CONCORD — A hopeful era drew to a close on September 5, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that, facing federal budget cuts and stubbornly low annual returns of sea-run Atlantic salmon, it will end its investment in the more than 30-year-long Atlantic salmon restoration in the Merrimack River watershed.
Things had looked promising as recently as 2011, when more than 400 Atlantic salmon made their way to the Essex Dam Fish Lift in Lawrence, Mass. But in 2012, just 137 sea-run salmon returned, and this year, as of July 10, 2013, only 22 returning salmon had been observed.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ended its Atlantic salmon restoration in the Connecticut River in 2012. In both the Connecticut and Merrimack rivers, salmon returns have been limited because of poor ocean survival, in-river habitat degradation, and dams that impede migration.
"We would prefer to continue the program, but the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department cannot take on the costs associated with a salmon hatchery operation," said Glenn Normandeau, Executive Director of the N.H. Fish and Game Department. He noted that the US Fish and Wildlife Service will continue to focus on restoration of Atlantic salmon in the Saco and other Gulf of Maine rivers, the last remaining wild Atlantic salmon in the country.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has worked cooperatively with the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, and the U.S. Forest Service to raise and stock Atlantic salmon for the Merrimack River at two hatcheries: Nashua National Fish Hatchery in New Hampshire, and North Attleboro National Fish Hatchery in Massachusetts.
"This was a hard decision, but the science tells us that there is little chance that we will successfully restore Atlantic salmon to the Merrimack," said Wendi Weber, the Service's Northeast Regional Director. "While the science is driving our decision, our declining budgets hastened it. We need to prioritize. With the lack of success, we need to shift our scarce resources to priority restoration efforts where we can make a difference."
The Merrimack River Policy Committee and the Service will look to the Merrimack River Technical Committee to develop a plan for what happens next, including plans for stocking the last of the Merrimack salmon remaining at the two hatcheries, and options for continued Atlantic salmon monitoring in the river.
Though the Atlantic salmon program is winding down, work on other anadromous fish species, those that migrate between fresh and salt waters, will continue in New Hampshire. "We're going to continue work to improve habitat and upstream fish passage for migratory fish species such as American eels, shad and river herring, and these efforts will improve conditions for any migrating Atlantic salmon that may return to the Merrimack after all these years of stocking," said Normandeau.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service has already begun to shift resources toward higher priority restoration efforts, such as American shad. Both Nashua and North Attleboro National Fish Hatcheries raise shad that are stocked in rivers from New Hampshire to Rhode Island.
"Shad numbers are up considerably and offer some real potential for angling success going forward," said Normandeau. As of July 10, more than 37,000 shad had passed the Essex Dam Fish Lift and headed up the Merrimack River.