Smiling, Mickey Novak stands in the center of a group of about 25 Westfield State University students all staring shyly back at him, as he tells the same jokes he does to every school group that comes to the Richard Cronin National Salmon Station.
“I’m from Ware. You know what it is north of Ware? Nowhere. South of Ware? Somewhere. Under Ware? Underwear,” he jokes, getting a few nervous laughs from the students. “Those jokes are so dumb you are probably wondering ware I heard them.”
By the time he finishes, everyone in the huddle knows that he is a jokester, with his eyes twinkling out of his weathered face.
Since Novak started working at the Station in 1990, he has invited over 20,000 school children to come and try “real world biology.”
Novak, the director of the Richard Cronin Station, works as part of the Atlantic Salmon Restoration Program, which was started in 1967 by Congressman Silvio Conte (Mass – R). The project is a combined effort of federal and state efforts where the state governments work with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to revive the population of Atlantic salmon, a native species, in the Connecticut River. The salmon in the Connecticut River became extinct after industrial dams were erected along the river in the 1800s, separating the fish from their spawning habitats.
However, after 44 years of work, both federal and state agencies are considering pulling out of the program.
At a technical body meeting Nov. 10, the Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont fish and wildlife agency directors, the Northeast Director of Fish and Wildlife Services, the river coordinators and public members for each of the four states met to discuss the status of the program. The people at the meeting compose the commission responsible for overseeing the program.
All of the decisions regarding the program are made by the commission, according to Ken Sprankle, Executive Assistant Connecticut River Coordinator.
That Thursday, they were meeting to discuss the fate of the program.
Real World Biology
Restoring the fish starts in a large metal and concrete building that looks like a garage from the outside located at 103 East Plumtree Road, Sunderland.
Inside, two large tanks hold 24 four-year-old Atlantic salmon that were scooped out of the Connecticut River at the Turner Falls fish lift in May when the salmon attempted to migrate.
The fish rest just under a pipe that pours cold water pumped from the stream which runs underneath the building into the tank.
Occasionally, a fish will burst into a quick lap around the tank, its dorsal fin skimming the top of the water. As suddenly as it began its lap, the fish will jump out of the water defying gravity before swimming back to lounge under the pipe generate current which mimics natural streams.
These are Novak’s babies.
Come spring, the fry – salmon who are less than one-year-old – spawned from Novak’s salmon as well as at other hatcheries in the valley will be released to the river.
Novak will be introduce 120,000 fry to the river. Up stream, the Dwight D. Eisenhower National Fish Hatchery in Vermont will stock 80,000 smolts – one-to-two-year-old salmon that are ready to migrate0 and the Rocksbury State Hatchery in Vermont will raise 420,000 eggs.
In Massachusetts, the Roger Reed State Fish Hatchery will stock two million fry, and in Connecticut, the Kensington State Hatchery will stock 1.5 million fry.
This totals to about half of the salmon stocked in previous years according to Sprankle. The difference in the program for 2012 is that this year both the White River Hatchery in Vermont in the North Attleboro Hatchery in Massachusetts will no longer be stocking any fish.
History of the Salmon
In the 1600s, thousands of Atlantic salmon came as they had for hundreds of years to spawn in the upper reaches of the river. Native Americans from all over the valley gathered along the shorelines to catch the fish.
Then the Europeans came, and over the next century they built over 800 dams throughout the river basin largely to provide water power for the textile and paper mills.
Unable to lay their eggs in the headwater streams, the salmon stopped spawning and died off in the Connecticut River.
In other rivers, such as the Merrimack in Massachusetts and the Penobscot in Maine, the fish survived despite dwindling numbers. Using these stocks, federal scientists set out to bring back the Connecticut River Atlantic salmon after Conte pushed the legislation through Congress to do so.
Conte, an avid fisherman, was sick of having to travel to other rivers to fish for the Atlantic salmon, a species that used to be native to “his” river according to Novak. After being teased by some of his friends about it, he created the restoration program.
“As a species, they have always generated excitement,” said Ken Sprankle, Executive Assistant Connecticut River Coordinator. “It has the reputation as the king of sport fish. It is pretty amazing.”
By 1994, the researchers working at the fish hatcheries created a genetic signature of Connecticut River Atlantic salmon and no longer needed to use fish from the Penobscot River.
“I know the genetics of each one of my fish,” said Novak who carefully breeds them each fall for maximum genetic differences in order to prevent inbreeding in the small population.
Before breeding the fish, Novak carefully selects which fish will be bred together by using the genetic information stored in a tiny computer chip planted just below the dorsal fin.
After he breeds them by hand, Novak places the eggs in metal trays filled with ever-circulating stream water. The trays are then stacked into shelves that tower over him at 8 feet high where the eggs are incubated.
Once the eggs are secure in the shelves, Novak is able to manipulate the temperature to determine exactly when they will hatch.
This year, Novak is raising 120,000 salmon, forcing them to hatch in the fall by cooling and then warming the water. Salmon eggs normally hatch in the spring.
