A 20 Year Perspective

It has been the most amazing thing.   A few people interested in re-storing Atlantic salmon to their home waters to have persisted for twenty years without any financial help from the government.    Throughout the last 20 years the club has been supported by the generosity of the public without whose support the club would have failed.  The club has stayed true to its founding idea that Atlantic salmon belong  in the waters of Central New York.   It is time also to pay tribute to the dedication, the members of the club have shown for the past 20 years.

It is time perhaps, to look back and to summarize what has been accomplished and what has not. 

Historical Record
Historically, land-locked Atlantic salmon abounded in the area prior to the early 1800’s.  Professor Dwight Webster from Cornell University wrote a paper, referencing the abundance of Atlantic salmon in Central New York.

Another early account is found in the Van der Kemp Papers and pertains to the year 1792
"Both Salmon Rivers, emptying into Lake Ontario ... and the Fish-creek in Oneyda lake are in the spring and fall [full] of Salmon.  You may form of this assertion, a pretty accurate opinion after I have informed you, that one Oneyda Indian took with his Spear 45 Salmons within an hour; another in the presence of Captain Simonds 65 during one night, and another 80" (Van Der Kemp, 1880:64).

Atlantic salmon used to run up the Oswego River each year into Onondaga Creek, the Seneca and Oneida Rivers as well as Oneida, Cayuga and Seneca Lakes.   Each year members of the Oneida Nation would gather for a ritualized salmon feast at the junction of the East and West Branch of Fish Creek.  They would trap and harvest thousands of Atlantic salmon in weirs.  The salmon would be dried and smoked on racks for their winter sustenance.

Native Americans had a fishing village called Kuh-na-ta-ha located where the village of Phoenix is now according to Father Le Moyne.  The name meant “Place of Tall Pines”.   Another Native American fishing village (T’kah-koon-goon-da-nah-yea) was located at Caughdenoy.  A 1794 map shows an Indian fishing village near the confluence of the Fish Creek’ east and west branches.  

Sadly, dams built in the Oswego and Seneca Rivers stopped the annual salmon migration upstream from Lake Ontario.  Several times in the early 1800’s deputations of the Oneida Nation travelled to Albany to complain about the decline of Lake Ontario’s salmon runs caused by dam building.
 Again from Webster’s article:

"Salmon frequented this lake [Cayuga] the latter end of August and continued until cold weather. Last year [1809, since the erection of Baldwin's mill dam across the Seneca River, they did not appear until October, and then not in the usual number.  Some have always continued over the winter, and are caught by openings in the ice, with a hook and a bait of pork or white worm" (p 162).

Atlantic salmon vanished from Lake Ontario shortly after 1850 according to Webster.

How we got started
How is it that a small group of volunteers came together in an attempt to do something that large governmental agencies with large budgets have failed to do, namely to restore Atlantic salmon to their native waters.  It is a romantic undertaking with significant obstacles to success.  The numbers of salmon fry we place in the water each year are inadequate for a self-sustaining population considering the hazards that they face.  Living in a stream is a dangerous place and there are significant habitat barriers to restoration and a sustainable population of the species.  On the other hand, many fisheries throughout the State would face collapse without human intervention so the Club sees its work as a positive force in restoration and education of the general public.

During the early summer in 1997 an article appeared in the local paper, “The Post Standard” about a few people forming a club dedicated to re-introducing Atlantic salmon to the Fish Creek watershed.  It was a romantic idea that somehow a few people could change history.  Atlantic salmon fry were purchased and placed in various parts Fish Creek.  During August 1997 one of the sites was electro-shocked by DEC biologists and salmon were found alive and growing well.  The Post Standard article also caught the attention of Margaret Murphy, who was a candidate doing her field work for a P.H.D. in fishery science.

