By Joshua Hoekwater, MS Environmental Science and Policy student at Plymouth State University, Edited by Associate Professor Mary Ann McGarry, 2019
Salmon have long been a prized aspect of wildlife in North America and for many are regarded as the pinnacle of fishing and flavor. They are seen on almost any menu and have been glorified by artistic representations and cultures throughout time. Though how much do we know about the salmon we savor and adore?
The Evolution of Salmon Worship
In the coastal regions of America, Native American worship of salmon dates back thousands of years. Native American stories describe seemingly mythical salmon populations, that were so abundant, you could walk across the river on the backs of salmon during the spawning migration. This abundance made salmon a staple of tribal diets and is idolized in many traditions. The salmon spirit was used as an idol for guiding people to respect the ecological role of rivers and tributaries that salmon used to spawn. Each year, as salmon returned to the rivers, it was celebrated by the regional tribes and many performed ceremonies honoring this treasured resource.
However, as the Euro-American settlers started to arrive and develop the landscape, they also brought the beginning of the decline of the salmon. There were many factors that contributed to the development of these lands and the salmon decline, but by far the most continuously damaging change to the landscape was dams.
Salmon are an “anadromous” fish, which means that they migrate from the sea up into freshwater rivers to spawn. The blockage of rivers by dams means the loss of spawning habitat for anadromous fish and their inevitable decline. This story has played out many times in history, always ending the same way. In Europe, the agricultural revolution brought a dramatic change to the landscape. There many forests were logged and fields took their place and with these changes came agricultural watering systems and hydro-powered lumber/grain mills. These operations all rely on the damming of water for turning a water wheel, irrigating fields, or driving logs down river.
With these operations came a marked decline in salmon runs and the European governments and scientists took notice. The connection was quickly made that these dams were blocking salmon from moving upstream to their spawning grounds. European biologists were recommending that small gaps be made in dams in order for salmon to be able to pass, though little could be done to stop economic progress. Without these recommendations being enforced, dams continued to scatter the rivers and block salmon movement bit by bit until populations were considered, for practical purposes, gone. This same pattern has occurred in the eastern and western United States as the landscape was developed, but not all populations have been lost yet.
Today, dams are by far the most continuously damaging change to the landscape because they are absolute. What this means, is that when a dam is put up, it usually takes a seemingly extraordinary amount of effort and money to take them down or even modify them for fish passage. Many dams are absolute in the blockage of salmon, and can eliminate an entire watershed’s population if the dam is near the mouth of a river system. Dams are like no other changes to our rivers, because they are so complete in their elimination of salmon and absolute in their permanence.
The Loss of the Merrimack Salmon
In New Hampshire, the loss of the Atlantic Salmon in the Merrimack river is a local example of the dam issue that has been playing out across the world. Historic Atlantic Salmon populations no longer exist because of the many dams that now shape the Merrimack river. This is a common story in the Northeast, and wild populations of Atlantic Salmon now only exist in Maine and Canada. Without natural reproduction in the restricted rivers of the Northeast, fish hatcheries became a necessity. Hatcheries are an artificial solution that we originally hoped could help restore salmon populations. Instead, hatcheries are a tool for allowing us to go out and capture salmon that are stocked in lakes and ponds and it gives us that simulated feeling of a natural world.
The Livermore Falls area contains a relic of the first hatchery in New Hampshire. This hatchery is no longer functioning and the area has long since been abandoned by human occupants. The area serves as a reminder of the futility of raising salmon in hatcheries to then be cast into streams and lakes where a majority will die before they are ever seen. Restoring wild populations of salmon was the original goal of these hatcheries, but now that seems like a long lost dream. As a state routed in the ideology of “Live Free or Die” we ironically have accepted the world as it is and no longer question whether wild salmon could once again run in the rivers of New Hampshire and the Northeast. If enough dams in the Northeast were to be removed or modified as the infrastructure ages, maybe then we could revisit this long lost dream. For now, the Livermore Falls area offers a place to visit and contemplate permanence, as you watch the river flow over its famous falls in a lost village along the banks of a historic salmon river.