Salmon swim toward recovery, but need a boost
By Ry Rivard
The story repeats itself around the country: Salmon vs. dams, dams vs. salmon.
Dams usually win.
But what happened in the eastern Adirondack Park town of Willsboro is remarkable, a sign of how quickly the balance can change.
The old Saw Mill Dam stood in the middle of town decades after the mill there had closed. It stood for something about the town and what it had been, but it also stood in the way of what had been there, swimming in the Boquet River, long before there was a town.
There used to be a lot of salmon in the Boquet—so many that one early account of the river says 500 were caught there in a single afternoon. But intense fishing like that, along with pollution and dams like the one in Willsboro, wiped them out. Atlantic salmon faded from the Boquet and every other river draining to Lake Champlain. By the mid-1800s, there were no Champlain salmon left.
Then, in the 1970s, state and federal officials started stocking the lake using a salmon breed they got from Maine’s Sebago Lake. Despite dumping millions of them into the lake and its tributaries, including the Boquet, they didn’t really reproduce on their own.
Then, in 2015, Willsboro officials tore down the dam.
About this series
Throughout November, we’re publishing a series of stories about the effect dams have had on two of the parks’ important rivers, the Boquet and the Saranac.
As beautiful as these rivers are and as wild as they seem, dams have changed them, blocking the natural movement of fish for decades and, in fact, centuries.
The very next fall, salmon came into the Boquet and swam past where the dam had been. There, in quiet parts of the river, they made nests called redds in the gravel and laid eggs.
By spring 2017, for the first time in human memory, officials found wild baby salmon swimming in the Boquet.
The 85 babies, known as fry, were only the second documented group of salmon born around Lake Champlain since humans came to the lake, altered it and killed the native salmon. The first were some fry found in 2016 in Vermont’s Winooski River.
These back-to-back victories fueled hope. But the flash of optimism is now tempered by a more sobering realization.
Officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who monitor the Boquet found no fry in 2018 and a mere 48 in spring 2019. The big Halloween storm last year caused flooding that washed away salmon nests. This spring, there were again no wild fry in the Boquet.
It seems humans will have to do a lot more tinkering in years to come before we can undo what we’ve done in the past century and a half.
So, federal fish biologists are thinking about new ways to jumpstart wild salmon’s return to the Boquet, a return that is being watched around the region for both its environmental implications and its economic promise.
“Fishermen are a very good thing for the economic vitality of a small town,” said Willsboro’s town supervisor, Shaun Gillilland.
What it took to kill off the native salmon is a simple story compared to the convoluted journey required to bring them back.
When officials first started trying to bring salmon back to the region, they focused on stocking Lake Champlain with fish for anglers. These salmon, unlike other salmon, will stay in the lake and its tributaries and won’t head to sea, which is how they got the paradoxical name of “landlocked Atlantic salmon.”
But, after a while, officials began trying to see if they could get salmon to sustain themselves by breeding in the wild. These salmon seek to do that in places with river beds safe for their nests and emerging fry. But the rivers around the lake are dammed, meaning their search for quiet spots far up a river ends almost before it can begin.
That’s what makes the Boquet so special, now that the Willsboro dam is gone. Right now, state and federal officials have high hopes of salmon making babies in three Champlain tributaries: the Boquet, the Winooski and the Saranac River. But the Winooski and the Saranac still have major dams that block salmon from getting very far.
There are workarounds, but sometimes they don’t work out. In the early 1980s, while the Willsboro dam was still standing, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation added a ladder to it, hoping fish would use the ladder to go past the dam. The ladder, a stair-stepping cascade that fish can leap up and swim through, never worked as expected.
Suddenly, too, officials around Champlain had a whole other problem on their hands that took up years of their time. They were busy trying to save the stocked salmon from lamprey, a snake-looking fish that attaches itself to the sides of other fish and sucks their blood.
Lamprey bites are still common to see on salmon, but officials believe they have the problem under control thanks to an ingenious pesticide that kills non-native lamprey and little else.
So, with that problem somewhat contained, officials turned back to finding places for salmon to breed on their own.
Vic Putman, a former Essex County planning director, saw an opportunity. Several years ago, the nonprofit Nature Conservancy was offering money that some officials in Vermont could use to look at removing a dam. But local opposition doomed the study on that side of Champlain.
Putman asked if the money could be spent in Willsboro, studying the Saw Mill Dam, which was leaking anyway. Could it be taken down? Some people liked the reflecting pool that formed behind the dam. Some worried about lamprey getting up river. Others thought flooding would be worse.
The study helped kick off a conversation in the town and helped answer those questions and calm opposition.
The Boquet proved to be the perfect place to study instead. If there’s a place in the region that can maintain cold-water fish like salmon, the Boquet is it.
“The Boquet just pops,” said Dirk Bryant, the director of conservation programs at the Nature Conservancy’s Adirondack chapter.
Within two years, the dam was gone.
“I had a lot of help—money,” Putman said.
Now, a handful of nonprofit groups and government agencies are trying to ensure that the baby salmon spotted in the past few years aren’t some sort of fluke.
That’s why, weekday after weekday this fall, federal fish biologists like Jonah Withers came to Willsboro from their office in Essex Junction, Vermont, to look at how many salmon are coming into the Boquet and how far they make it.
Withers and his team string a net across the river to catch salmon. By the river, they do a quick surgery on some of the salmon they catch to insert a tracking device called a radio telemetry transmitter. They release them.
Then their experiment begins. Even though the dam is gone, it sat on a modest natural falls known as the cascades. These cascades, officials worry, may still be daunting to some of the fish. The problem isn’t necessarily too much water coming down the river, but rather too little. One day, in late September, that seemed to be the problem and there were no salmon in the nets. A few days later, after a good rain, there were 14 salmon.
They are able to get over them,” Withers said, “but we’re curious what proportion are able to get over.”
So, to test what’s happening, the crew places some fish where they were caught, below the cascades, and trucks others past the obstacles. The transmitters ping receivers set up along the river, letting the Fish and Wildlife Service see where the fish go and if they can find a place to nest.
In the next few years, Withers wants to see whether there is some difference between the fish that are trucked past the cascades and the ones that have to get over them on their own.
He and others worry the restocked fish might be missing something, perhaps the drive to spawn or perhaps the energy to do so. Among the litany of new problems facing salmon is the food they now eat. Invasive herring, known as alewives, have become a major part of a Lake Champlain salmon’s diet. But eating too many of the alewives leaves salmon with a vitamin B1 deficiency, which is now weakening the salmon.
To get around this, officials are breeding salmon to select for traits that enable them to function with less B1. A few hundred of these salmon, known as brood stock, will be taken out of a hatchery and put in the Boquet this fall to see if they perform better than other salmon that are returning to the river after years on the lake.
Generally, hatchery fish struggle when they are released, which is why, after so many years and so many fish, wild breeding is still so rare. William Ardren, a senior fish biologist for the wildlife service who has helped get salmon as far as they’ve come, knows this but hopes hatchery fish can help cope with the B1 deficiency.
“We’re not expecting them to act just like wildlife when we put them in there, but we really hope at least a portion of them are able to construct good redds (from which) we could successfully find fry,” he said.
The future of wild salmon in the Adirondacks could rely on a term he coined for this process of assisted adaptation through hatchery breeding.
It’s “facilitated evolutionary rescue.”