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Fisheries Management

Issue: Tournament fishermen have ranked the Connecticut River as the fourth most important water body in the state of New Hampshire. Yet very little is known of the fisheries which attract so much interest, in spite of the fact that the Connecticut River offers perhaps the most highly varied habitat of any waterbody in the state. The river hosts resident native trout and other coldwater species, as well as migrating American shad and, for the first time since 1798, Atlantic salmon. The addition of impoundments on the river has vastly increased warmwater habitat to the benefit of bass, perch, and walleye. Sport fishing is growing, both for the local resident who enjoys wetting a line after work, to the out-of-state fisherman who hires a guide or casts his bait in a derby. These are fine fishing waters, and they figure more and more in the economy of the region.

At present only the Yankee Nuclear Power Plant conducts regular studies of the river's fish, near Brattleboro. Vermont conducted a creel survey below Vernon Dam in 1991, and New Hampshire undertook a limited creel census in the Headwaters region in 1993. Another study by New Hampshire of the Mt. Ascutney segment began in 1995, and studies by NEP will likely take place in 1997 in the Fifteen Mile Falls area.

Opportunities: We need to know much more about the complex fishery of the Connecticut River, particularly in light of the multiple uses the river is expected to accommodate, the multiple habitat types it offers, the multiple species it hosts, and the multiple jurisdictions it crosses. Relicensing of dams offers an opportunity to gain important insight into fish population dynamics and community structure, but our understanding of what lives below the water's surface should not be limited by federally-imposed schedules for dam licenses, nor should it be limited to those reaches within dam project areas.

1. State fish and game/wildlife agencies should undertake to learn more about Connecticut River fisheries, with an emphasis on understanding population structure and dynamics for key species such as trout, walleye, and bass, and the food webs which support them. Prime spawning and rearing habitats should be identified; landowners and towns should be made aware of these areas and what they can do to protect them.

2. State fish and game/wildlife agencies should work with dam managers and knowledgeable local fishermen to better coordinate water level fluctuations behind dams with critical fish spawning times in order to avoid loss of entire age classes of fish.

3. NEP should sponsor studies of the fisheries which may be affected by the Fifteen Mile Falls hydro development, with particular focus upon the influence of water level fluctuations and sedimentation upon fish spawning and survival.

4. Vermont and New Hampshire fish and game/wildlife agencies should cooperate as effectively as possible to share information on Connecticut River fisheries and agree on management strategies. The public on both sides of the river should be notified of special fish management areas.

5. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS)'s Conte Refuge has a significant role in informing landowners, local officials, and the public about fishery management and encouraging actions that protect prime spawning and rearing habitat.

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Atlantic Salmon Restoration and Fish Passage

Actions taken to improve water quality on behalf of all users of the river will also benefit Atlantic Salmon

Issue: The Atlantic salmon, a game fish with a high public profile, once ran the Connecticut River from Long Island Sound to Beecher Falls, migrating the entire reach of the boundary between Vermont and New Hampshire, and spawning in tributaries from Paul Stream in the north to the Ashuelot River in the south. The first of many dams on the river blocked the salmon's upstream migration from Turner Falls in 1798, and the population disappeared from this and other south-central New England rivers by the mid-1800s. An early effort at restoration in the last century failed due to lack of effective fish passage at dams, overharvest, and inadequate interstate cooperation. It was followed by a concerted cooperative effort beginning in 1976, between the federal and state governments, to restore the fish as its ancestral waters were also being restored under the Clean Water Act. Hatcheries were built, biologists were employed, millions of salmon young were stocked, and expensive fish passage was built around significant dams, as valley citizens shared the optimism of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that a sport fishery for Atlantic salmon could resume on the upper Connecticut River by the mid-1990s after an absence of two centuries.

We are still waiting. Salmon are indeed returning to the river, but as yet many fewer than rough early projections led us to hope, and most are intercepted on their journey, to be captured and bred before they can reach north into our waters. It has taken longer than expected to establish a new strain of salmon that is adapted to the river to the point where thousands return annually, and that will remember the Connecticut when they have become adults in the cold North Atlantic Ocean. It has also taken well over 100 million dollars in federal, state, and private funds to establish the fish passage and other infrastructure needed to bring the fish back, although this expense benefits shad, herring, and more familiar fish as well as the stranger salmon. Fisheries managers have learned that the quality of offshore habitat, over which they have less control, affects survival of Connecticut River salmon when they are away from home.

