Free-loving free swimmers

Remember when America screamed foul after “Al Jazeera America” broke the Peyton Manning Human Growth Hormone bombshell deemed unreliable because of the Arab source? Well, no one seems to be questioning the recent story from the same news service about three Atlantic salmon redds discovered last fall in Connecticut.

Hmmmm?

Imagine that.

Peyton Manning? No, no, no. Not a credible source. But endangered Atlantic salmon? Uhm? Well, OK, maybe we can accept it. Is that the thinking?

Anyway, here’s the story, which was not broken by the much-maligned and distrusted Arab source, but was indeed picked up by it after being previously reported elsewhere, particularly in Connecticut. And, yes, it was worth the ink. An interesting tale indeed, considering that just three years earlier the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service had given up on an ambitious 50-year program to re-establish a viable salmon sportfishing population in the Connecticut River and its tributaries, including many local streams popular among anglers. To name some, starting with the larger ones, we’re talking about the Chicopee, Westfield, Deerfield, Milllers, North and West rivers, all located between southern Vermont and Hampden County. But don’t neglect other smaller streams, such as Mill River in Northampton and Williamsburg, Sawmill River in Montague, Leverett and Shutesbury, and even Fall River, which flows into the Connecticut just below the Turners Falls dam. All of the aforementioned waters would have attracted migratory salmon back in the day before dams and industry and global warming, when it is estimated by optimists that as many as 50,000 salmon migrated upriver on a good year, say during the colonial period of the 17th and early 18th centuries.

So, yes, despite the discontinuation of an altruistic and expensive Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Restoration Program that lasted from the Sixties through 2012, the salmon continue to dribble annually through our valley in small numbers. In fact, there hasn’t been a year since the program’s demise that an insignificant number of salmon (10 or less) have used available fish passageways to pass the Turners Falls dam and gain access to potential fall spawning grounds along the upper reaches of New England’s longest river.

Of course, there are also potentially viable breeding streams south of us in Connecticut, where salmon are known to have historically spawned. Two of the most likely are the Farmington and Salmon rivers, with their headwaters reaching back into the northwestern corner of the state. And, how about that, just this past fall, officials observed five adult salmon passing the fish passageway on the lower Farmington’s Rainbow Dam on their way to suitable upriver spawning grounds. When officials later went looking for these fish, they found three redds full of eggs that have since been promoted as the first of their kind on that river in more than 200 years, back to Revolutionary times.

It is likely that some of the salmon that have in recent years passed Turners Falls or swam up the Deerfield River before reaching the Powertown also built redds that ultimately held eggs and were not discovered. These hidden lairs were likely just not found or possibly were found by state and/or federal biologists who kept secret the location of such important nest sites in a wild environment. Because, remember, 10 percent of the salmon captured at various passage facilities along the river system were equipped with radio tags that allowed them to be tracked in their wild environs. The rest of the adult fish were held in captivity at the Cronin National Salmon Station in Sunderland, where they were nursed to optimal health for controlled, artificial spawning. These captives had their eggs and milt removed by station personnel and carefully packed for the trip north to White River National Hatchery in Bethel, Vt., where the reproductive materials were mixed to produce Connecticut River-strain progeny for future stocking into small nursery streams in the Connecticut River watershed. Many of those target streams were found right here in Franklin County.

Millions of the tiny, hatchery-raised immature fry and smolts were stocking into the river system in an attempt to produce migrants that would mature in local freshwater streams, travel to the Atlantic Ocean to grow to adulthood and return to their natal streams to spawn. The returnee numbers were disastrous, thus the program’s demise.

So now how about a little food for mischievous thought? Given what happened in Connecticut’s Farmington River last fall — and what likely will continue to occur as long as a few spring stragglers continue to return to the Connecticut River basin in subsequent springs — who’s to say we’re not going to have annual wild spawning? Not only that, but do you suppose that, had the restoration program decided from the start to allow most of the returning adults to do their own thing and spawn undisturbed, the program could have realized better success?

That’s a question to which we’ll probably never know the answer. But it’s always a possibility that a wild specimen of Atlantic salmon status could well reproduce much better in secluded river privacy than in a human-controlled environment where they’re being fed pharmaceuticals while contained in concrete tanks that feel more like prison than a Waldorf Astoria honeymoon suite.

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