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Gone from Our Waters, But Not From Our History: the Salmon of the Merrimack and Its Pemigewasset Headwaters

Last updated on May 28, 2020

Ryan Heisler, Master of Science Environmental Science and Policy Student at Plymouth State University, edited by faculty advisor Mary Ann McGarry,

Posted December 2018

Introducing Atlantic Salmon

A Native Relationship

the confluence of the Pemigewasset, (affectionately referred to as the Pemi), and the Winnipesaukee River is where the beautiful waters of the Merrimack River begin. The Merrimack, meaning swift water place, and its headwaters- the Pemi River, was the lifeblood for Native American tribes that thrived off of the river’s many resources. One of the most important resources was the Atlantic salmon that migrated from the river’s mouth in northeastern Massachusetts past Livermore Falls north of Plymouth New Hampshire.

Together the spring rains and snowmelt were the key triggers signaling the King Salmon of the Atlantic that they needed to begin their massive migratory runs up the rivers. The indigenous tribes who feasted on the salmon, welcomed the return of the migratory fish up the rivers, after the long, cold New England winters. Not only did the fish have to get past the eager anglers, the fish had to navigate 14 waterfalls, including the one at Livermore Falls.

A Beautiful Autumn image of Livermore Falls looking up river

The Decline of Giants

Salmon are programmed to jump and so navigating up a waterfall wasn’t and isn’t an insurmountable obstacle.  However, the industrial boom of the Europeans in the 1800’s proved to be the demise of the Atlantic salmon in New Hampshire. The river which served as the original highway of New England allowed goods to be sent back and forth between the rural towns and the growing city of Boston. To create better conditions for this developing transportation route, dams, canals, and locks were built. This new infrastructure complicated the path of migrating Atlantic salmon, and in some sections these structures completely cut off the fishes path. The Amoskeag Dam, just north of Manchester, New Hampshire, was the site of the first fishway designed to allow the salmon migration to continue. However, in 1847 when the 30-foot high, Essex dam, was constructed in Lawrence, Massachusetts; the passage of the fish further upstream was essentially blocked. The Essex dam was a closed door, one that all anadromous species knocked on, but none were able to pass through.  This feature drove the Atlantic salmon of the Merrimack and its watershed to extinction.

The beginning of Restoration

Throughout the period of dam construction salmon hauls began to wane, taking an exceptional days catch from 100 fish down to a messily 10. This decline and the decimation of livelihoods that existed because of the fish sparked interest in restoration. Initial efforts started in New Hampshire, from a man by the name of Henry A. Bellows who is recognized as the man who secured the appointment of commissioners in 1864, who were tasked with investigating the decline of the migratory fish in both the Merrimack and Connecticut rivers. With the help of many professional naturalists, like Professor Louis Agassiz, Bellows presented his case to the Massachusetts legislature over a four day period. At the conclusion of this committee meeting, Bellows was rewarded with a joint agreement between Massachusetts and New Hampshire to tackle the restoration efforts as a united front.

Power was given to commissioners to demand dam facilities create fish passage and if no action was taken within a period of time deemed reasonable, the commissioners had the authority to collect revenue funds from the facilities from the state treasurer. These funds were then used to install fish passage devices. By 1868, fish-ways were installed far enough up the Merrimack that passage to the headwaters was possible, however it wasn’t clear if it was suitable passage.

The Origins of Stocking

Alongside the efforts to free the river flow to the Atlantic, repopulation efforts were put into place. A dentist by the name of Dr. William Fletcher of Concord was one of the first to begin an effort to restore young Atlantic salmon to the Merrimack River. He traveled to New Brunswick, Canada in the fall of 1866 and obtained fertilized Atlantic salmon eggs with the permission of the province. Collecting a total of 70,000 eggs, he was then faced with the difficult task of returning to the Merrimack with as many viable eggs as possible. His most successful method of transporting these eggs was to pack them inside of a champagne basket packed with damp moss. The eggs traveled by ship and rail back to the headwaters of the Merrimack, where they were deposited into artificially prepared beds. It was recorded that nearly 90% of Dr. Fletcher’s eggs survived and hatched within the Pemi River, sparking more efforts to collect and relocate fertilized eggs from our northern neighbors.

It was the successful transplant of Dr. Fletcher’s egg that led to a need for a more local egg source. Maine became the source for eggs; the fish were manually spawned and the eggs were fertilized by hand.  These large operations took the participation of every state involved and showed the determination of the region to restore the salmon populations. It wasn’t long before the state of New Hampshire began building its own hatch house, the very first of its kind in the state. It was decided in early 1874 that the best location would be along the Pemi River, below Livermore Falls.

The First State Hatch-House

Although the first state hatch house was to be on the Pemi, the project was to be funded by both New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The intent was to collect salmon that were returning to the river, hold them within a dammed up spring pond, and then milk the adults for their eggs and milt (fish sperm). Once harvested, the eggs would be fertilized in long troughs that were plumbed to another spring on site. The clean and cold spring water would provide the two things the eggs needed to remain healthy.  After hatching, the fry were kept until they were of par size to assure a better survival rate in the wild.

The early efforts were not successful and to this day the Atlantic salmon fail to migrate up their once native waters. Many feel like modern efforts to reintroduce the salmon are a waste of funds, whiles others are still very committed to restoring once native populations. Now there are even more impacts and threats, including Increasing water temperatures, poor water quality, and invasive species.  There are still large hurdles to overcome.  The Atlantic salmon were the pride of many eastern rivers and even if they are gone from the Pemi, they can’t be written out of our history books and hopefully one day we’ll be able to celebrate their return.

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