The salmon are returning into the Connecticut River's southern New Hampshire and Vermont tributaries, and the fish now have the run of the river both up and downstream around dams, as far as the foot of Dodge Falls Dam at East Ryegate, Vermont, 270 miles from the sea. Salmon young are being stocked as far north as the Ammonoosuc and Passumpsic rivers, and can now safely pass downstream into the mainstem. Good Atlantic salmon habitat occurs throughout the basin including many tributaries in northern New Hampshire and Vermont, in stretches of river which include riffles and runs over moderate gradient, rocky substrate with good cover and a high variety of macroinvertebrates. This type of habitat is now relatively scarce in the mainstem, much of it flooded by impoundments, although much good habitat remains in the tributaries. Pools are good for adults, but not for fry. Salmon tolerate higher temperatures than trout.

A salmon run on the Connecticut River could bring more tourist dollars to the valley and allow another opportunity to capitalize on clean waters. A salmon taken in sport provides community economic benefit of $10 compared to the $1 brought by a commercially caught fish.

Passage for fish comes at a price, and is one of the issues to be resolved by a new license for Fifteen Mile Falls, where the 178-foot Moore Dam, 170-foot Comerford Dam, and the much smaller McIndoes Dam block the passage of anadromous fish into the upper reaches of the river system. Stocking young salmon above Comerford and Moore would create a new need for downstream passage at these dams. There are many demands upon New England Power Company to provide public benefits in exchange for its use of the river, which will be agreed upon in the terms of its new license. Provision of passage for salmon and other fish is one of many possible options. Other options could include habitat improvements, erosion and sedimentation control, protection of the thousands of undeveloped acres surrounding the reservoirs, and water level management that is less stressful on fish and on shorelines. Given the disappointing results of the salmon restoration effort to date, what is the best use of limited resources in a benefit package for the new dam license, when the dams are located so far from the sea?

Opportunities: Atlantic salmon restoration is more than a watershed-wide issue. It is an international, multi-state effort with a timeline that extends far into the future and is based on current and evolving scientific knowledge of how to restore a premier fishery asset to the Connecticut River. A sustainable salmon fishery would represent an economic asset of great value and serve as testimony to our years of effort to restore the river. The Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, which has a legal mandate in restoration of migratory fish to the river, offers a forum for collaboration between the public and seven state and federal agencies.

1. Communities, landowners, sportsmen's groups, citizens, dam managers, and state and federal agencies should all act responsibly to improve water and habitat quality in the Connecticut River. These actions taken on behalf of all species and users of the river will also benefit Atlantic salmon.

2. The Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission and all its member agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, should continue to cooperate with the states to restore Atlantic salmon to the Connecticut River. Most of the major investments in the infrastructure to support this program have already been made, and the costs of breeding and stocking fry are comparatively small, while the potential economic benefits to the region through fisher-tourism are very real.

3. The Atlantic Salmon Commission should ensure wider public participation in the draft management plan for the program. A stronger link with the program and a better understanding of salmon habitat needs will help valley citizens better tend their tributaries. Local communities should be included in discussions about expansion of salmon stocking and passage.

4. The new license for Fifteen Mile Falls should not require New England Power Company or its successors to provide fish passage at Moore or Comerford stations at this time, but focus upon other habitat improvements which could potentially benefit many more species, such as land protection and moderation of water level fluctuations. Improved downstream passage over the much lower dam at McIndoes Falls is warranted due to use of the Passumpsic River by anadromous fish. The license should, however, include language that allows reevaluation of the situation during the term of the license, should the restoration effort prove sufficiently successful to suggest that if allowed passage, salmon would indeed colonize the upper river system and establish a regular run with minimal stocking. At that time, citizens and water-dependent businesses of the Headwaters and Riverbend regions should be consulted in the decision.


Riparian and Aquatic Habitat Value

Issue: Down by the river exist habitats unlike any other in the valley. Blanketed against killing cold by shrouds of fog, this riparian region is the last to freeze in fall and the first to green up in spring. Soils fertilized by spring freshets are deep and fertile, sometimes punctuated by steep high ledge, always drinking in the moisture that hovers above the river. There is a rich combination of water, land, and weather here that supports an equally rich constellation of plant and animal life.

Riverfront land is prime real estate, both for plants and wildlife, and for people.

Nowhere is this biodiversity more apparent than in the stretch of the river from the mouth of the Ompompanoosuc River to Weathersfield Bow, a stretch that has caught the attention of biologists who call it the "Connecticut River Rapids Macrosite." Here, the river is home to an unusually rare concentration of species which have already or are now disappearing from other places. While they vary in their ability to excite our imagination, from the homely dwarf wedge mussel and Jesup's milk vetch to the magnificent bald eagle, they are all rightful occupants of the river valley.

