This is, ultimately, a success story. But in order to have success, you’ve got to have challenges.
If you’re a wild Atlantic salmon, these last few hundred years have definitely been challenging.
The Connecticut River had been dead for over 200 years.
Dead to wild salmon, at least. Atlantic salmon used to spawn in the river, nearly 40,000 of them each year. Though salmon spend most of their adult lives out in the ocean, they always return to streams and rivers to breed — not just any stream or river, either, but to the exact streams or rivers where they were born.
By the end of the 1700s, pollution and damming had essentially killed off all the salmon who called the Connecticut River home. The pollution made them sick, and the dams physically stopped their migration in its tracks. The combination of those two obstacles ensured that no salmon would ever be able to return to the Connecticut River.
Unfortunately, this is a common problem throughout the Atlantic. Many historic salmon runs in places like Scotland are seeing salmon disappear, no thanks to overfishing in both fresh and salt water.
Losing the salmon isn’t just sad for people who like to eat them — it’s sad for the river’s ecosystem as well.
When a salmon’s finished laying eggs, it dies. That might seem like a raw deal, but that’s how it goes for salmon. But that does something marvelous for the ecosystem. That salmon’s body is full of nutrients stored up from its life in the ocean. When it dies, those nutrients are released back into the stream and surrounding environment.
Salmon are, effectively, a pump moving nutrients from the ocean into the forest. In the Pacific Northwest, where salmon runs are common, one study estimated salmon provide as many nutrients as a layer of commercial fertilizer.
So yeah, it’s important that we keep our salmon populations alive.
For years, people tried to revive the Connecticut River salmon … and failed.
There were programs in the 1800s, and then one started again in the 1960s to revive the salmon population. People cleaned up the river. Passageways were built around dams to allow the fish to migrate again. But the salmon were gone. And because wild salmon only return to the river of their birth — and no wild salmon had been born in the Connecticut River for years — no salmon returned.
Instead, biologists focused on stocking the river with salmon eggs, hoping that the fish would be able to find their way back once they had grown up. There was some success, but budget cuts and a devastating hurricane put that program in danger. In 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stopped participating in the program. A few legacy projects hung on, but it looked like the end.
But remember how I said this was a success story?
In November 2015, biologists discovered THREE salmon nests, complete with eggs, in the Connecticut River!
This is huge news for salmon, people, and the environment!
It means that not only are salmon returning the river, but the water is clean enough for them to successfully breed as well.
This is great news! Salmon have been an important food supply for people for millennia, and they’re an important species for anglers too. Not to mention all that work keeping that nutrient-pumping cycle in the river’s ecosystem going.
Now, three salmon nests isn’t a lot, but it might be the start of something beautiful.
This is something that hasn’t happened in over 200 years.
“It’s the first time since probably the Revolutionary War,” Peter Aarrestad director at the State Department of Energy and Environmental Protection told the Hartford Courant.
A lot of people have worked hard for a long time to make the Connecticut River home to those three little nests. And it goes to show that we don’t just have the capacity to hurt the planet — we can help heal it as well.
Hopefully those three little nests are the heralds of a time when we can return to seeing a Connecticut River filled with 50,000 salmon.