Leaping from the water in shimmering, torpedo-like streaks when hooked and at times growing to more than 20 pounds, the Atlantic salmon is considered by many the king of kings when it comes to fly fishing.
There is a certain poetry in trying to entice a silver salmon to rise to a fly — just the rise is enough of a thrill for some. It’s also not something very many people get to experience.
The problem for anglers and for the ecosystem is that there aren’t many Atlantic salmon in New Hampshire. The Merrimack River has been dammed since the mid-1800s and earlier in some cases. That’s how long it’s been since anadromous fish — that is, fish that are born in freshwater, spend their lives in the ocean, and return to freshwater to spawn — have had the run of the river.
The state does have a brood stock program, in which it stocks rivers with Atlantic salmon from a hatchery. They are wild fish that were taken in at the Essex Dam in Lawrence to maximize their breeding potential in a controlled setting. Once the fish can no longer breed, they are released into the river for anglers. That gives some salmon enthusiasts the opportunity to target a species that has long been in trouble.
Something happened last year, though. In recent years, the number of salmon that arrive at the Essex Dam averaged 121 fish. All of a sudden 402 salmon arrived at the dam.
“That’s the big news,” said Helen Dalbeck, of Amoskeag Fishways Learning Center in Manchester.
After years of removing the fish in Lawrence and using them at the hatchery, officials haven’t seen a return on the investment — until last year. Four hundred salmon isn’t a lot, given that thousands of fish used to swim upstream before people installed dams on rivers. But 402 is a hopeful number. While the news was good in Lawrence, similar increases were recorded on salmon rivers throughout Maine and Canada.
Biologists are going to try something new this year. They’re going to try to let salmon do it on their own. They’ll still take some fish out and take them to the hatchery. But they’ll let a number of fish navigate the fish elevators in Lawrence and Lowell, and hope the fish turn left off the Merrimack River and swim west on the Souhegan River. With the Merrimack Village Dam in Merrimack removed in 2008, a 14-mile stretch of river was opened that salmon would hopefully find appealing for spawning.
“The Souhegan River is now accessible,” said Joe McKeon, a biologist with the federal Fish and Wildlife Service. He’s one of the people coordinating the restoration effort. “We’re really focusing on that. …We’ve got a stretch of river that we can now work with.”
Officials began stocking the Souhegan River a few years ago, and salmon are due to return this year.
“We’re waiting to see what happens this spring,” McKeon said, adding biologists are hoping to see similar returns this year. As of last week, 12 salmon had arrived in Lawrence, two of which were Souhegan River salmon. It’s very early in the spawn now, although the conditions this spring could push the spawn up a little this year.
Environmentalists, river lovers, biologists, and anglers now have some hope to hang their hats on.
“It’s kind of exciting to wait and see,” McKeon said. “We’ll see most of the salmon coming back by July 4. … We’ll have a good sense by then of what’s going on.”
But salmon aren’t alone in their long-thwarted quest to spawn in the tributaries of the Merrimack River. The salmon is joined by river herring, American shad, sea lamprey and American eel in their migratory journey to reproduce. Dams, overfishing, predators and other environmental factors have caused major problems for migrating fish.
“Many of the stocks are depressed East Coast-wide, not just the Atlantic salmon, although the salmon more so than others,” McKeon said.
There is currently a petition to list river herring as endangered. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has the task of assessing river herring stocks to see how they’re doing and what’s impacting them.
There is also a petition to list the American eel, which spends 15 to 20 years living in freshwater lakes and rivers before it migrates back to the ocean to spawn.
The issues are similar for all: impediments, such as dams, predation and commercial fishing. People also use herring and eels as bait to catch striped bass.
“All of these things are converging at this point and that’s what we’re confronted with,” McKeon said.
American shad, the largest members of the herring family reaching four or five pounds, historically arrived in the Merrimack River as much as 80,000 strong. The numbers have dropped to 10,000 or 20,000 fish. Both the hatchery in Nashua and the hatchery in North Attleboro, Mass., have been retooled to accommodate shad as well.