The New Hampshire Natural Resource Protection Project, completed in August 1995 by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission, identified along the Connecticut River two of the state's six high priority natural resource areas. These are the Macrosite area in Plainfield, Cornish and Claremont, and the Connecticut Lakes Region. The mid-river section from Plainfield to Claremont rose to the top because of its concentration of rare, threatened, and endangered species, rare natural communities that include some of the last floodplain forests on the river, important deer wintering areas, a tract of old growth forest, and the absence of dams on the river here. The Connecticut Lakes appeared in this analysis for their relatively undeveloped lake shorelines, deer wintering areas, trout spawning reefs, extensive unfragmented lands, and many large, complex wetlands. Vermont is contemplating a similar study and has begun some limited computerized GIS mapping of special recreational features.

Beneath the water's surface, aquatic habitat varies from a cobble or gravel bottom swept clean by rushing waters to silty beds where stiller waters deposit sediments brought from upstream. Here reside the equally diverse communities of tiny creatures which support larger life in and near the river.

Those who use and visit our waterways must understand the responsibility that accompanies this privilege.

The river also has a significant role as a migration corridor. Birds moving from their wintering grounds in the tropics follow the Connecticut River to their breeding grounds in northern forests, where a number of them play a key role in suppressing forest insect outbreaks. During their trip, they concentrate along the river as spring proceeds up the valley, before moving up into the hills. Riparian forests could well be especially important for this use. In the fall, the Connecticut is well known as a waterfowl migration corridor, as the long skeins of geese overhead and the bobbing of ducks in the setbacks attest. Peregrine falcons, newly returned to the river valley, follow the Connecticut south in the fall from as far north as Stark all the way to Long Island Sound.

Riverfront land is prime real estate, both for plants and wildlife who prefer it unfragmented, and for people, attracted by the beauty of the river, whose tendency is more often to fragment it into houselots. Many large parcels of farmland remaining along the river have lost their riverfront forests, but they still provide key habitat in their fencerows, meadows, and woodlots. Their croplands also offer winter forage for turkeys and geese. These parcels, within easy reach of good roads and population centers, are particularly threatened by development. Farmland is more level than most other local terrain and is easily built upon. Good building land is expensive, and there are limited funds available for purchasing the development potential of riparian habitat.

Opportunities: Riparian habitat is highly valuable for fish and wildlife, and is in limited supply, particularly along a major river like the Connecticut. A society that cares about fish and wildlife would do well to direct development to areas that are not so ecologically sensitive. Efforts should also recognize that important habitat is not limited to the riparian zone, but remains in fields and forests throughout the valley.

1. We should all work to maintain the economic viability of riverfront farms and work together to control nonpoint pollution and retain riparian buffers. Take full advantage of USDA programs and the support of private and non-profit organizations to accomplish this.

2. Towns and landowners should encourage riverfront forests where they remain. Landowners can enjoy the plant and animal diversity of their riverfront lands by avoiding disturbance of these special habitats, and increase this diversity by allowing riparian buffers of natural vegetation to grow back. They should take advantage of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Partners for Wildlife cost-sharing program.

3. Federal, state, and local efforts should focus on conserving ecologically fragile areas, natural communities and examples of habitat types, which is more cost-effective than trying to target individual species for protection. Towns can develop management plans for conservation lands they own.

4.Decision-makers should be certain that conservation efforts are based upon good science, not upon questionable data. The CRJC encourage expanded research into the status of species and natural communities in the valley, such as that now being sponsored by the Conte Refuge on the use of the river as a migration corridor. A study of the extent of dwarf wedge mussel populations and the potential effects of various kinds of disturbance upon them would be useful, since this federally endangered species has been the center of some controversy in bridge construction and bank stabilization projects.

5. All citizens should respect and obey current laws regarding endangered species, and learn to recognize species of concern.

6. The Environmental Protection Agency should develop habitat quality indices and make them available to the states. Local citizens should be encouraged to monitor for habitat quality with the permission of the landowner.

7. The economic opportunity for ecotourism in the region should be examined and should be well balanced with a need to minimize disturbance of important habitats.

8. The states of New Hampshire and Vermont and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Conte Refuge should invest in habitat conservation and restoration, particularly of riparian habitats, in cooperation with interested landowners.

9.The public should support the work of land trusts and other conservation organizations in protecting habitat. Encourage them to make aquatic and riparian habitat quality a priority in cooperation with interested landowners.

