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Reintroducing Atlantic salmon to the Salmon River

In recent years both the federal and New York state governments have been studying how best to re-introduce – salmon -- to New York’s Salmon River.  That might come as a surprise to anyone who’s ever fished the river, known for its salmon of eye-popping size. 

The Salmon River in upstate New York meanders for 18 miles through the countryside from the Tug Hill plateau down to Lake Ontario. And nearly every day in the fall, it is lined with anglers who are in on a secret.

Rhett Myers, drove four hours from Poughkeepsie to fish the river this fall. "This is possibly the best fishing in the world," said Myers.

Al Ruthig, from near Syracuse, agrees.

"It is amazing. we were up early October and the salmon were running really strong, and the river was just full of them and you couldn’t help but hook a fish," said Ruthig.

But what many here don’t know is that the salmon they’re catching and the salmon that gave the river its name are not the same fish.

Lake Ontario was once known as the world’s greatest freshwater fishery for Atlantic salmon. And the Salmon River was one of its best spawning streams, says Fran Verdoliva of the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation.

"Through the colonization period and the settlement of this area... you saw the Salmon River commercial records showing as many as 3,000 salmon a night taken out of the river, average weight almost 15 pounds," said Verdoliva.

But the Atlantic salmon were gone by the end of the 19th century, victims of over-fishing, pollution, and the mill dams that kept them from getting upstream to spawn. By the 1960s, Lake Ontario was dominated by alewives -- a small, invasive fish whose population exploded with no larger fish to eat them.  

Enter the very hungry and prolific Pacific salmon.

"Pacific salmon at that time were still readily available from the northwest... it was a fish that could grow to a very large size quickly," said Verdoliva.

Cohoes, chinook and steelhead salmon were introduced. They’re still stocked today, but they also reproduce in tremendous numbers on their own.  With so many large fish now in the lake and river, the fishing industry took off, to the tune of almost $30 million a year in the Salmon River alone.  And those salmon being pulled out -- they’re all the non-native Pacific variety.

Well, almost all.

Volunteers now help stock Salmon River tributaries with thousands of Atlantic salmon fingerlings. Each fish has a fin clipped for identification. It is part of a federal research project to find the best way to reintroduce Atlantics to their native habitat.

Jim Johnson runs the Tunison Lab of Aquatic Science in Cortland, where the fish were hatched.

"Right now the sole effort in New York is in the Salmon River drainage," said Johnson.

He says having Atlantics in the mix can help the ecosystem resist the next nasty invasive species that shows up. Plus, there is an added benefit because Atlantics start their spawning run earlier than the Pacific varieties.

"There’s real hope it can be an economic boost to the upstate New York economy, especially in Oswego County, to have thousands of Atlantic salmon returning and providing a fishery in the summer months which is really not a very viable time right now," Johnson said.

And that has already begun to happen, because New York state itself has been stocking a few Atlantics for the past 15 years. Six hundred adults were caught last year.  And recently the DEC’s Verdoliva has started to see what had not happened here in more than a century.

"For three years we found natural reproduction of the Atlantic salmon in the salmon river," said Verdoliva.

They did not find any this year, but Verdoliva thinks the eggs may have hatched early because of the warm winter.  Still, he hopes to one day see a self sustaining population of Atlantics.

"Having a fish that through man's use disappeared from this system, and being back there, we should be very proud of that," said Verdoliva. "We’re very proud of what we’ve done with the introduction of other species into the system. We’ve been very successful. This would be like the crowning jewel on top of it."

The U.S. Geological Survey is also studying the possibility of reintroducing small forage fish for the Atlantic salmon to eat, another step in establishing a healthy, sustaining population of what was once known as the king of fish.   

David Chanatry reported this story as part of the New York Reporting Project at Utica College. You can read more of the project's storiesat their website, nyrp-uc.org.