Anadromous Fisheries in New Hampshire

By Matthew Carpenter

In pre-colonial times, anadromous fish (fish that spend their early years in freshwater, migrate to the ocean for a time, and then return to freshwater to spawn), most notably Atlantic salmon, American shad, and river herring (blueback herring and alewives) populated the Merrimack and Connecticut River basins. Historic records indicate that Atlantic salmon ascended the mainsteam Connecticut River 400 miles to Beechers Falls, Vermont, while Atlantic salmon in the Merrimack River migrated 180 miles to its headwaters at Profile Lake in Franconia, New Hampshire. Although actual numbers of Atlantic salmon in the Merrimack and Connecticut's historical spawning runs are unknown, historical records indicate that they were abundant.

The American shad and river herring resources were much larger than those of Atlantic salmon. American shad historically migrated to Bellows Falls, Vermont on the Connecticut River and in the Merrimack River, traveled as far north as the Winnipesaukee River, Franklin, New Hampshire.

A New Hampshire Fish and Game report from 1857 lists a number of causes for the decline and final elimination of some of these anadromous fish: the inability to regulate commercial fisheries, unregulated harvest of adult shad and salmon on their spawning grounds, destruction of juvenile fish by the numerous mill dams, and the construction of impassable dams.

The first dam on the Connecticut River, constructed in 1798 at Turners Falls, Massachusetts, and the Essex dam in Lawrence, Massachusetts on the Merrimack River denied anadromous fish access to their critical spawning habitat in the upper watersheds. Only shad and river herring were able to maintain a remnant population below the dams. The Atlantic salmon population in both rivers was extirpated!

First Restoration Efforts

In 1864, the New Hampshire State Legislature adopted the first fisheries commission from Massachusetts and New Hampshire to investigate the restoration of migratory fish to the Merrimack and Connecticut Rivers. During 1870-1896, the fisheries commissioners were successful in providing fish ways, securing salmon and shad egg sources, and restoring limited numbers of anadromous fish to the Connecticut and Merrimack Rivers. These early restoration efforts, even though successful, were short lived as the continued construction of dams without effective fish passage facilities and the unregulated harvest of salmon finally ended these early restoration efforts.

Current Restoration Program

The current anadromous fish restoration efforts commenced on a formal basis in the 1960s, when the New England state fishery agencies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service mutually agreed to support anadromous fish restoration programs for the Connecticut and Merrimack Rivers. The United States Forest service formally joined the restoration efforts in 1982.

The main objectives of the programs were to develop the full potential of the anadromous and resident fishery resources of the rivers for public benefit and to provide high quality sport fishing opportunities. In addition to helping restore populations of Atlantic salmon, American shad and river herring, these efforts have benefited resident fish (such as walleye and smallmouth bass) and other migratory fish including American eel and sea lamprey.

Click to read "A Shift in Strategy for Merrimack River Atlantic Salmon Restoration" (2012 update).

Merrimack River Atlantic Salmon Restoration Winds Down; Focus Shifts to Shad, other Fish - 09/13/2013 update

Restoration Activities

The following are some of the priority tasks that the NH Fish and Game Department is currently involved in to support the restoration programs.

  1. Coordinate annual stocking programs and distribute Atlantic salmon fry and smolts (approximately 1.5 million fry are stocked each year in the NH portion of the Connecticut River Basin and 1.44 million fry are stocked each year in the Merrimack River Basin).
  2. Capture and transport adult shad and river herring from the river and other out of basin sources to increase their populations.
  3. Data collection to characterize Atlantic salmon, American shad and river herring adult runs by age, sex and frequency of repeat spawning.
  4. Quantify juvenile Atlantic salmon fall abundance, size, and age structure, and develop basin wide population estimates (15 sites are sampled each year in the NH portion of the Connecticut River Basin and 7 sites are sampled each year in the Merrimack River Basin).
  5. Monitor the timing of smolt migration by monitoring smolts at downstream fish passage facilities in the basins.
  6. Continue to release surplus Atlantic salmon brood stock in the Merrimack River for sport angling opportunities in cooperation with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hatcheries.
  7. Provide the public with outreach programs relative to anadromous fish restoration programs.

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