A decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to abandon efforts to restore Atlantic salmon to the Connecticut River basin could change the game for whitewater releases on the West River in Vermont.
This week, the federal agency opted to stop the 45-year-old program because it was not producing enough results to justify the costs. In 2010, Fish and Wildlife stocked around 6 million tiny fry and 75,000-90,000 larger salmon smolts throughout the Connecticut River estuary at a cost of about $2 million. This spring, about 50 adult salmon returned to the Connecticut to spawn in the tributaries where they were released.
The salmon stocking program has resulted in fewer whitewater releases on Vermont’s popular West River. Spring releases have been cancelled because of requirements that the reservoir above Ball Mountain Dam on the West be held at a lower level to allow for downstream salmon migration from April to mid-June.
Starting in the 1950s (and maybe before), paddlers began to enjoy the Class II-III whitewater on the West. Traditionally, the Army Corps of Engineers provided six paddling releases per year. In 1990, that number dropped to four days, and in 2003 it was three. Now the river runs one one day a year in the fall, and sometimes it is just a half-day depending on the level of the reservoir.
The State of Vermont, however, may opt to continue its program even though the feds scrapped theirs. Local administrators say it is unlikely that the state will do away with its salmon program any time in the near future.
While the struggle for maintaining recreational flows on the West River while benefitting the recovery of Atlantic salmon has been an uphill battle, American Whitewater hopes the recent federal decision will present new opportunities to open discussions with the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources and Fish and Wildlife.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is also considering a three-year evaluation of a similar program in the Merrimack River basin in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, which could lead to the end of its participation in Atlantic salmon restoration programs there as well.
In Vermont, environmental regulators will be watching this to determine whether to continue its programs.
In the meantime, American Whitewater will continue to work with local agencies, environmental groups and other stakeholders to find a reasonable solution that will allow for releases on the West River that mimic natural high flows while providing recreational and ecological values.