Driven by instincts and a pickup truck: An Atlantic salmon’s journey towards recovery
This is the introduction to a five-part series that follows an Atlantic salmon on its journey upstream to spawn in a tributary of Lake Champlain driven by its instincts (and a pickup truck). Learn why this species disappeared from the lake in the 19th century, and how it is making a comeback today thanks to collaboration by partners in the basin.
If you’ve ever had the opportunity to wade into a river to release a live salmon from your hands, you get it. I don’t need to explain why so much time, research, engineering, and ingenuity has gone into the recovery of this species in the Lake Champlain Basin. Because as that fish tensed against your firm grip eager to continue its journey upstream, you could feel its will to live.
If you haven’t, believe me: these fish were born to run. For thousands of years, the survival instinct — aided by a phenomenal homing ability — has led Atlantic salmon back to the rivers and streams where they were born to spawn and, hopefully, to pass their genes onto future generations.
Just like its ancestors, the salmon I held in my hands in the Boquet River in late October was determined to make its way upstream to reproduce. But beyond the shared reproductive urge, that salmon differs from salmon of yore in a few important ways.
For one: it didn’t come back to the river where it was born, because it was born in a hatchery.
For another: it didn’t swim upstream. It rode in a pickup truck.
Most importantly: it wouldn’t have been in the Boquet River at all if not for the dedication of local, state, and federal partners working together to get it there.
My salmon is not lazy. The collective will of Lake Champlain salmon to live hasn’t changed over the centuries. But the conditions necessary for them to do so have.
“A lot of things need to be right for salmon to have a full life cycle,” explained Bill Ardren, Senior Fish Scientist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Lake Champlain Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office.
And in the 1800s, a lot of things started to go wrong: overfishing, agricultural runoff, development, and the deal breaker for a migratory fish species, the construction of dams along rivers. If salmon can’t reach the shallow, gravelly stream beds, with steadily flowing cold water that provide the right conditions for them to spawn, they simply can’t spawn.
Cut off from breeding grounds, salmon were effectively cut off from their reproductive destinies, and by the end of the 1800s, the native Atlantic salmon population was gone from Lake Champlain.
But not forgotten.
In 1972, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partnered with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to begin a coordinated effort to restore Lake Champlain’s Atlantic salmon population.
People have rallied around this fish for good reason. Salmon are what biologists call a keystone species — what happens if you remove the keystone from an arch? CRASH! Same goes for a species like salmon; they hold aquatic ecosystems together by eating, being eaten, and contributing vital nutrients.
That means actions taken to bring Atlantic salmon back to Lake Champlain benefit a range of other species that depend upon this system, including humans. Restoring riparian and headwater areas to protect spawning habitat results in cleaner water for people; controlling sea lamprey makes it possible for salmon and other species that have been parasitized by this fish, like lake trout and lake sturgeon, to survive into adulthood; and removing aquatic barriers to increase fish passage means a lower risk of flooding for communities.
There’s also the bottom line: For communities on Lake Champlain and its tributaries, the return of salmon could mean the return of a lucrative fishery. Bring salmon back to the rivers, the anglers will follow, and communities will flourish.
The salmon that entered the river from my hands is a product of the restoration effort (born in the Dwight D. Eisenhower National Fish Hatchery in North Chittenden, Vermont), a participant in the restoration effort (transported above cascades in the Boquet River via pickup truck), and a key to answering questions that can help ensure the program’s long-term success through genetic testing.
In this series, we will meet the partners behind the restoration work, and learn how each has contributed a critical piece to a complex restoration puzzle which when complete, will be much greater than the sum of its parts.
“One of the neat things about salmon is they are a great indicator species,” said Ardren. “So if we can get natural populations reestablished, we really will have restored these ecosystems to a level of high quality habitat overall. And we are getting really close.”
How close? The salmon I released into the Boquet River last October may be able to fulfill its destiny after all.
Part 3: Hatching a plan to save salmon