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September 16. 2013 9:48PM

Merrimack River salmon program’s run is done


An Atlantic Salmon at the Amoskeag Fishways learning and visitors nature center in Manchester is one of a number of native spiecies on view for visitors to get a close look at. The migratory fish was once abundant until dams along rivers such as the Merrimack blocked access to upriver streams for spawning. (UNION LEADER FILE)

The federal government has pulled the plug on a 30-year effort to restore the Atlantic salmon to the Merrimack River, blaming both a poor success rate and budget problems.

Only 22 salmon were counted at a key spot in the Merrimack River this summer — the Essex Fish Dam in Lawrence, Mass. — compared to 400 two years earlier. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ended a similar program on the Connecticut River last summer.

Conservationists and a state official said the decision won’t end all programs to restore anadromous fish, the freshwater fish which spend part of their life in the ocean. Hatcheries and fish ladders will still be used for the American shad and river herrings, whose numbers continue to grow.

But the Atlantic salmon was an important symbol for fish-habitat conservation, said George Embley, president of the Concord-area Basil Woods chapter of Trout Unlimited.

“It’s the fish that attracts public attention. It’s at the top of the food chain. “It’s sort of like the (bald) eagle in the fish world,” Embley said.

The fish hatch in New England rivers and streams, grow and enter the Atlantic, where they mature and strengthen while circling to Portugal, Iceland or Greenland. They return to their native waters to spawn; adults spending two or more years at sea can exceed 15 pounds.

Last week, the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department announced that the Merrimack River restoration had ceased, effective Sept. 5. The program will continue for some Maine rivers.

“While the science is driving our decision, our declining budgets hastened it. We need to prioritize,” said Wendi Weber, the Service’s Northeast regional director, in prepared remarks.

The effort to restore salmon involved removing some dams — the most recent a dam on the Souhegan River in Merrimack, Embley said. He blames the continued damming of the Merrimack River for the failure of restoration efforts.

Jason Smith, the New Hampshire chief of inland fisheries, said scientists can’t give a single explanation.

He said recent stockings amounted to about 500,000 fry in the Pemigewasset and Souhegan rivers, small in comparison to the 2.5 million fry in the early 2000s.

“There was a lot of optimism then,” he said. Fish ladders in Lawrence, Lowell and Manchester were part of that effort.

Public Service of New Hampshire spokesman Martin Murray said the utility installed the $4 million ladder in 1989 at the urging of federal and state officials. While salmon benefited, the ladder was installed primarily for American shad and river herrings, Murray said.

If numbers of those species continue to grow, PSNH could be required to install ladders at dams in Hooksett and Bow, he said.

Embley said the announcement upends a promise by a policy committee of New Hampshire, Massachusetts and federal officials to keep the Atlantic salmon program going until 2015.

“It’s sad to see the end of it,” he said. “Once the infrastructure goes, getting a program like that back is very unlikely.”

mhayward@unionleader.com


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