At the end of May, Matthew Carpenter, a fisheries biologist for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, loaded about 750 15- to 20-pound live Atlantic salmon from the Nashua National Fish Hatchery into trucks.
From there, he drove them to access points along the Merrimack River and released the fish into the water, sometimes one per net.
He was emptying the state’s final batch of broodstock salmon into the Merrimack for the enjoyment of anglers who, each year, purchase special licenses to fish them. Next year and into the future, no licenses will be sold, and the sport will be all but dead.
The end of the broodstock program is the shadow of another, more complex finale — U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, in partnership with the New Hampshire Fish and Games Department, has given up attempts to restore the species to Granite State rivers.
“Salmon is such a popular fish with people, so people have been trying to restore it for years and years, but it’s so complicated. It’s very hard,” said Joe McKeon, supervisory fish biologist for U.S. Fish and Wildlife services. “It really becomes a question of looking at the budget, but more importantly it’s the science that drives our decision to step away.”
An unsuccessful restoration
The New England Fisheries salmon restoration program started in the 1970s. In New Hampshire, the goal was to restore salmon to the Merrimack and Pemigewasset watersheds. It’s a species that became extinct in the late 1800s, when dams built to manage the water system blocked the salmon run, prevented the fish from accessing their spawning habitat and introduced more pollution into the ecosystem.
New Hampshire Fish and Game, in cooperation with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, planned to restore the population by introducing bucketfuls of young salmon from Maine (where salmon were never entirely wiped out but remain on the endangered species list) into the rivers, so they could reproduce and restore their own population.
“In late the late 1960s and 1970s, the thought was we could develop a self-sustaining run, where fish could exit the river, return on their own and sustain without hatchery intervention,” McKeon said.
Authorities began stocking the river throughout the entire watershed with between 1.5 million and 4 million salmon fry (young salmon) each year.
In a perfect world, the system works like this: The fry live in the rivers for two years until they became smolt and are physiologically developed enough to live in salt water. Next, they migrate all the way out to the Labrador Sea and then up the west coast of Greenland for about two years. When they return, they are captured at the first dam of the Merrimack River (Essex Dam in Lawrence, Mass.) and brought to the Nashua fishery, where they are used as broodstock for another batch of fry that are introduced to the rivers to start the process over. When the population grows large enough, enough salmon come back from the ocean that the fish can reproduce and repopulate without human mediation.
But that never happened. Year after year, very few salmon returned from the ocean.
“Usually about 100 a year would come back and the best we had was 400,” Carpenter said. “The survival out in sea has been poor for years. They tried a number of different things, like raising the fry in the hatchery until they are 2 years old so they go right to the ocean and come back. But they never got the return.”
Biologists aren’t entirely sure why salmon from rivers across the east part of the U.S. haven’t returned, although there is speculation about possible culprits.
“Over time, we recognized major changes in the ocean and the marine environment,” McKeon said. “The science is suggesting to us, where these fish go in the ocean, things are changing to the point where we are losing them at sea. We are seeing changes in water temperature, changes in the forage base that these fish rely on. ... We are seeing reductions here in the Labrador Sea.”
A poor return from the ocean has meant there has been a need every year to use a new stock of fish along with the ones that do come back, driving up costs to about $1 million each year.
That has proved economically unsustainable, and last year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services discontinued its efforts to save the population.
“We are losing our attempt to restore that species,” Carpenter said.
The program is being phased out. This is the first year no sea-run fish are being brought back to the hatchery. Instead, biologists are only counting the fish as they return and swim up river. This spring so far, about five salmon have returned. The biologists expect that some salmon will remain in the river for a couple more years.
“Then they will just kind of fade away,” Carpenter said.
The wildlife organizations are turning their efforts toward other hatchery operations and the restoration of other fish species they think will have greater success, like American shad and river herring — species that have been depressed by dams but are more productive and less picky about where they spawn.
They are increasing these stocks through track-and-truck efforts, bringing them up to spots along the river where they would go on their own if it weren’t for the dams.
In order to get to the ocean, these fish still face the challenge of navigating across the river’s dams — some have fish lifts, while others are equipped with fish ladders.
With the end of the salmon restoration program comes the end of broodstock fishing. In 2003, the broodstock salmon fishing program blossomed as a side product of the Salmon Restoration Program. Every year, 1,500 salmon weighing up to 15 pounds that had been used in the hatcheries to spawn the new generation were tagged and released into the rivers — 750 in the spring and 750 in the fall — for anglers to fish.
“We would [issue] a permit and tag the fish so they knew they were catching the broodstock,” Carpenter said. “They could catch one in spring, and it’s catch-and-release in fall.”
The program has been incredibly successful. Every year, Fish and Game sold from 1,000 to 1,400 $11 permits — money that will no longer come into the department.
Atlantic salmon has been the most popular species of fish for New Hampshire anglers. They are a signal of clean water and a healthy ecosystem, McKeon said. Anglers romanticize the history of a species that once sustained whole populations of people.
“It resonates with people,” Carpenter said. “Their lifecycle is just amazing. They migrate miles and miles up rivers, then all the way back to the ocean to live in the North Atlantic. They only spawn in the freshest, coldest water.”
Not to mention they’re fun to catch and they taste great, Carpenter said.
Carpenter and his crew have now released the final batch of brood stock salmon at locations in Bristol, Franklin, Concord and Hooksett.
As seen in the June 12, 2014 issue of the Hippo.