To the Editor:
The Boquet River should be an epic fishery and an emblem of nature’s resilience. Instead, it is stuck within a series of management decisions that are misinformed, inefficient and entrenched.
I grew up dreaming that I was one of the pioneering explorers in this region, either Hudson or Champlain, arriving at the mouth of a tributary and seeing large trout and salmon. Historical records paint a picture of salmon providing balance to entire ecosystems, including the humans who relied on their meat for sustenance. That dream has an unprecedented opportunity to be real again in the Boquet watershed, and surprisingly little stands in the way of the ancestral migration of these great fish.
The Department of Environmental Conservation has already done a great deal to eliminate the primary threats to landlocked salmon in Lake Champlain. By pursuing modest harvest regulations and striving to reduce the impact of lamprey, DEC has already reversed a great deal of damaging historical patterns. Conservation organizations like BRASS are also playing a large part in restoring habitat. And while pollution is still a major threat, industrial uses of the river have been all but halted. The salmons’ main threat today, as it was at the turn of the century, is manmade. The dam at Willsboro creates a serious barrier to salmon, both physically and existentially.
The Willsboro Dam presents several problems for Champlain salmon. First, and most obviously, the fish ladder designed to accommodate spawning fish is unnatural for salmon and leaves many in the pools below—all dressed up and nowhere to spawn. It’s a great idea in theory, less so in practice. This year, the water is particularly low so the fish ladder isn’t even holding enough water for fish to use it.
Second, the dam creates about ¼ mile of dead water above the dam which is neither cold nor oxygenated. Salmon need both of these conditions to prevent fatigue in their early stages of migration.
Finally, the dam is a liability for downstream users because of its age and construction. If the dam blows, it will probably take someone with it.
Ultimately the dam creates a situation where very few, if any, salmon are able to travel upstream and spawn naturally. As a result, the state continually stocks the fishery to maintain the illusion that the river is healthy and can support recreational fishing. Last year alone, the State released 168,117 landlocked salmon into Lake Champlain and its tributaries. The same pattern of stocking has been occurring semi-regularly since 1975. I realize that the removal of the Willsboro dam is not a cheap proposition; however the continual stocking of salmon without any natural reproduction puts a serious burden on taxpayers just the same. Removing the dam would allow the Boquet River to incubate salmon instead of the State contracting that same service out to fish hatcheries.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Boquet River “management” is that it convinces sportsman like me that the fishery is healthy. We can go fishing and (if very lucky) catch a salmon. Catching salmon gives us the false perception that all is well and we needn’t enter the conservation fight. This is a missed opportunity for fisherman who would otherwise become champions for the dam-removal cause.
I hope that the dam in Willsboro, however scenic, will soon become a relic of the past. I also hope that truly wild salmon will once again inhabit the Boquet, and perhaps my children will fish here one day and experience a taste of what Sameul de Champlain saw upon arriving in present-day Essex County.