The Ripple: The Future of Anadromous Fish in the Connecticut River

Connecticut River’s Anadromous Fish

Hadley Falls Fish Lift in Holyoke, MA.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of visiting both the Holyoke and Turners Falls’ anadromous fish recovery operations with a group of intrepid high schoolers (Anadromous fish are born in fresh water, migrate to the ocean for most of their lives, and return to fresh water to spawn.). Holyoke has a fish elevator, which is somewhat unique, and Turners Falls has a fish ladder; both are open for public viewing from Mother’s to Father’s Day every year.

Normally, I shy away from zoos, and there is something zoo-like about both these operations. However, in this case, the survival of several fish species is on the line, and I brought the high schoolers as much to have them ponder the evolutionary, economic and ethical issues as I did to let them take in the sheer spectacle of tons of money being spent to engineer the desperate last ditch attempt to save these beings. The fish—sturgeon, shad, salmon—have lived in Nonotuck for plus or minus fifteen thousand years, ever since the end of the last ice age. The dams that prevent their migrations and spawning are two hundred or less years old. Any person, child or adult, who visits these sites can see that the easiest, cheapest and permanent solution to the steady demise of the fish is to pull the dams down. It is this obvious knowledge that conflicts with the more complicated fact that nobody is calling, much less organizing, for the dams dismantling that I wanted us to wrestle with. Our kids are going to inherit the earth, and everything that we and our ancestors have done to it. Though it is difficult to bring students, young or old, into direct contact with the tragic dimension of this inheritance, I regularly do so, because it is my responsibility as a teacher and philosopher. More profoundly, I think, it is my duty as an elder who is passing on his inheritance, with deep love for systems that have given, us and all who we know, life.

Our most intense learning experience came, not from watching the recovery operations; it came from finding giant shad on the rocks and in the bushes for they expressed both the beauty of their being and of their passionate struggle to evade these almost impossible impasses to their lives and survival. In short, the dead fish on the side of the CT River below both dams spoke most directly to us of the allegorical dimension—the life against death dimension—of our own existences, which as Darwin explained, is intimately woven into the destinies of all other living creatures. We felt emotion when we looked, and smelled, the desiccating shad, because in them we recognized our own fragility, our own perilous state of being in this time of global economic and environmental transformation.

This has been a heavier post than usual, and I have written it because I am still moved by what I experienced, which is nothing less than the life—the bios—of the CT River expressing itself. It was an intense, and unforgettable experience for us all. There are two things I must leave you with before concluding, however. The first is that, from a long-term economic perspective, the wisest and most profitable use of the river would be to glean the massive amounts of high quality protein from the anadromous fish, year after year. It is only from the short-term economic perspective that damming the CT River appears to be profitable.

The other thing: before the English colonists seized the land and river that is now called Turner’s Falls, the place was “sacred.” Local Native Americans, the Pocumtucks, convened with people from the western Mohawks and eastern Narragansett clans to gather and smoke and dry the protein surplus there every spring. No single story remains of these gatherings which must have been held for many centuries, but it is known that weapons were not permitted to be carried in the area, and violence was absolutely forbidden. Imagine, if you will, that degree of civilization.

Editors Note: On June 23, the Daily Hampshire Gazette featured the article, “Two biologists study decline of shad over 140 miles in Connecticut River,” by Fran Ryan, addressing the impact local dams are having on the population of American shad in the Connecticut River.


Kurt Heidinger, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Biocitizen, non-profit school of field environmental philosophy, based in the Western MA Hilltown of Westhampton, MA where he lives with his family.  Biocitizen gives participants an opportunity to “think outside” and cultivate a joyous and empowering biocultural awareness of where we live and who we are. Check out Kurt’s monthly column, The Ripple, here on Hilltown Families on the 4th Monday of every month to hear his stories about rivers in our region. Make the world of rivers bigger than the world of pavement inside of you!

[Photo credit: (ccl) Paul Cooper]

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