Tag Archives: salmon

A new hope surfaces for salmon restoration

This is the second 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.

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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biologist Nicholas Staats (right) evaluates a salmon that has been “lifted” over the Winooski One Dam in Vermont, while dam operator John Clark (left) records data. Photo: Bridget Macdonald/FWS

“Welcome to the Winooski River!” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Fish Biologist Nicholas Staats beamed as he shook my hand on the walkway atop the Winooski One Dam in Winooski, Vt. Behind him, a white board announced that 75 salmon had been lifted to date this season. I was about to find out what that meant.

“I’ve got fish in here,” Staats said, tapping the metal hopper that serves as the “lift” — an elevator that fish swim into at the base of the dam for a ride to the top. “I’ll be taking them out of the box with my net,” he said, warning, “They’re going to splash; they’re going to wiggle.”

Staats scooped a fish from the hopper, weighed it, and set it on a table for an assessment while dam operator Jon Clark, who collaborates with the Service, recorded the data. Then he placed the fish in a tank in the back of a pickup truck to be shuttled upstream, just like the salmon I encountered in the Boquet River on the New York-side of the lake.

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Staats places a salmon in a tank in the back of a pickup truck — a fairly common mode of transportation for Lake Champlain salmon. Photo: Bridget Macdonald/FWS

There are an estimated 442 dams and 13,822 culverts in the Lake Champlain Basin, not including its Canadian tributaries. For the local, state, nonprofit, and federal partners who are working together to bring Atlantic salmon back to the basin, these obstacles have become primary targets for advancing the restoration program toward a goal that once seemed unreachable: natural reproduction. If salmon cannot move up and downstream for seasonal migrations, they cannot complete their natural life cycles. End of story.

So wherever possible, dams and culverts are being removed to open access to upstream habitat, as in Willsboro, N.Y., where partners joined forces to take down an obsolete dam on the Boquet that last powered a paper mill long ago.

But some dams still play important roles in their communities; Winooski One generates 30 million kWh of hydropower annually — enough to power more than 2,700 homes for an entire year. Removing it is neither feasible, nor desirable. So what’s a salmon to do? Take the elevator, of course.

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Looking down from the top of the Winooski One Dam to the fish lift entrance at its base. Photo: Bridget Macdonald/FWS

Established in 1993 in cooperation with Burlington Electric and Green Mountain Power, the “Trap and Truck” fish passage program gives salmon access to more than 20 miles of habitat in the upper Winooski and its tributaries. Like the removal of the Willsboro Dam, it’s another great example of the collaboration taking place around the basin to get salmon beyond barriers. It’s also a great photo opp for local media. “I think there are about 40 pictures of Nick holding a salmon at the lift,” joked Bill Ardren, Senior Fish Biologist at the Service’s Lake Champlain Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office. Make that 41.

But now partners have another reason to consider the operation a success, and an indication that the restoration program is moving forward. “This summer we documented natural reproduction from the fish that were brought upstream in the Winooski for the first time in probably 200 years,” said Ardren.

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A new hope? The first wild-born salmon documented in the lake for two centuries. Photo: Jaime Masterson/FWS

For biologists, this is a triumph. For anyone else, it sure sounds like a good thing, but it probably demands a little context. When the salmon restoration effort got underway in the 1970s, there were no salmon left in the lake. Zero. Going from zero to a viable fishery required seeding the lake with salmon, and then letting nature do its thing.

The Service worked with the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife to start raising salmon from a strain originating in Sebago Lake, Me. — home of one of the last remaining native populations of landlocked Atlantic salmon in the United States. Today salmon are produced in both state and federal hatcheries in the Lake Champlain Basin: the Dwight D. Eisenhower National Fish Hatchery in North Chittenden, Vt., the White River National Fish Hatchery in Bethel, Vt., the Ed Weed Fish Culture Station in Grand Isle, Vt., and the Adirondack Fish Hatchery in Saranac Lake, N.Y.

“We work together to share the fish production and other work on the lake, such as sampling and assessment, so we know how our fish are doing out there,” explained Henry Bouchard, the manager of the Eisenhower hatchery, which produces 130,000 salmon for Lake Champlain every year (including my salmon).

At this point, it would be appropriate to ask: If hundreds of thousands of salmon have been stocked in Lake Champlain since the 1970s, why didn’t partners find a single natural-born fry until 2016? Shouldn’t nature have been doing its thing by now?

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In the beginning, nature couldn’t do its thing. “It wasn’t until recent years that we even began to look for natural reproduction,” said Brian Chipman, a Fisheries Biologist for the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife who has been involved in the restoration program for 30 years. “In the 1970s and early 1980s, there really wasn’t any accessible spawning habitat for salmon,” he explained. No fish ladders or fish lifts, no trapping or trucking.

And then nature did start to do its thing, but it wasn’t the “thing” we wanted. By the late 1970s, scientists were seeing hatchery born salmon grow to a desirable size for the fishery, but they were also seeing a corresponding boom in the population of a parasitic fish in the lake called sea lamprey.

Try to imagine the worst thing possible, and you’ll probably be picturing a sea lamprey: snaky body, mouth like a suction cup, concentric rings of jagged teeth, and a rasping tongue. When sea lamprey find a host fish, “They use that suction-cup mouth to stick to its body, and scrape a hole through its flesh with their tongue,” explained Steve Smith, a Fish Biologist at the Lake Champlain Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office. Feel free to take a moment to shudder at that thought.

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Sea lamprey: A face only a mother could love.

