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Thursday, September 5, 2013

Future of salmon restoration program hazy; Thursday meeting will address concerns

The future of the long-running but unsuccessful attempt to bring Atlantic salmon back to the Merrimack River is struggling to stay afloat, one year after the federal government pulled the plug on similar efforts on the Connecticut River.

If the Merrimack River program does shut, it would raise questions about the Adopt-a-Salmon school program as well as the future status of the National Fish Hatchery in Nashua, which is central to the salmon restoration efforts. ...

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The future of the long-running but unsuccessful attempt to bring Atlantic salmon back to the Merrimack River is struggling to stay afloat, one year after the federal government pulled the plug on similar efforts on the Connecticut River.

If the Merrimack River program does shut, it would raise questions about the Adopt-a-Salmon school program as well as the future status of the National Fish Hatchery in Nashua, which is central to the salmon restoration efforts.

Rumors are flying that funding via the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service will be cut, even though the program is slated to continue at least two more years. No official statement has been released, but several people connected to or knowledgeable about the program expressed concerns this week, some off the record.

“Our suspicion and our concern is that it’s going to be ended,” George Embley of Webster, a state official with Trout Unlimited, a national fisheries advocacy group, said Wednesday.

Embley will represent Trout Unlimited at a Thursday meeting of the policy committee overseeing the restoration program in the Merrimack River. On the agenda is, “Atlantic salmon restoration: Status and proposed agency action.”

“We will make a formal statement that we strongly support continuation of the program through at least July 2015,” he said.

The program is a multi-agency attempt to return so-called anadromous fish – those which lay eggs in fresh water creeks and rivers but spend most of their adult life in the ocean – to New England waterways. It involves New Hampshire Fish & Game as well as two Massachusetts agencies and three federal groups that deal with fisheries and wildlife.

The salmon program’s termination would hurt the Nashua National Fish Hatchery on Broad Street, which holds hundreds of adult salmon and thousands of young fish. The few female salmon that return from the ocean up the Merrimack River are caught at the Essex Dam in Lawrence, Mass., and trucked to Nashua, where their eggs are removed and raised into thousands of young fish.

Those young fish are then stocked in several rivers throughout New England, in an attempt to kick-start natural populations and to provide targets for fishermen.

The hatchery is also the focus of the Adopt-a-Salmon school program, in which thousands of children throughout southern New Hampshire raise young salmon that they release into select rivers – including the Souhegan River, until recently – as part of environmental studies.

The Nashua Hatchery also is involved in shad restoration, so the end of the salmon program wouldn’t necessarily shut it down.

Hatchery Director Kyle Flanery declined to comment Wednesday.

Anadromous species, including salmon, eel, shad, herring and alewife, once filled the region’s rivers until many of their migration patterns were blocked by dams in the 19th century.

These species all have struggled, facing problems that include pollution, over-fishing in the ocean, increased predation in rivers by bass, and changing ocean condition because of climate change. (Eels are slightly different in that they lay eggs at sea and mature in fresh water, rather than the other way around, but face the same issues.)

Decades of attempts to undue the damage, including the installation of fish ladders at dams on the Merrimack River, have seen limited success. A recent exception is in Maine, where some large-scale dam removals have brought millions of alewife back to a couple of rivers – but nobody in the Northeast is having much success bringing back Atlantic salmon.

In July, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service ended restocking and other salmon restoration efforts along the Connecticut River, which marks the border between New Hampshire and Vermont as it runs south into Long Island Sound.

Cost and effectiveness were cited: Only about 50 salmon returned to the Connecticut River to spawn this spring, even though millions of tiny babies called fry and tens of thousands of young adults called smolts had been manually placed throughout the Connecticut River watershed in previous years. Some of those fish should have migrated down the Connecticut, matured at sea, then returned up river to lay eggs, but the return rate was less than 1 percent of the level needed to create a sustained natural salmon population, federal biologists said.

The situation is similar on the Merrimack River. Millions of fry and smolts have been stocked in waterways over the years, but no more than 400 have return to spawn in any year since record keeping began. Only 137 salmon were caught at Essex Dam in 2012, returning upriver to spawn.

The Connecticut River salmon program was hurt when Hurricane Irene virtually destroyed the White River National Fish Hatchery in Bethel, Vt., which had been driving its restoration efforts.

One aspect of the region’s salmon program is doing well, however. Populations of salmon in the Souhegan River, as well as the Baker River up north, have been making nests and laying eggs – the first time that has happened in perhaps 150 years. But if they don’t survive their adult years in the ocean, that success doesn’t seem to lead anywhere.

The Merrimack River Anadromous Fish Restoration Program Policy Committee Meeting will take place from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. on Thursday at the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department Headquarters, 11 Hazen Drive, Concord. The salmon program discussion is supposed to begin at 11:20 a.m.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Brooks on Twitter (@GraniteGeek).