Novak will release the fry into the river in the springtime. The fry will then spend two years in the fresh water of the Connecticut River growing before they head out into the open ocean. On their way out, the salmon’s chemistry will change as they imprint on the chemical scent of the river and adapt to salt water.
In the ocean, the fish swim to feeding grounds in the North Atlantic near Greenland and Iceland. After spending two years at sea, the fish return to their birth stream to lay their eggs.
Opportunities for Students
However, Novak is not picky about who helps him to breed the fish. As a result, his autumn school groups ranging from the group of Westfield State University students to the fifth grade science class from Pelham Middle School all are given an opportunity to get their hands wet. In the fall of 2011 alone, 668 students visited the hatchery.
“Does anyone want a pair of hip waders?” Novak asks the college students. “The water is great, about 42 degrees. I used to have to break up the ice to do this.”
Of the class, three students decide to take Novak up on his offer. When one student starts to back out due to there not being any hip waders available in his size, Mickey simply turns to him and asks, “You are going to let your feet being a little squished stop you from spawning salmon.”
The boy opted to squeeze.
End of an Era?
The era of the Atlantic salmon restoration could be coming to an end.
When the program was created in the 60s, its stated mission was to “protect, conserve and restore the Atlantic salmon for recreational fishing and public benefit.” Over 50 years later, the program has yet to see this success and officials are increasingly conscious of this.
“I don’t think we have been very successful in a number of important areas,” said Sprankle. Most notably, in return rates of the adult fish to the river.
According to the updated plan for the program set forth by the commission in 1998, between 900 and 1,500 Atlantic salmon should be returning to the river.
Only 111 returned this past year. While this is a substantial uptick from the 51 fish that returned the previous years, with a success rate of less than 1 percent, officials, including Sprankle, are not impressed.
“I’ll be first to say that is not a great number,” said Sprankle. “Some things are out of our control. It is just in the nature of trying to restore a species with a complex life history.”
However, the whole program is currently dangling at the brink of going underwater with the salmon.
In the midst of budget cuts, the program, estimated by Sprankle to cost between $2-3 million, is taking some hits.
The White River Fish Hatchery in Bethel, Vermont suffered an estimated $15 million in damage from Tropical Storm Irene and will be out of use for an undetermined amount of time.
The Berkshire National Fish Hatchery in Harsville-New Marlborough, Massachusetts will no longer raise 5,000 smolts, according to Sprankle.
The fish hatchery in North Attleboro, which housed 30 adult salmon, has withdrawn from program saying that it is unable to financially support it.
Of those salmon, Novak was able to take five that now live in one of the large tanks. The other 25 were killed since their genes had already been passed on to the next generation and they were too costly to keep.
“I could save these five because they were in a different tank [than the 25 that were killed],” said Novak. “Times are changing,” he said with a shake of his head.
A Ware native, Novak claims that he fished every river in Western Mass growing up. He spent his childhood stomping around in the back woods fishing for anything that would take his bait.
Upon graduation from high school, Novak took off for Colorado University, Boulder in 1965 because he heard the fishing was better out west. After college, where he took as many science classes as he could, he began the ever difficult job hunt.
His first job was as a park ranger at Grand Canyon National Park, where he worked with to inform that public about the wildlife at the park. Since then he has worked in 13 states and several national parks including Everglades National Park and Yellowstone National Park.
It was not until 1990 the Novak made his way back to Western Mass when he moved to Monson and took the job at the hatchery where he has worked for over 20 years, the longest he has ever stayed at one job.
The Tyne River Project
The dreams of Conte, Novak and even Sprankle to create a sustainable fishery of Atlantic salmon for recreational anglers in the Connecticut River is not an impossible.
Despite the lack of success seen thus far in the Connecticut River, other rivers have been able to recover. In 2011, the Penobscot River had 1,938 fish return to it, a huge increase from the 940 fish that returned in 2007.
However, the most notable success might be the Tyne river project in England.
In 1959, not a single North Atlantic salmon returned to the Tyne River. Today over 20,000 salmon return to the river annually.
How did this change came about?
A program remarkably similar to the Connecticut River program led by biologist Peter Gray. In conjunction with projects to clean up the river, Gray started stocking one-year-old fry into the river that had been introduced to water currents similar to ones found in the natural environments.
The Tyne now supports a healthy fishery used by British anglers.
Herding the Salmon
Since the salmon in the indoor tanks had already been spawned earlier in the season, Novak instructs the group to follow the “yellow fish road” to the outdoor salmon runs, where about 40 wild salmon are kept in in-ground rectangular tanks lined with seaweed and silt.
Using a net the width of the enclosure, students herd the salmon into a smaller area of water to net a few of them and then drop them into a tank with a tranquilizer, putting the fish to sleep.
Corralled into less than 20 square feet of space, the remaining 10-pound fish dominate the water. As if they owned the place, the swim wherever they want to, nudging the chest-wader clad students out of their way. After all, these are the fish that swim miles and miles against the current to spawn — shoving a college student is no problem.
It is as if they are unaware of the fungus that slowly spreads over some of their scales breaking them down. The contagious fungus, Saprolengnia, starts to spread from fish to fish after they spawn and the bodies of the starved fish begin to deteriorate as they stop eating after they exit salt water in preparation for spawning. While Atlantic salmon are the only species of salmon that can survive after spawning, it is a struggle to keep them alive, Novak said.
