Every year, hatchery trucks dump hundreds of thousands of little salmon "fry" into Connecticut River system streams. It's part of a four-decade-long attempt to bring back an iconic fish that disappeared from these waters in the early 1800s.
It isn't working. No one is exactly sure why it's not working. And, despite the millions of dollars being spent on the program, experts admit it may never work.
Federal officials estimate that, for every 66,000-plus salmon fry (that's what the babies are called) stocked in Connecticut River Valley waters, a single adult salmon will return from the Atlantic and swim upriver to spawn.
"A great deal of resources has been directed to try and restore salmon to the Connecticut River," says Kenneth Sprankle, Connecticut River coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We've been averaging a couple hundred [returning adult fish] for quite a long time."
"It's very frustrating," he says of that stunning lack of success. "And we don't have any explanation for it."
The Connecticut River and its tributaries are far cleaner today than when the restoration effort was launched in the late 1960s. Dams have been removed. Fish ladders and safe passageways around power plants have been built. Diseases that were killing off salmon have been overcome.
New and better methods have been developed for collecting eggs and raising young fish from successful returning adult salmon. And commercial fishing of salmon around their North Atlantic feeding grounds off Greenland has been halted.
Yet the numbers of adult salmon coming back from the ocean have dramatically declined in the past 20 years. As late as 1992, experts were estimating one adult salmon was swimming back up the Connecticut River for every 10,000 fry released. According to Sprankle, that ratio is now .15 returning adults for every 10,000 baby salmon poured into rivers and streams.
Some experts think it could be simply part of an overall decline in Atlantic salmon as a species, from Europe to North America. Others believe it may be the result of a natural cycle of salmon population increase and decrease. There's also speculation that the troubles of this cold-water fish are another symptom of global warming.
Beyond those broader environmental issues, the marathon attempt to restore salmon to the Connecticut River has its own very particular genetic problem.
The natural return rate for Atlantic salmon is about 1 percent, says Steve Gephard, supervising fisheries biologist for the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. That means, in good wild conditions, one adult salmon will return from the ocean to spawn for every 100 fry that hatch.
Unlike Pacific salmon, our Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) don't always die after spawning. Some of the adults, which are called "kelts," survive to return to the ocean and may come back as many as three times to spawn.
In nature, Atlantic salmon evolved different genetic strains, according to Gephard, depending on the streams or rivers where that evolution occurred.
A salmon from a Canadian river developed certain traits that helped it survive in that particular body of water; and those fish differ just slightly from salmon that evolved in Maine's Penobscot River or those that once swam in the Connecticut River. And salmon from one river don't breed with salmon from another.
The trouble for the Connecticut River restoration effort, Gephard says, is that the "traits of the native Connecticut River salmon have been lost due to extinction."
That meant that the fish originally brought in to restock the Connecticut waters came from rivers in Maine and weren't genetically programmed for survival in our rivers and streams. "We were using a non-native strain," Gephard says, a fact that scientists now realize may have a lot to do with why the restocking effort hasn't worked yet.
"To reinvent that strain of Atlantic salmon designed for the Connecticut River Valley system is very difficult," admits Robert A. Jones, longtime president of the Connecticut River Salmon Association.
Jones, a South Windsor resident, is a retired state environmental official and a diehard supporter of the program to bring the salmon back to the Connecticut. He doesn't agree with people who think far too much money is being spent on an impossible project.
The cost of the Connecticut River salmon restoration program includes between $1.5 million and $2 million a year in federal funding for hatcheries and restocking, explains Sprankle.
Gephard says Connecticut spends about $131,000 annually on its salmon program, with $98,000 of that coming from a federal grant. The remaining $33,000 per year is the bottom line cost to Connecticut taxpayers.