10. Towns and landowners should protect and retain wetlands.

Zebra Mussel and Other Introduced Exotics

Issue: The zebra mussel, introduced into the Great Lakes from Europe when the bilge of a ship was cleaned, first appeared in 1988 and has quickly infested thousands of other lakes and rivers. Prolific zebra mussel colonies can clog water intake pipes at industrial and municipal facilities and power plants, and also foul the cooling systems of boat engines. Their sharp shells litter shorelines and they interfere with native aquatic life. Although their feeding on plankton often makes water look clearer and more appealing, this occurs at the expense of native fish and other animals. No predator capable of controlling the mussels has been found. Zebra mussels are commonly but innocently spread through contaminated bait water and in the cooling systems and on the hulls of boats.

The Connecticut River, at this writing still free from infestation by zebra mussels, is by no means safe from it. The chemistry of our water is more hospitable to the mussel than most New England waters, and the river is only a short and easy drive down Route 89 from the nearest contaminated waterbody, Lake Champlain. Mussels found there for the first time in 1993 have spread throughout almost the entire lake in only two years' time. The Extension Service's SeaGrant Program has been working hard to inform fishermen, boaters, and other citizens about what they can do to avoid bringing the zebra mussel to the Connecticut River basin.

Other invasive exotics also threaten our river system, such as Eurasian milfoil, which was first discovered on the river in 1995 at the Springfield, Vermont boat landing by one of CRJC's local river subcommittee members. These largely uncontrollable pests could have an extremely unpleasant impact on the natural community of the river and also upon recreation, with negative economic consequences.

Opportunities: Those who use and visit our waterways must understand the responsibility that accompanies this privilege.

1. Boaters must take every precaution against introducing zebra mussels, Eurasian milfoil, and other exotics into the watershed, where they could spread rapidly. Boaters should leave their boats out of water for 2-3 days after using them in a contaminated waterbody, remove any plant material, and flush the cooling system before launching in the river. Bait should be discarded by fishermen visiting other regions before they return to Connecticut River drainage.

2. SeaGrant Program should continue its efforts to educate the public and work with volunteers to monitor often for mussels and other exotics.

3. State legislatures should provide funding to allow their agencies to monitor for exotics.

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Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge

Issue: In 1991 the U.S. Congress directed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to establish the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in the 7.2 million acre watershed of the Connecticut River in the states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire. A new concept of refuge was clearly required, since over two million people already occupy this same space. The USFWS approached the Connecticut River Joint Commissions, who strongly urged the broadest possible cooperation with the citizens of the valley in determining how to carry out Congress' directive. The Service met with each of our five local river subcommittees and held many additional public meetings in the valley to gather public opinion.

The Service released its final action plan and environmental impact statement in October, 1995, announcing that it had decided to create the refuge through a combination of voluntary restoration of habitat on private lands, education, partnerships with other conservation groups, and a cost-sharing grants program. The Service also plans to eventually acquire a total of some 6530 acres it considers to be critical threatened habitat, 1200 of them in Vermont and New Hampshire.

The valley is endowed with fish and wildlife resources of national, as well as regional, state, and local significance. These resources encourage tourism and recreation, and provide local commercial, economic, aesthetic, and cultural benefit.

There has been, however, apprehension on the part of many landowners that they could lose use of their lands to public agendas through implementation of the Conte Refuge, and a belief that government involvement will lead to more regulations. The issue of eminent domain is particularly sensitive. While this tool is commonly used to acquire land for transportation and utility corridors, many landowners are less willing to accept its use for habitat conservation. There are, however, special circumstances where eminent domain provides a useful way to clear title and allow a transfer of land between two interested parties.

We know that landowners value wildlife and the natural condition of the region, and that there is a very strong overlap of interest with the aims of the Conte Refuge, and we believe that landowners and the USFWS will find as they work together that they are much more united than divided.

Opportunities: The people of the valley have an unusual opportunity to benefit themselves and their natural resources by drawing upon the expertise of the USFWS and bringing Conte's new kind of refuge to life.

1. Congress should provide funds for the Conte Refuge to protect special areas of fish and wildlife habitat and to work with interested landowners on management plans that benefit fish and wildlife.

2. The Conte Refuge should continue its policy of not using eminent domain to forcefully take land in the name of conserving habitat. More can be gained by cooperation with private landowners.

3. The USFWS should foster dialogue with the public about refuge progress by continuing to work with the CRJC and the five local river subcommittees, and holding regular public meetings.

4. The USFWS should focus upon research and education about the fish and wildlife resources and their habitat and stewardship requirements in the valley and provide support for agencies and organizations to gather needed data.

5. Landowners, including farmers, should explore cost-sharing grants, conservation easements, and cooperation with the USFWS to enhance the wildlife value of their property and help them implement best management practices that could also improve the economic viability of their farms.

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