Stocks of wild salmon in the North Pacific are in trouble. That’s news.
What isn’t news is that the spring has passed us by in Massachusetts again without returning more than a handful of wild Atlantic Salmon. The river closest to me, the Connecticut, saw just 132 salmon return, nearly all of which were captured at either of two dams and whisked away by biologists working for the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Restoration program. The fish are bred at hatcheries so next spring the young can be released back into the river, hopefully to grow, go to sea, and return (others were tagged and released upstream of the dams to breed naturally this fall). But is it worth the effort?
This program has been in place for 41 years now, and has long been hoped to return this magnificent fish to the state in healthy numbers. Each spring, scores of volunteers fan out around the region, gently dipping buckets full of juvenile ‘fry’ salmon (one to two million each year) into 37 of the river’s tributaries and hope for the best. But it’s an effort that’s been mighty slim on returns so far.
The Merrimack River up near the New Hampshire border also saw very few salmon return (114), despite great leaps forward in water quality and habitat restoration efforts, as in the Connecticut. Both rivers still enjoy much larger American Shad runs (24,000 in the former and 155,000 in the latter this year), and likely salmon have always played second fiddle to shad here, since Mass. is at the southern end of the salmon’s range (h/t Gary Sanderson). Historic accounts support this, though for a long time, salmon were thought to be much more important here, probably because they thrived during the 300 year window of the Little Ice Age which coincided with European settlement. Still, those numbers of shad are way low. John McPhee’s classic book The Founding Fish gives the best sense for how dominant shad fishing was economically speaking in the early settlements.
Unknowns include how many of these salmon are being caught at sea, how well they’ll weather the warming of the Connecticut’s tributaries due to a heating climate, and how they’d do without the dams.
So what should a state biologist do? Pull the plug? Are 132 salmon better than none? I say that they are, that each one is absolutely worth it, literally and probably figuratively worth its weight in gold. The lesson may be that a restoration program like this may prove impossible, but if so, it’s an important gesture and an effort to put things right.