This spring’s teachable moment
There’s a watershed opportunity for teachers investigating migratory fish this spring. It’s the final season when classrooms will raise Atlantic salmon eggs from a massive federal hatchery program, dismantled after 46 years. It’s a chance to teach kids that “extinct,” in evolutionary biology terms, means exactly that: gone, forever.
It’s a profoundly simple lesson, with ramifications that can be fully grasped in a week. I’m hoping teachers will put a living dinosaur of a fish in that salmon’s place — one still here, though teetering on the edge of extinction these 46 years: the federally endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon. As teachable as T. rex, this marvelously adapted, 3- to 4-foot fish has survived for 100 million years.
On April 20, 1967, two federal agencies and four states signed the Cooperative Fisheries Restoration Compact for the Connecticut River. It specifically targeted American shad and blueback herring, plus salmon — extinct here since Darwin’s birth in 1809. Within two years its emphasis had overwhelmingly veered to conjuring up a new salmon.
Still, with a little help shad and herring populations blossomed. Combined runs reached 1 million fish in the 1980s then dropped precipitously. Bluebacks are now as rare as hen’s teeth.
By 1975, what was then the Federal Power Commission had heard testimony that Long Island Sound had warmed to a point that might prevent cold-water salmon from entering rivers in its basin. The climate had changed. Still, in 1980 Massachusetts and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials insisted a series of salmon ladders be built, leading all migrants into a power canal at Turners Falls.
It failed instantly, yet skewed logic continued. In 1983 Congress renamed the restoration the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission. It continues today.
Those extinct salmon had only visited here — the southern tip of their range, for a few centuries. Importing eggs from Canada and Maine, the program proved futile, costing millions annually. It left the real problem for native shad, herring and endangered sturgeon — a broken Connecticut River, quietly untended. Those species had returned here for thousands of years. Bony-plated sturgeon had been vacuuming up freshwater mussels eons before the present valley took shape.
On March 11, 1967, the shortnose was listed as “endangered” in the original Endangered Species Preservation Act. No one knew how they’d survived, or how many remained. Shortnose were sometimes landed downstream of the 1849 Holyoke Dam, and a few were recorded upstream below Turners Falls. By 1980, researchers discovered embryos and larvae upstream — proof shortnose spawned somewhere below Turners Falls.
Beginning in 1990, Dr. Boyd Kynard and colleagues began 17 years of continuous federal- and state-funded sturgeon research. Kynard ultimately uncovered the structure of the population, its migratory patterns, and ancient spawning grounds.
A key finding established that all shortnose head upstream to an ancient spawning pool between Greenfield and Turners Falls known as Rock Dam. Fewer than 2,000 survive today. They exist in two groups of a single genetic population, separated over 150 years ago by the raising of Holyoke Dam — which luckily had left some adults upstream with access to spawning. Fish trapped downstream were out of luck.
Today, the bulk of the population lives in the river below Holyoke Dam. Known as “reproductive nulls,” some 1,500 sturgeon linger in a forced limbo created by agencies charged with protecting them.
If one manages to slip into Holyoke Gas & Electric’s fish lift for a spawning ride upstream, it is trapped and pointedly dropped downstream — per orders of the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program. Surviving for 40 years or more, adults will repeatedly attempt to pass the dam until, genetically unfulfilled, they expire.
The state and federal agencies claim this protects sturgeon from being sliced up in HG&E’s turbines, if they return downstream after spawning. All the while HG&E is five years in violation of license agreements mandating construction of safe downstream fish passage. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has done nothing to enforce environmental statutes that were key to Holyoke receiving a new hydro license in 1999.
Today, some 300 sturgeon cling to life upstream of Holyoke. An unknown number are adults. Some attempt to spawn near Rock Dam each spring (females spawn once every five years). According to Kynard et al, success is far from guaranteed. Unregulated flows emanating from FirstLight’s Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls dam and canal imperil that endangered process.
Annually, spawning fails 79 percent of the time at Rock Dam and 29 percent of the time at a default site just downstream. Fertilized embryos are also killed when waffling flows flush them out, or leave them parching on river banks. Many years, no young are produced.
Laws ignored, habitats decimated, river groups mum — it’s a blueprint for extinction. Yet, amazingly, our dinosaurs persist. It’s this spring’s teachable moment. Anyone up to a challenge?
Karl Meyer is a writer who lives in Greenfield, Mass. His book “Wild Animals of North America” won a 2008 Teachers’ Choice Award for children’s books.