Efforts to restore Atlantic salmon to the Connecticut River watershed have been largely unsuccessful. The once abundant fish are now rare. But recently Steve Gephard, supervising fisheries biologist with Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Projection, found evidence of wild salmon spawning in a Connecticut river.
The news is a reminder of the hardiness of the species, but also of what we’ve lost.
Gephard can point to a shallow part of the Farmington River where there is an oval depression in the riverbed that is about the size of a coffee table -- an Atlantic salmon nest. A female had used her tail to dig the depression to deposit eggs and then swept gravel over them as protection.
Gephard said these eggs won’t hatch until April or May when the little salmon wiggle up through the gravel and then start feeding on small insects in the area. He says it’s the first documented successful spawning of wild salmon in Connecticut since right after the Revolutionary War. People were already damming the state’s rivers and tributaries at that time, and salmon couldn’t get back to their spawning grounds.
“In 1798,” Gephard says, “somebody built a dam across the Connecticut River near Turners Falls, Massachusetts. Once that was done, Atlantic salmon had no more habitat anywhere in the Connecticut River watershed that they could access, and before the War of 1812 the species was gone.”
The species is chrome silver in color with iridescent purples and greens. An adult can launch itself up a 12-foot waterfall. Salmon are coldwater fish that range from as far as north as Northern Quebec to as far south as Connecticut, and they’re anadromous, which means they begin their life in fresh water, then move to the ocean to grow in saltwater. Then they journey back to spawn in the very same river where they were born. But it’s a journey full of peril, in part from the decades of dam construction and pollution.
Steve McCormick, a scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center in Turners Falls, Massachusetts, said dams and pollution ruined the salmon’s fresh water habitat, and their marine habitat hasn’t been much better.
“Marine survival has been made worse by climate change in the ocean where we’re seeing poor survival of salmon overall.”
Fishery workers started to artificially stock the Connecticut River watershed 45 years ago to reestablish the species. They captured salmon that managed to make it back and used them to boost survival rates. But it didn’t work. Not enough returned to make a self-sustaining population, and the program ended a few years ago. For Gephard, it was a tough ending. “I came in as a seasonal worker in 1978, I captured the first salmon that returned to a Connecticut fishway. My career developed along with the salmon. I’ve been the salmon guy.”
This is why Gephard was so excited to find three salmon nests in the Farmington. Salmon from the restoration program began their life in that river. After two years, a signal in their brain guided them down the river and out to sea. They rode the ocean currents north for 3,000 miles to the coast of Greenland, where they fed for two more years. Then they turned around and came back another 3,000 miles to Old Saybrook, Connecticut.
Gephard said they would have started their migration up the Connecticut River, probably taking a couple of days to reach the mouth of the Farmington River, recognizing through sense of smell that it was their home. Subsequently, five returning salmon were spotted through an underground window at a fish ladder in Windsor last spring. In the fall, Gephard and his crew found the three salmon nests.
Gephard said, “It’s a life history full of attrition, it's a numbers game and in this case, the numbers aren’t remotely enough. A couple of fish got home, did their thing, they’re not going to be the Adam and Eve of a new Connecticut River salmon population.”
McCormick, the research scientist, agreed. “You need hundreds of spawners to be able to get enough fish back to make sure that your population has a good outlook for the future.”
In the end, only one or two salmon from the nests in the Farmington may make the round trip to their birthplace in Connecticut. For Steve Gephard, “The Salmon Guy,” it’s an ecological cautionary tale. “Having just a few salmon here is going to be a reminder, guess what, we screwed up…and we lost something really great.”
Still, McCormick said there is a ray of hope. “If marine conditions really get better due to changes in ocean current or decreases in ocean warming, then yes, I think the salmon have a chance, even in southern New England.”
And while waiting for conditions to improve, biologists will continue to stock a few salmon in Connecticut’s rivers. But now they also know that a couple of the wild ones might make the perilous journey and return on their own to spawn in the river of their birth.