Upstream Fish Migration past Turners Falls Pathetic

The query came from Lynn Stowe Tomb of Gill, where, as editor she is leading a dedicated collaborative of local historians and town officials to put the finishing touches on a new, comprehensive book focusing on the history, deep and shallow, of Riverside — that small village butted up against Barton Cove’s tail before the impoundment tumbles over the Turners Falls dam spillway.

One of Tomb’s editorial assistants from the Gill Historical Commission had read something in this space that he found confusing, if not unlikely — heaven forbid, maybe even inaccurate. He queried her and she queried this space by email with: “Is it possible that (last year, according to your column) there were 416,355 shad in the Connecticut River Basin and only 60,000 made it past the Turners Falls dam?”

The knee-jerk answer was, “Absolutely. In fact, last year was a great year at Turners despite the huge drop-off from what had passed Holyoke.”

So, count Ms. Tomb among those who, for good reason, may have trouble comprehending why such a major discrepancy would exist at a relay station designed and built at considerable expense to provide upriver access to migratory fish headed from Holyoke to Bellows Falls, Vt., and beyond. Bellows Falls has forever been the shad-run terminus. But don’t blame Ms. Tomb. Frankly, it makes little sense in the big picture of upstream fish passage for such a correctable inefficiency to exist anywhere in the fish-passage network. But also it’s a dynamic that few members of the general public know, or probably care, about. Hey, it’s only fish, right?

Not that anyone would be shocked to discover power companies may not be totally committed to optimal anadromous fish passage around various dams equipped with different types of fish lifts and ladders. No. Such a realization is pretty much par for the course for public utilities using public resources for private gain and riches. It’s just not a subject that gets a lot of play in the mainstream news. And when it does appear, the most vociferous critics are outspoken environmental crusaders like local gadfly Karl Meyer as well as anonymous recreational anglers who discuss it in coffee-shop conversation or activists addressing small isolated audiences. Pretty much preaching to the choir.

The fact is that, entering this year, the average annual number of migrating shad passed at Holyoke that make it past Turners Falls since 1976 is less than five percent despite consecutive “great years” by historic standards in 2014 and 2015. Yes, during the past two shad runs, the percentage of shad to make it past Turners Falls jumped to an almost unimaginable 10.8, then, even better, an all-time best 14.1.

Could this recent spike have anything to do with the fact that five dams from Turners Falls to Bethel, Vt., are currently under the public microscope during the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) relicensing processes? Or could that be just another coincidence?

Hmmmm?

No matter how you frame it, anadromous-fish passage past Turners Falls has been pathetic at best, even during the best years. Last year was the second-best year ever. Tops was 60,089 the 1992, when 721,764 passed Holyoke. Do the math. That all-time record year shows a paltry 8.3 percent of the fish passing Holyoke made it past Turners Falls. Definitely nothing to boast about. In fact, whoever’s responsible should hide their heads in failure.

And, oh yeah, don’t hold your breath waiting for the annual percentages to improve dramatically and permanently anytime soon, FERC relicensing or no FERC relicensing. This year, despite assurances last week that he’d finally have passage number at Turners Falls by this past weekend, no word that they have indeed appeared for Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle’s perusal.

Must be the same old song … or worse.

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No Wednesday anadromous-fish report from the Connecticut River Coordinator’s office but, through Monday, with no river temperatures reported (but they must be into the 60s Fahrenheit by now), a total of 287,265 American shad had been counted in the river basin, the lion’s share (283,872) of them counted at Holyoke.

Thus far, not an Atlantic salmon anywhere. Nope, not a solitary one. Sad. The restoration effort is over, and now perhaps the run is history as well; however, it’s more than likely that occasional wayward travelers are likely to continue finding their way to the Connecticut for many years, maybe even building redds as they did at a site in Connecticut last fall.

As for shad, who knows if this year’s total will rival last year’s of over 400,000? But, remember, shad runs are governed by water temps and rain events that effect them and can thus be erratic, so it’s not unlikely that this year’s run still has a way to go. Heavy rain events decrease water temperature and increase turbulence that necessitates fish-passageway closure on dams for days, thus temporarily delaying runs and pooling migrating fish below dams. When the flow returns, the fish come like gangbusters until the river temperature steadies around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Then they establish spawning territories, mill around in one small space and stop hitting colorful lures offerred by anglers.

Who can forget the spring of 1984, when a Memorial Day Weekend deluge flooded Routes 5 & 10 along Old Deerfield’s North Meadows and provided shad fishing clear through to the end of the fiscal year, June 30? No lie, people were catching shad in the lower Deerfield River and at Rock Dam almost to the Fourth of July holiday, an anomaly for sure, one that has not been repeated since but could reoccur with a flood.

Never say never.

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No word yet on surplus allotments, but Memorial Day Weekend always signals the end of the spring trout-stocking schedule here and throughout the Bay State. MassWildlife hatcheries are now assessing their stock to determine what kind of a bonus they can put out in selected waters next week. Because it’s a rare year when a surplus doesn’t exist, take it to the bank that you’ll be seeing a stocking truck or two on the road next week. Good random reviews from anglers who’ve taken spring trout, included among them my neighbor’s report of a handsome 21-inch brown trout taken while fishing from a canoe with his wife at Cranberry Pond.

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