“I can only keep about 50 percent of them alive out in the runs. It is better than the wild, but still,” said Novak.
Frustrations with the Program
When being honest with himself, Sprankle admits that he does not know what exactly is causing the low return rates of the Atlantic salmon.
Since the program started, legislation has been put into place to help make the passage of the fish from the river to the sea easier when they migrate at age two. Salmon fishing is strictly prohibited.
In addition to regulations, the scientists who work on the project have reevaluated their techniques.
“In the early 90s, we found that fry stock survive at a rate 10 times greater than smolt stock,” said Sprankle.
As a result, the program switched to stocking primarily fry, but it never saw the increase.
Sprankle theorizes that problem is happening somewhere in the ocean. At the age of two the fish, the fish migrate from the river into the ocean where they head out to fjords off the coast of Greenland. They then come back to the river at the age of four to spawn.
Except, they are not coming back.
“From a management perspective, it is frustrating,” said Sprankle. “”We have made the best, most logical, science based decisions, and yet marine survival is poor, and we are not in a position to understand why.”
He has some other ideas about what could be happening. The stripe bass in the river , which are protected by a different federal program, eat the smolts. The acidification of the oceans could be one of the factors affecting the trek. Global warming also has to be considered. However, Sprankle does not have the resources or jurisdiction to prove that any of these things are the definitely the root of the problem.
“No one has an answer [that explains] what’s occurring out in the marine environment,” said Sprankle.
Details of the Station
Recently, Novak has been working alone at the station. Usually, there is a biologist on staff to help him, but the biologist is on leave for knee surgery, and with a yearly budget of $140,000 to fund both men’s salaries and feed and care for the salmon, there are no extra funds for extra hands.
“This is too much work for one person,” said Novak on a particularly hectic day when the netting on the blue tank that holds the 3-week-old fry broke allowing the baby salmon to slip into the water system, that links to the stream.
Novak was able to rescue most of the salmon, but estimates that he lost a few hundred to the stream, where he doubts they will survive the winter.
Despite the stress, Novak hopes that the station will survive the political upheaval the surrounds the program.
“I would absolutely be disappointed if it closes. I might even retire,” said Novak, who has spent over 55 years working for the federal government. However, unless the hatchery closes, Novak has no plans to retire anytime soon.
“I can think of at least 15 teachers who would kill me if I retired,” said Novak.
Squeezing the Salmon
Novak then passes out plastic test tubes and bowls to the students on the shoreline and instructs them to hold them steady.
He then grabs a small salmon – a male – and firmly squeezes the stomach until white sperm begins to flow into the test tube held by a very red college student. Suddenly, the other students holding test tubes and bowls begin to fidget nervously.
Next, he grabs a large female out of the bin and approaches a female student holding a bowl.
“You can’t move, okay? If you can’t do it give the bowl to someone else,” he said. She hesitantly nods her head in affirmation.
Novak then plants his foot on a cinderblock and begins to squeeze the salmon until a stream of pink eggs shoots into the bowl.
Surprised, the girl yells and jumps back spilling eggs on the ground.
“You have to hold it,” he said.
Regaining her courage, she kneels back down next to the tank and says, “okay” and again Novak starts to squirt the eggs out of the salmon until the bowl is half full with well over one thousand eggs and the fish’s stomach sags inward like a deflated balloon.
He then turns to the three students in the water and asks, “Who’s next?”
Once he is done with the fish, he mixes the sperm and eggs together and tramps into the woods to throw the fertilized eggs into a nearby stream to hatch in the springtime.
While the fifth graders don’t get to don hip waders and climb in the water, they do have the opportunity to watch the whole process and help hold the tubes and bowls. And yes, they do get to help to fertilize the eggs.
It’s as real as it gets.
Mickey in his Office
While a group of fifth graders chase after each other outside, Novak sits in his office. His glasses haphazardly thrown on the papers in front of him, he pinches the bridge of nose while he talks on the phone.
On a shelf in the corner of his office, two snapping turtles lounge lazily in their respective tanks oblivious to the animal skulls and other nature relics that line the shelves around them.
Behind the taxidermy bobcat in the center of his office, Novak hangs up the phone with a decided clang.
It was the North Attleboro hatchery.
They were hashing out the details of what salmon supplies Novak would come pick up from the later in the week. After all, they certainly don’t need them anymore.
They also talked about how Novak might feed his salmon as previously the North Attleboro had supplied a large portion of Novak’s fish feed.
Glasses off, he rubs his forehead. For the first time, he looks like a 64-year-old man. The twinkle in his eyes is missing and he just looks tired.
“I don’t know what I am going to do,” he mutters mostly to himself.
Lost behind the computer in an office filled with taxidermy, skulls and assorted souvenirs of his years there such as the prickly chestnut shells, vases stuffed with turkey feathers and small taxidermy animals, he looks small. The joker is gone and he is sincerely worried about the program he has dedicated the last 20 years to will be shut down.
“Things are changing,” he said again.