The future of the Connecticut River Atlantic salmon population is muddy.
On Tuesday at a Connecticut River Atlantic Commission meeting, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services announced a decision to end their participation in the four-state effort to restore the once native fish species to the Connecticut River.
“We will no longer be propagating and raising salmon,” said Wendi Weber, Fish & Wildlife Region 5 director in an interview.
The FWS cited the low return rates of adult salmon to the river as the reason for exiting the program. This year, only 50 of the approximately 6 million tiny fry and 75,000 to
90,000 larger salmon smolts stocked in 2010 throughout the Connecticut River returned from the Atlantic ocean.
The stocked fish cost the government about $2 million, according to Fish and Wildlife Regional Assistant Director for Fisheries Bill Archambault.
Approximately 1,000 fish would need to be returning annually to create a viable population.
However, the FWS decision does not necessarily mean the end of the salmon as the states — Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont — could elect to continue with their independent efforts, according to Caleb Slater, the chair of the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission’s Technical Committee.
“The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services saying they are not going to grow fish doesn’t mean the program is over,” said Slater.
The states could continue to raise and propagate salmon without the aid of federal services. Currently, only three state hatcheries Roger Reed State Salmon Hatchery in Palmer, Mass., the Kensington State Salmon Hatchery in Kensington, Conn. and Roxbury Fish Culture Station in Vermont have the resources necessary to raise salmon for the Connecticut River.
For now, things are continuing as normal at the Roger Reed hatchery, according to Slater who oversees Massachusetts’s participation in the program. But, he does not know how long that will continue for.
“The bottom line is we don’t know what we are going to do,” said Slater.
The Kensington hatchery will continue to raise salmon, according to CRASC chair William Hyatt, who also represents Connecticut.
The primary goal of the facility will be to raise “broodstock” for the sport fishery in the Naugatuck and Shetucket rivers. Maintaining the program leaves hatchery with a surplus of approximately 400,000 eggs that could be used to keep a small portion of the program afloat.
“We know the problem is out in the sea, so it’s possible a small, relatively inexpensive effort might give us an idea of when it turns around,” said Hyatt.
Even with all three hatcheries continuing, the number of fry being in released in the spring would drop by at least 5 million fish, according to Hyatt.
“The states have relied heavily on the FWS for propagation, particularly Vermont and New Hampshire who never build up their own infrastructure,” said Ken Sprankle, the Connecticut river coordinator for the FWS.
The technical committee, which is made up of biologists and geneticists, has been charged by the commission with to determine what should come next for the salmon restoration program, according to Sprankle.
“The technical committee has been charged with determining what the CRASC should do with resources that are left,” said Sprankle. “What do we have? What are some of the different options? What are the likely outcomes? And with the reduced capabilities, what does that mean for the fish genetically speaking?”
The technical committee is expected to present its findings to the commission in early October, at which point the CRASC will decide the future of the program.
“I’m hoping to continue,” said Hyatt. “But only if there is a good reason.”
However, Weber suspects the technical committee will advise the commission to give up on the salmon and refocus on other fish in the river as many of the problems facing the salmon — such as marine survival rates and large scale environmental changes — are outside of the commission’s control.
“Until the mystery of marine survival is solved, we are not going to see a recovery no matter what we do,” Weber said.
Salmon disappeared from the river in the 18th century when the construction of dams separated them from their spawning grounds.
In 1976, the government with the cooperation of the states set out to repopulate the Connecticut river using fish stock from northern rivers such as the Penobscot in Maine. Using the best science available, the scientist continued to perfect their strategy switching from smolts to fry, ending fishing for Atlantic salmon in the ocean, and using advance in genetics to better pair the fish.
In 1981, a record of 529 fish returned to the river. But after that something in the marine environment shifted, and return rates dropped to around 100 fish a year, according to Sprankle.
After 20 years of low returns with no foreseeable shift, the FWS decided it was time to cut bait.
“It was apparent to many of us that marine survival was beyond management control,” Sprankle said.
The FWS is now focusing on repurposing its biologists and three facilities, White River National Fish Hatchery in Vermont, Dwight D. Eisenhower National Fish Hatchery in Vermont and the Richard Cronin National Fish Hatchery in Sunderland, Mass., that had been tied up in the program, according to Weber.
No one will lose their job due to the transition, Weber said.
White River Hatchery had been the top producer of salmon for the river, raising approximately 5 million fry annually, until Tropical Storm Irene closed the facility last August. When the facility reopens, it will raise trout as well as salmon for the Great Lakes.
The Eisenhower hatchery was already in the process of withdrawing.
“We already have transitioned and are transitioning,” Weber said.
The only government owned station that remains in flux is the Cronin station, located at 51 East Plumtree Road.
“Things are still up in the air,” said fishery biologist Darren Desmarais, who works at the Cronin station.
The station is currently holding onto 36 salmon that returned to the river this spring for the state of Connecticut, and approximately 20 salmon that returned to the river in spring 2011.
For these fish, it will be business as usual.
“As far as I know, we are going to spawn these fish in the fall, but that could change,” Desmarais said. At this point, where the eggs will be incubated and the fry will be raised has yet to be determined.