Atlantic salmon are back, and they're spawning in Connecticut. It's the first time in centuries this creature has returned naturally to the state. But climate change and dwindling conservation money still present a lot of issues for this migratory fish.
Before European settlers came to Connecticut, Atlantic salmon were plentiful. "The salmon were probably here for tens of thousands of years," said Steve Gephard, a fisheries biologist with the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. "Certainly since the last glacier retreated."
That glacial retreat carved out streams and tributaries in Connecticut that, to this day, are very steep, cold, and rocky. "That habitat is particularly important to salmon and trout and other northern species, that actually use that gravel in the stream bed to build their nests," said Gephard.
But when settlers came and started damming up Connecticut's rivers, that meant upstream salmon nests disappeared, which is why "the recent news of Atlantic salmon spawning in our state was exciting," said Gephard. Last November, he was one of the scientists who uncovered three salmon nests upstream of the Rainbow Dam in the Farmington River watershed.
While biologists are encouraged that salmon are naturally spawning in the state, "it probably wasn't as earth shaking as some people might envision," said Gephard. "In fact, Atlantic salmon have been coming back to the Connecticut River for the last 35 years."
That's thanks to a federal and state restoration program that managed river salmon and helped to seed rivers with young fish. But in 2012, Gephard said that program was terminated, due, in part, to a lack of funding.
That meant salmon once captured at fish ladders and brought to hatcheries to lay their eggs were now just released back into the wild. "And these were the ones that spawned," said Gephard.
Today, it's still really tough for Atlantic salmon to return to state rivers from the ocean. While the salmon nest sighting in Connecticut was encouraging, Gephard said he's pessimistic populations in the state will ever get back to the way they were before the Industrial Revolution.
When salmon return from the ocean, they swim up rivers ranging into Canada and as far south as Connecticut. But that territory is shrinking, in part due to global warming, said Gephard. "That, in itself, sets up a huge challenge," he said.
Even though the federal funding for salmon restoration has dried up, Gephard said the state continues to maintain its own "legacy" breeding program, generating about 200,000 young salmon per year.