The silver salmon
The first salmon fry was released into the Merrimack River under the salmon restoration program 35 years ago. The program is funded by the federal Sport Fish Restoration Program. Salmon had been missing entirely from the Merrimack River watershed prior to 1976, the original population extirpated by dams in the early 1800s.
To get the restoration program rolling in the Merrimack River, biologists took “donor stock” from rivers in Maine that still had existing, albeit challenged, Atlantic salmon population. The effort in Maine north of the Kennebec River is termed a recovery, because the salmon populations were not completely wiped out. It’s a restoration effort in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and southern Maine, since salmon stocks were wiped out. Officials are engaged on the Connecticut River, as well as the Pawcatuck River in Rhode Island, although officials are phasing out efforts there in order to focus on the Merrimack River, McKeon said.
Wildlife officials will stock about the same number of fry in the Merrimack River basin as they have in past years, but they’re focusing their efforts this year. That’s because, considering the better returns last year, officials don’t want to stock on top of fry that may have hatched in the wild. Officials released adult salmon into the Souhegan, Baker and upper Pemigewasset rivers. Through radio-tagging and counting salmon nests, officials were able to confirm spawning. Most of the fry will be stocked in the southern portion of the state, in Massachusetts and in Connecticut. Officials will stock a small number of fry in the Keene area.
School classrooms have also historically participated in the stocking efforts, using the program as part of their curriculum. Dalbeck said some classrooms will stock the Piscataquog River in Manchester this year instead of the Souhegan. Spawning salmon could potentially reach the Fishways this year, Dalbeck said.
The plan was for officials to keep the first 300 returning salmon in Lawrence at the fish hatchery in Nashua, where eggs are used to produce millions of juvenile salmon, which are in turn stocked throughout the watershed. Until last year, officials only exceeded the 300 salmon target once, with 331 fish in 1991.
After they are born, salmon spend typically two years in freshwater before they migrate to the ocean, where they will typically spend another two years, before returning to freshwater to spawn. They spend their first year at sea feeding off the southern edge of Greenland and they spend their second winter off the coast of Labrador. The spawning journey is a perilous one. Along with little accessible, spawning habitat, fish fall victim to predators, as well as simple exhaustion.
Officials at the hatchery in Nashua and in North Attleboro, Mass., will hold onto baby salmon until they reach the fry stage, whereupon about one million fry are seeded throughout the river system. Hatcheries keep some of the salmon longer, until they reach the smolt stage. In the wild, it typically takes two years for salmon to become smolts. In a controlled hatchery setting, biologists can grow salmon into smolts in one year. Those smolts are then stocked throughout the system.
Typically, biologists will release smolts below the Essex Dam in Lawrence in April. They found that if smolts were released farther up the watershed, they’d get hung up on the various dams in the system, and by the time they reached the estuary, they were leaving at the same time striped bass were migrating in. Striped bass would be formidable predators for the young salmon. Releasing the smolts in Lawrence gives them a better chance of making it to the ocean before the striped bass arrive in numbers, McKeon said.
“The striped bass rebounded and they’re raising havoc,” McKeon said.
The depletion of the river herring stock is also causing problems for smolts. River herring historically arrived to spawn in rivers in the hundreds of thousands. That thick mat of fish provided ample cover to juvenile salmon on the way out. Striped bass and other predators were fixated on the herring. But today, herring are arriving by the tens of thousands — still a lot of fish certainly, but in those numbers they don’t provide nearly the cover they once did.
“It’s just critical that the salmon get out,” McKeon added.
On the way back from the ocean, the salmon that were deposited in Lawrence return to the same spot to spawn. It’s a shift in strategy. Historically, about 65 to 70 percent of the salmon stocks in the Merrimack River traveled to the White Mountains area to spawn. But with so many impediments and so few fish, officials are instead focusing on the lower tier of the river.
