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Atlantic Salmon fingerlings hit the water in the Salmon River. Photo: David Chanatry
Atlantic Salmon fingerlings hit the water in the Salmon River. Photo: David Chanatry

Bringing back the Salmon River's salmon

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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 caught one of the river's famous eye-popping sized fish.

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Reported by

David Chanatry
Reporter, New York Reporting Project at Utica College

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’s lined with anglers who are in on a secret.

"This is possibly the best fishing in the world."

That was Rhett Myers, who drove four hours from Poughkeepsie. And this is Al Ruthig, from near Syracuse.

"It’s 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."

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 NY 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 3000 salmon a night taken out of the river, average weigh almost 15 pounds."

But the Atlantics were gone by the end of the 19th century, victims of overfishing, 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 quicky."

Cohoes, Chinook and Steelhead 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 dollars a year in the Salmon River alone. And those salmon being pulled out...they’re all the non-native Pacific variety.

Well… almost all.

"All right you little gems, you got to make it."

Volunteers are wading in the middle of a small Salmon River tributary, carrying buckets of tiny fish. They’re helping stock the stream with 76 thousand –Atlantic- salmon fingerlings. Each fish has a fin clipped for identification. It’s 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."

He says having Atlantics in the mix can help the ecosystem resist the next nasty invasive species that shows up. Plus, there’s 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 NY 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."

That’s already begun to happen, because NY 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 hadn’t happened here in more than a century.

"For three years we found natural reproduction of the Atlantic Salmon in the Salmon River."

They didn’t 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 mans use disappeared from this system, and being back there, we should be very proud of that. 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."

A big prize too, for the anglers who catch one. Again, Rhett Myers and Al Ruthig.

"The Atlantic Salmon they claim, pound for pound the strongest fish there is. An amazing fighter."

"They run hard, they come up out of the water and they’re just a ball to catch."

The US geological survey is also studying the possibility of reintroducing small forage fish for the Atlantics to eat, another step in establishing a healthy, sustaining population of what was once known as the king of fish.

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