While sea lamprey is arguably native to Lake Champlain, the sudden influx of a food source that had been absent for more than a century caused its population to explode. Given that a single sea lamprey can kill the equivalent of 40 lbs of fish in a year, it’s easy to understand why an explosion of them would cause a problem.

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A fresh wound from a sea lamprey.

If reestablishing a salmon fishery was the dream of the restoration program, sea lamprey was a waking nightmare. “The sea lamprey population was so high, and salmon survival was so low, that most of the hatcheries were just trying to grow fish quickly to get them into the fishery,” said Ardren.

In 1990, the Lake Champlain Fish and Wildlife Management Cooperative (a partnership of the Service, Vermont, New York State, and Quebec) launched a pilot program to experiment with established methods developed in the Great Lakes for suppressing sea lamprey. What started as an experiment has evolved into a cornerstone of the salmon restoration program: a strategic, long-term control program that involves tactical application of lampricide to kill larvae, and temporary barriers to trap adults during seasonal migrations, all guided by comprehensive assessments of sea lamprey throughout its lifecycle.

It took trial, error, and a lot of patience — learn more in a previous blog post about the evolution of the sea-lamprey control program — but it’s working. Wounding rates for salmon have dropped from 100 wounds for every 100 salmon to fewer than 20, and other fish species that are susceptible to sea lamprey attacks are rebounding as well, such as lake trout, walleye, and lake sturgeon.

“Since we have stepped up lamprey control in the last 15 years, we are seeing much greater salmon survival, much larger runs, and fishing on the lake has improved immensely,” said Chipman, pointing to the results from his 2015 survey of anglers fishing the main deep-water section of the lake shared by Vermont and New York. “According to those data, salmon are the most popular fish in terms of drawing anglers to that area of the lake.”

With the lamprey nightmare fading, the hatchery program began to adapt. “We started to focus more on the quality and condition of the fish, rather than size,” said Bouchard. “We wanted to produce a fish that was more vigorous and better adapted to the environment, which subsequently translates to greater adult survival.”

You’d think greater adult survival would translate to natural reproduction, but just as scientists started to get a handle on the sea-lamprey problem, something even scarier showed up in the lake: a small, unassuming fish called alewife. Looks can be deceiving.

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Since appearing in Lake Champlain around 2003, alewife have crowded out the native food source for salmon. Photo: Dale Hanson/FWS

Alewife were introduced to the lake around 2003, and gradually started to crowd out rainbow smelt, the primary food source for salmon. So salmon started to eat alewife instead, and therein lies the problem. Alewife are sort of like fast food — tasty, convenient, and nutritionally toxic — they carry an enzyme called thiaminase that digests the Vitamin B in the intestines of salmon, which can lead to neurological dysfunction and survival in adults and their progeny.

“It’s only recently that we’ve been getting salmon up river in large enough numbers to ask: Will they spawn? Now we also have to ask: Will the eggs hatch and produce young?,” said Staats.

As such, the discovery of a wild-born salmon fry in the Winooski River represents a new hope for natural reproduction, and scientists are optimistic. Cautiously optimistic. “It’s a good sign that some have survived, but if you find 20 young fry downstream of a salmon nest, you wonder if there were a hundred that didn’t survive,” said Staats.

More than just wondering, they are going to find out. Next week, learn about the research taking place in hatcheries and in the field to help salmon make it in the wild. Turns out my salmon has a pretty good shot.

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.”

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Concordia University graduate student Ashlee Prevost (in blue) looks on as Zach Eisenhauer from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Lake Champlain Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office places a salmon in a holding tank to await a ride upstream. Credit: Bridget Macdonald/FWS

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.”

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Retired Planning Director for Essex County New York Vic Putnam stands beside the now free-flowing Boquet River in Willsboro, N.Y. Credit: Bridget Macdonald/FWS

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.

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An old photo displayed in Willsboro Town Hall shows the industry surrounding the former dam in the 1930s. “Considering what was there, the amount of effort it has taken over the decades to get this back to a river that can be self-sustaining is amazing,” said Town Supervisor Shaun Gillilland. Credit: Bridget Macdonald/FWS

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.”

 

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Low flows from a lack of rain during spawning season have made it difficult for salmon to get above the cascades in the Boquet River near the center of Willsboro, N.Y. Credit: Nancy Milliken

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:

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.

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Ready to run: After swimming into the Boquet River from Lake Champlain, this salmon and a few others were transported above a set of cascades to spawning habitat upstream in a pickup truck. Credit: Zach Eisenhauer/FWS

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.

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Carpool: A tank in the bed of a truck provides a safe way to transport live salmon upstream. Credit: Ashlee Prevost/Concordia University

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.

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Wading for action: Senior Fish Scientist at the Lake Champlain Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office Bill Ardren stands by ready to assist colleagues fishing for salmon below a set of cascades in the Boquet River. Credit: Nancy Milliken

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.

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Move over Champy: After more than a century’s absence, Atlantic salmon are making a comeback in Lake Champlain. Credit: Steve Smith/FWS

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.

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In it together: Partners from local communities, state and federal agencies, non-governmental organizations, and universities are working together to restore Lake Champlain’s salmon population. Credit: Nancy Milliken

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 1: Joining forces in the upstream battle for salmon

Part 2: A new hope surfaces for salmon restoration

Part 3: Hatching a plan to save salmon

Part 4: Taking cues from nature to advance salmon restoration

Part 5: A fish points to the future in Lake Champlain