Joining forces in the upstream battle for salmon
This is the first feature in 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.
“I love the Boquet,” Ashlee Prevost declared as she stood in a pair of waders at the edge of a deep pool in the river below a set of cascades in Willsboro, N.Y., watching two colleagues in a red canoe sweep the water for salmon with a gill net. Given that she had been handling fish in the freezing cold for a few hours, it was clear that she meant it, and for all the right reasons.
“There is just such pristine habitat in the upper reaches sitting there, waiting for salmon,” explained Prevost, a graduate student in conservation biology at Concordia University in Montreal who is collaborating with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for her master’s research. “Spawning habitat, rearing habitat, areas they just haven’t been able to access for a long time.”
There was no question the salmon that Prevost and her collaborators from the Service’s Lake Champlain Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office caught on that cold morning in late October would reach those idyllic spawning grounds — the fish were driven upstream in the back of a pickup truck later that morning, due in part to unusually low water at the falls. But for a long time, a lot of things were blocking their way in the Boquet, and beyond.
Prevost’s work builds on more than 40 years of collaboration by local, state, non-profit, and federal partners to restore Lake Champlain’s Atlantic salmon population, and the Boquet River has been a key front throughout the effort. Just after the restoration program got underway in the 1970s, people in the town of Willsboro, N.Y., started to notice salmon coming back to the Boquet to spawn after more than a century’s absence. At least, they noticed salmon were trying to come back.
“They were collecting below the dam,” explained Bill Shoch, a retired aquatic biologist for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. “People started to go down to the pool with nets to pass them over, sort of making a human chain to get them above the dam.”
More than three decades later, a chain of people started to form again in Willsboro to get salmon over the dam once and for all. This time, by removing it altogether.
One of the first links in the chain was Vic Putnam, the retired Essex County Planning Director who made the river central to planning because he could see that it was a living connection between the community’s past and its future. Putnam wrote a grant to fund the removal of contaminants from the site of a paper mill that once operated at the dam, and spearheaded the development of a walking trail along the Boquet from Willsboro to the river’s mouth at Lake Champlain.
But the dam was standing in the way of an even greater vision.
“I have a hat that says it all, and I’ve worn it out,” said Putnam, “It says: Fish control my brain.”
Whenever Putnam went fishing at the pool at the base of the cascades, he would bring his camera to document that even when the river was low, water was flowing right through the dam. If the dam was no longer serving its purpose, why was it still there?
“I decided to try to see if I could find any support for taking it out,” Putnam said.
At first, he couldn’t find any. “None at all, except for the fishermen.”
Then he found money: a chunk of federal funding set aside for another dam removal project in the basin that didn’t seem to be going anywhere. “I looked at some of the minutes from those meetings, and there was absolutely no consideration that it was even a good idea to study that dam,” he said.
When Putnam proposed that the money be transferred to study the Willsboro Dam instead, support began to grow. He hired an engineer to create a simulation that would show people what the site would look like without the dam, and organized a committee to help advocate for the project.
Among the supporters was Willsboro Town Supervisor Shaun Gillilland, who had seen for himself what a project like this could mean for a community.
“I was in the Navy for 25 years stationed in Washington, D.C. and I lived near the town of Fredericksburg, Va., when they took a dam out on the Rappahannock River,” Gillilland said. Within a couple of years, he noticed that the hotels in Fredericksburg were packed with fishermen. The shad fishery had completely rebounded.
“I’m not a biologist, but from the perspective of a local official, I can see the long-term potential here to benefit the sport fishery by establishing a self-sustaining population of landlocked salmon.”
Gillilland didn’t need to be a biologist. There were plenty of those joining the chain as well. Like Shoch from New York State, who had put years into moving salmon up the river, helped with the installation of a fish ladder in the 1980s to improve fish passage, and knew when to say enough is enough. “It was just time to get rid of the dam and let salmon get through on their own,” he said.
But while the chain of supporters was growing at the county, state, and federal levels, there was still local resistance.
“I like the way the still water looks.”
“Big rocks will be exposed and teenagers will spray paint graffiti on them!”
“What will happen to the ducks?”
Gillilland heard every conceivable argument against removing the dam when the project was proposed officially in 2014.
Yet he and Putnam kept hosting public information sessions, and bringing in scientists and engineers to assure residents that removing the dam would be good for Willsboro — not only opening new salmon habitat, but reducing flooding risks in town.
“People know what they see, and the people of Willsboro had always seen the pond above the dam as part of the town,” said Madeleine Lyttle, a FWS biologist and lead on the dam removal project. “The simulations developed by the engineers helped convince several skeptics by showing renditions of what the area would look like before and after dam removal in low, normal, and high flows.”
When it came time to hold a public hearing, 15 people signed up for a chance to stand before their fellow citizens and put in a last word before the town voted on the project.
To Gillilland’s surprise, “Every person who got up to speak that day said: I used to be against it, but now I’m for it. So we took the dam out.”
Although the dam is gone, salmon still face barriers on the Boquet. Low flows have made it extremely difficult for salmon to ascend the cascades in Willsboro center. Imagine trying to climb a staircase without any treads on the steps. That’s why Prevost and collaborating biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are transporting fish up river.
But before they release them, they collect information from them, a step that may help to address an even bigger barrier to the long-term success of salmon in the Boquet and other tributaries than an individual dam or a low-flow year.
“We take the genotype of all of the fish we catch, so we have a DNA profile from the adult fish that we can match with offspring we find next summer,” said Prevost. “That data that will help us to determine which traits are influencing the ultimate reproductive success of these fish after we put them upstream.”
Reproductive success is the ultimate goal, for both the scientists and the salmon. Before Prevost and her colleagues released the truckload of fish they caught that day, I was invited to hold one. As instructed, I slipped my right hand into a cold, wet glove to protect my palm as I took hold of the fish’s tail, and cupped my bare left hand under its body. Its heart was racing. The spawning grounds awaited.
Yes, my salmon would reach that pristine spawning habitat, but would it actually be able to reproduce? I’m not being nosy. It’s a major concern for the salmon restoration effort in Lake Champlain. Find out why next week.
In the meantime, check out this video of biologists netting a salmon at the base of the falls in the Boquet River: