A dream came true in October 1991 for Steve Gephard, a fisheries biologist. He received a report from a resident of East Haddam, Conn., of a pair of large fish stirring up gravel and silt in the nearby Salmon River. Gephard, who has dedicated much of his career at the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection to restoring the once regionally extinct Atlantic salmon, drove to the small riverside town to investigate. Donning a wet suit and a snorkel, he entered the river and discovered two adult salmon engaged in the ritualized activity of building redds, or nests, to protect their eggs. These were the first salmon in nearly two centuries to be observed spawning naturally in any tributary of the Connecticut River.
"I wasn't quite prepared for what I saw," Gephard says. "In one sense, I was deeply moved. It was everything we had worked for. And yet I couldn't get over the fact that for those two salmon, there was nothing at all extraordinary about what they were doing. It seemed so simple."
Atlantic salmon are anadromous fish that leave their freshwater nurseries for ocean feeding grounds and then return two years later to their native rivers to spawn. Unlike the five species of Pacific salmon, some Atlantic salmon survive the rigors of reproduction and return to sea. While these fish still range throughout Canada and much of Western Europe, nearly all U.S. strains fell victim to the damming and pollution of their migratory rivers during the early 1800s. Restoration efforts initiated in 1965 have resulted in small numbers of returning salmon in northeast rivers such as the Connecticut, but experts agree that it will be a labor of generations to bring back even modest annual runs.
At present, most returning salmon are captured in fishways at dams and stripped of eggs or milt for hatchery fertilization. This practice ensures the genetic interbreeding of the few adult fish that survive the difficult oceanic odyssey. The chances of a male and a female salmon's actually encountering one another in the vast Connecticut River watershed are still so slim that what Gephard witnessed last fall represents a practical triumph as much as a symbolic one.
David Egan, president of the Connecticut River Salmon Association, views the situation with guarded optimism: "There's no question that this is a great moment for all of us involved with the restoration of Atlantic salmon, but we still have so much to learn. None of us are feeling overly confident right now. We'll continue to restore freshwater habitat and provide the best possible hatchery programs, but we have little control over the fate of these fish at sea."
Aside from myriad natural threats, the most significant human obstacle to the salmon's survival at sea is offshore netting. During the saltwater phase, North American salmon migrate to feeding grounds off Newfoundland, Labrador and Greenland. Historically, commercial fishermen have netted them in these areas, significantly reducing the number of fish returning to home waters.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, commercial fishermen took nearly 400 tons of Atlantic salmon last year, almost 200 tons short of the federal quota. Similarly, with a quota of 840 tons, Greenland's fishermen were able to catch only 300 tons. These poor yields reflect low fish populations.
One private U.S. organization, the Restoration of Atlantic Salmon in America, Inc. (RASA), has made the issue of offshore netting its main focus. RASA chairman Richard Buck points out some alarming statistics: "The total world catch, commercial and angling, in the home waters of all salmon-producing nations has dropped from 10,439 tons in 1967 to less than 4,000 tons in 1991."
RASA advocates river harvesting, a system in which the capture of salmon is restricted to the mouths of rivers or to the rivers themselves. This policy would help ensure the safe return of salmon to their native waters before harvesting. Not surprisingly, Denmark and Greenland, which is a self-governing territory of Denmark, are not in favor of river harvesting, because it would effectively eliminate their commerical Atlantic salmon industry.
The Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF), the largest salmon conservation organization in North America, has led a coalition that supports voluntary buyouts of commercial salmon fishing licenses in Canada and Greenland. In March, Canadian officials announced a moratorium on commercial fishing for Atlantic salmon in Newfoundland for at least five years, thus closing the largest such fishery in the world. Though Labrador is not affected by the moratorium, many fisherman there have also taken advantage of the buyout offer, and as the licenses are retired, the allowable catch is reduced.
The ASF has raised $500,000, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation has contributed another $250,000 toward the Greenland buyout. "We know that's not going to be nearly enough," says Wilfred Carter, president emeritus of the ASF. The governments of the U.S. and other salmon-producing countries are also expected to contribute.
North American salmon conservationists see many reasons why river harvesting and voluntary buyouts are policies well worth pursuing. From a biological standpoint the Atlantic salmon is considered an index species, like the bald eagle, whose presence reflects the overall quality of the surrounding ecosystem. The Atlantic salmon's disappearance from U.S. rivers reflected the extent to which the northeastern watershed was devastated by the industrial revolution. The return of the salmon reflects the current dramatic recovery of this same freshwater habitat.
From an angler's perspective, the Atlantic salmon is arguably the ultimate freshwater game fish. Its heart-stopping runs and spectacular leaps have been described in almost mythical terms by thousands of aficionados, who on an average fishing trip contribute to the local economy seven times the value of a commercially caught salmon.
In theory, fishing for Atlantic salmon in rivers is completely illogical, since adult fish do not feed once they enter fresh water. For reasons that have never been fully understood, however, they can at times be enticed into taking a fly or a lure. The unpredictable and often exasperating nature of this sport has crushed its share of egos and engendered its share of addicts. Ted Williams, Bobby Orr and Jimmy Carter rank among our most famous contemporary enthusiasts, and it is largely due to concerned anglers like them that the species occupies a growing spot in the environmental limelight.
Atlantic salmon may even one day serve as a catalyst in opening up a dialogue between nations. For example, an informational exchange between the Spanish department of environmental protection and the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission might lead to increased understanding of environmental issues affecting both Spain and the U.S. The focus of the exchange would be twofold.
First, because Spanish rivers mark the southernmost range of Atlantic salmon in Europe—just as Connecticut rivers are the fish's southernmost habitat in North America—U.S. biologists believe that salmon returning there may share some genetic traits with extinct Connecticut River strains. The adult salmon now bred for the Connecticut restoration project are taken from more-northern cold-water strains, and biologists speculate that the introduction of Spanish brood stock in Connecticut hatcheries might lead to better returns in southern New England's warmer waters. Second, while many Spanish rivers have maintained their native runs, biologists from Spain's Atlantic provinces agree that their fish are endangered by proposed industrial expansion and ambitious hydroelectric projects. By arming themselves with statistical information on the effects of such projects on U.S. freshwater ecosystems during the 1800s, the biologists may better protect Spain's threatened fishery from today's progress-minded government.
Despite its difficulties, the Atlantic salmon appears to have a brighter future. But if anything, Gephard's description of the two fish's spawning in Connecticut's Salmon River last fall epitomizes the paradoxical nature of attempting to assist one of nature's creations. This spring some of those fertilized eggs hatched—the first documented instance of salmon fry hatching naturally there in nearly 200 years. The assured survival of these fish in U.S. and Canadian waters at times seems within our reach, and at other times appears to be quite beyond our control. Their world, like our world, has become a very different place, and their triumphs have become our triumphs in an important mutual endeavor.
Sam Lardner, who is traveling throughout Russia, has written a number of stories on fishing.