But ocean conditions play a huge role for salmon. Salmon face predators. They face habitat degradation. Thankfully, they don’t face a commercial fishing industry anymore.
“We know that the marine phase has not been good for salmon,” McKeon said, adding biologists suspect there has been a shift in the salmon’s forage base in the ocean. “We think we might now be seeing something positive occurring in the ocean, coupled with the Souhegan River.”
But biologists don’t want to get too optimistic. They have been trying for decades, after all, to restore salmon in the region.
“If ocean survival is cyclical, then it is reasonable to believe that salmon restoration can succeed,” said Matt Carpenter, a fisheries biologist who coordinates New Hampshire’s salmon restoration program, in a state press release. “However, if there has been a fundamental shift in the North Atlantic ecosystem because of a changing climate or other factors, then salmon restoration may not be possible.”
Biologists clipped fins on all the salmon that were released into the Souhegan River. That way, they can identify them when they return. Last year, of the 402 salmon in Lawrence, about 65 were Souhegan River salmon. Officials had released 80,000 smolts in the Souhegan River. Some of those 65 Souhegan River salmon now have radio tags on them to better help biologists track their movements.
“This spring we are indeed going to let them swim the river,” McKeon said. Still, biologists are hedging their bets a little. They’ll let about 50 percent of the fish that arrive in Lawrence swim the river, and they’ll take the other half to the hatchery as they’ve typically done.
“Maybe the better approach is to focus on the lower river where there are fewer environmental problems,” McKeon said.
That’s what biologists are hoping, anyway.
Factors at play
Biologists are also tracking where the salmon hold in the river. They don’t travel upstream and immediately turn around and return to the ocean. Salmon run the river in the spring, but they remain in the river all summer long before they spawn in the fall. The fish typically seek cooler, faster moving water. They seek out a gravel bottom for spawning, McKeon said. The thinking is that salmon would hold in cool pools throughout the summer months.
There is some level of concern that anglers may accidentally catch spawning salmon. For one, the state has a brood stocking program in which it stocks the Merrimack River and the Pemigewasset River with salmon from the hatchery that are done breeding. When brood stock salmon are released, they are large fish, some weighing 15 pounds or more. Anglers have taken notice, and it is certainly possible anglers targeting brood stock salmon could unintentionally catch returning Atlantic salmon, McKeon said.
If the salmon has a tag, it’s a brood stock salmon. If it doesn’t, anglers must return it to the river immediately. Additionally, it is possible to confuse Atlantic salmon with brown trout. McKeon said biologists will be working hard to educate the public about the differences.
Beyond anglers, low water levels could also pose a problem for the spawn. Still, McKeon said in the wild, salmon would certainly experience years with low water.
“To me, it’s exciting because for the first time we can actually put fish into a system and let them tell us where they want to be,” McKeon said. “…Until there’s fish in it, we don’t really know what they’re going to do.”
The life cycle for salmon in the Connecticut River is proving perhaps too troublesome right now. It’s a much longer migration to reach the Gulf of Maine and it’s possible that warming trends are reducing salmon habitat in the Connecticut River. It is possible salmon stocks won’t be successful that far south.
It’s a three- to four-year evaluation period. The return was great last year. Biologists are anxious to see what 2012 brings. The results will help dictate restoration efforts going forward. If they’re strong, officials will probably continue with the shifted strategy that’s focused on the Merrimack River watershed and the Souhegan River. If it isn’t a strong return, they may have to shift again.
Officials are considering whether to pull back on hatchery production and instead focus on determining whether natural reproduction is possible. Two years from now, biologists will be able to sample for juvenile salmon, called parr.
“This will allow us to measure the reproductive success of salmon that spawned naturally in the watershed,” Carpenter said. “Within five years, we should have a better understanding of what to expect from salmon that are allowed to run the river. This information, along with trends in ocean survival, will ultimately determine if successful salmon restoration can be achieved for the Merrimack.”