Winooski One station operator Jon Clark holds up a 30 inch, 9 pound female landlocked Atlantic salmon lifted during the 2010 fall salmon run. Photo credit: Winooski One
WATERBURY, VT -- Vermont anglers have something to smile about. A strong spawning run has brought large numbers of landlocked Atlantic salmon from Lake Champlain into the Winooski River this fall. Over 130 salmon as well as more than 50 steelhead rainbow trout have been trapped in the fish lift at the Winooski One hydro-electric facility.
"This has been the best year we've had since the lift began operating in 1993," says Nick Staats, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fishery biologist who is monitoring the salmon run in cooperation with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. "Some of these salmon are quite large. The biggest so far has been a 30- inch, 9 pound female."
The Winooski River fish lift is the main feature of a trap and truck fish passage project built into the Winooski One hydroelectric facility at the falls above the Salmon Hole in Winooski.
"We are really pleased with the number of salmon that our facility trapped this fall. We had some pretty lean years and it's nice to see fish again," said John Warshow, owner of Winooski One Partnership that operates the hydro-electric station.
The project was designed to truck salmon and steelhead around dams to reach suitable spawning habitat and provide more fishing opportunities. Winooski One shares the cost of operating the fish lift with Green Mountain Power, owner of the next two dams upstream in South Burlington and Essex Junction.
"Winooski One and Green Mountain Power have been excellent partners in the program," Staats said.
In 2008, the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suspended upstream passage of salmon and trout to reduce the risk of spreading the deadly fish disease, viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS). VHS has not been detected in Lake Champlain, but is considered one of the most serious fish diseases in North America and Europe. Outbreaks have killed thousands of fish in the Great Lakes, and it can affect over 30 species of fish, including all trout and salmon species, walleye, yellow perch, smallmouth bass, and northern pike.
Lake Champlain has been determined to have a high risk of becoming infected with VHS, so curtailing upstream fish passage is one of several prudent fish management measures taken to prevent the spread of VHS to inland waters, should it invade Lake Champlain. Even though fish are not currently being trucked upstream, the fish lift remains in operation as a valuable tool to monitor the salmon population. The agencies will periodically re-evaluate the suspension of upstream passage as new information becomes available.
The increasing salmon returns are testament to the cooperative efforts of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, New York Department of Conservation, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore this native fish to Lake Champlain. Aggressive sea lamprey control is central to success of the restoration program. The lean years Warshow referred to represent the period when sea lamprey populations exploded after an experimental sea lamprey control program ended in 1997. The long-term lamprey control program began in 2002.
"We've had dramatic declines in sea lamprey wounding rates over the last three years, which are resulting in improved survival of salmon and trout stocked in Lake Champlain," said Brian Chipman, a Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department fisheries biologist. "Anglers are reporting the best salmon fishing in over 10 years."
Advances in fish culture and stocking practices may also be contributing to stronger salmon runs. The Winooski River downstream of Winooski One is stocked annually with 30,000 yearling salmon "smolts" (6-7 inch fish), and 90,000 1-inch salmon fry are stocked in upstream reaches between Richmond and Duxbury, as well as in the Huntington River, a major tributary in Richmond and Huntington. The fry spend the first two years of their life in the river environment before reaching the smolt stage and migrating out to Lake Champlain.
"Having the salmon spend this extra time in the river allows them to better "imprint" to the Winooski River, increasing the likelihood that they will return as adults," Staats said. "Winooski One and Green Mountain Power also provide important downstream fish passageways at the dams to provide safe passage for the young out-migrating salmon."
The young salmon stocked in the river come from state and federal hatcheries in Vermont, and many of the adult salmon caught in the lift are transported to the Ed Weed Fish Culture Station in Grand Isle, where they are spawned to contribute to the next generation of salmon stocked.