains a four-state watershed encompassing some 11,000 square miles. The river played a prominent role in the growth and development of New England. Massive industrial complexes were built along its shores in Connecticut and Massachusetts, while numerous manufacturing and wood processing plants were erected along the river's upper reaches and its tributaries. Dams and distribution canals were constructed to harness waterflow for power, water was withdrawn for manufacturing processes, and industrial and domestic wastes were discharged into the river. For the first three quarters of the past century the lower reaches of the Connecticut -- the largest of all New England's rivers -- was literally an open sewer.

The river eventually became so foul and degraded that it was unhealthy for people to come into contact with it. The dams and pollution also brought substantial change and alteration to the aquatic resources and ecology of the river. One of the most obvious effects was the complete disappearance of Atlantic Salmon runs and the substantial diminishment of other anadromous fish runs, particularly those of American shad. Populations and species of mussels and other aquatic invertebrates were also significantly reduced or destroyed.

This sorry state of affairs finally began to change in the 1970s when the Federal Clean Water Act imposed wastewater discharge standards that brought about dramatic improvement in the water quality of the river. Cleaning up the discharges was the first necessary step on the road to restoring the regional environmental health of this magnificent public resource. In addition to establishing laws and regulations to protect the quality and flow of water of the nation's rivers, our society also began to invest in efforts to restore aquatic habitats and the associated biological resources of our waters. Restoration of the biological resources of the Connecticut River is an especially difficult and formidable task because of the severity of degradation from nearly two centuries of unmitigated exploitation; the complexity of the river's ecosystem; and the necessary involvement of four states and two federal agencies. Fortunately for Massachusetts and the river, cleanup and restoration had a powerful supporter and advocate in Congressman Silvio Conte.

Working with his congressional Colleagues, Congressman Conte championed an interstate compact between the federal government and the states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire to effect measures to restore Atlantic salmon to the Connecticut River.

This interstate agreement is formally called the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Compact (CRASC). Its creation gave the Compact the necessary jurisdiction to undertake a basin-wide restoration effort.

Photo of a young man enjoying the benefit of clean water in the Cold River, a salmon stream in MA - Photo credit:  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Photo of a young man enjoying the benefit of clean water in the Cold River, a salmon stream in MA. Credit: USFWS

The mandate of the Compact is restoration of Atlantic salmon to the Connecticut River; however, accomplishment of this goal requires the restoration of the habitats and rich diversity of aquatic life that was destroyed over the past two centuries. Obviously we cannot hope to restore a species unless the environmental system that formerly supported it is also returned to good health.

Congressional consent for the Compact was granted in 1983 (Public Law 98-138 - Oct. 28, l983) for a period of 20 years. Since then, substantial progress and improvements have been achieved in efforts to revive the environmental health and quality of the Connecticut River and its coastal Connecticut estuary. Spectacular increases have been achieved in the runs of shad and herring, and the diversity of aquatic species in formally polluted reaches of the river has increased dramatically.

To accomplish these measurable and obvious improvements in the river's ecology in a single human generation is a remarkable achievement given the complexity of the river system and the severity of 200 years of unabated degradation. However, although a small number of salmon are now spawning in Massachusetts and our scientific knowledge and understanding of the steps necessary to restore the aquatic systems and habitats necessary to support a vigorous salmon population has been increased tremendously, the eminent goal of resurrecting a truly self-sustaining salmon run to the river and its tributaries has yet to be achieved. That accomplishment, when it occurs, will be indicative of the restoration of the environmental health of the entire Connecticut River.

Like his predecessor, current Congressman John Olver is a strong supporter of the Connecticut River restoration effort, and this past June he filed legislation -- co-sponsored by the rest of the Connecticut River's four state delegation -- that will extend the Compact for another 20 years. Passage of this legislation is critical because the measures necessary to enable the Connecticut River to again support and sustain a viable salmon run is dependent upon the Compact. While the eventual historic renaissance of the river's Atlantic salmon population -- accomplished through the application of diverse scientific, legislative and technological capabilities -- will garner enormous media attention and public interest, the greatest accomplishment will actually be the restoration of the environmental health of the entire river system.

Wayne F. MacCallum, Director

Wayne MacCallum, Director – Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. 2001. Editorial: Of Salmon and the River. Massachusetts Wildlife. Volume 4, 2001. pp. 12-13.


Last updated: September 1, 2010
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