Club members eagerly volunteered to help Margaret in any way possible.  For the next few years members would help out with the field work including stocking and then later in the year electro-shocking sites to determine survival of salmon.  Margaret also performed an over-winter study by electro-shocking a few salmon, placing them in boxes anchored to the stream bottom.   The boxes were checked periodically during the winter to determine winter survival and they did well.
Processing Atlantic salmon
 Mike, Augie and Margaret processing the results
of electro-shocking Point Rock Creek

Continuing the Stocking
When Margaret’s field work was complete the club decided to continue to stock Atlantic salmon.  It was fun working as amateur biologists and besides it was a noble effort.  Collectively, we solved problems as we went along.  Various people had ideas about how to proceed. 

Allen Fannin knew a woman whose family operated a fish hatchery in the Catskills.  She would hatch eggs for us if we supplied a tank.  Bruce Montoya knew of a stainless steel tank that was being surplused by the U.S. Air Force at Griffiss Air Force Base.  We applied for it and took possession. 

The tank needed to be modified and Paul Miller knew someone who knew how to work stainless steel and who might do the modifications for free.  A source of eyed Atlantic salmon eggs was found where the club could buy salmon eggs at four cents apiece, a price that holds to this day.

The Beaverkill Trout Hatchery
The Beaverkill Trout Hatchery in Lewbeach, NY

For the next few years the club would order the eggs from a hatchery in Maine, have them shipped to Lew Beach in the Catskills where Lisa Shaver would take care of them for the club.  When it was time to stock the salmon, the necessary stocking permit was obtained from DEC.   During June when the fry were about an inch and a half long, members of the club would travel to Lew Beach, package the fish for travel and drive back to a meeting place in Taberg where other members would be waiting to stock the salmon.  

Building the first hatchery
In 2004 it was time to build our own hatchery.  Tom Tkachuk, a member of the club owned property on the East Branch of Fish Creek and there was a spring on the property that ran all year.  Tom was interested in having a hatchery on his property and allowed the club to perform an experiment to see if the water quality from the spring was good enough.  The experiment was a success and during the winter of 2005-6 club members built a small building to house the tank.  A second tank was built for the club and added to the hatchery.  The water supply to the hatchery was gravity fed so we did not have to worry about electrical power.  

Club members would travel to the hatchery every day on a rotating basis from January to June and take care of the fish and the tanks.  Raising salmon to the fry stage by the club proved very successful.  The club obtained a hatchery permit and a stocking permit and in 2006 stocked Atlantic salmon fry for the first time that had been raised entirely by the club.
the Annsville hatchery
The hatchery in Annsville

Building the second hatchery
During 2009 the club decided to investigate other locations for the hatchery closer to where most of the members lived to minimize concerns about winter travel over back roads.  Tom Schneider contacted Mr. Greg Harden, who owned the McConnellsville Furniture factory to gain permission to place a tank in the sluiceway of the dam located there.  Permission was granted and the experimental hatching showed that hatching eggs and raising them to the fry stage in the West Branch of Fish Creek was viable.

Later, the club went back to the management to determine whether they would be interested in building a hatchery for the club.  Several options were discussed but building in the flood plain turned out to be not viable.  It was then suggested that if a roof was placed over the open part of the sluiceway that it might serve as a hatchery.  The management agreed. 
the hatchery in McConnellsville
The hatchery in McConnellsville.

The club had plans drawn up and Harden went ahead and built the roof.  The club subsequently moved the tanks from Annsville to the McConnellsville location.  By this time we had three tanks.  By January 2011 the hatchery was up and running and on July 2, Atlantic salmon fry were stocked for the first time from the McConnellsville hatchery.

Solving problems
Running any kind of enterprise always results in having problems and a hatchery is not any different but somehow, the club has been able to resolve all of our problems.  
The club had just set up the hatchery in McConnellsville in January 2011 when the water in the tanks and pipes froze due frigid temperatures.  The club got everything thawed out and went ahead and sealed off the open end of the sluiceway.  That solved the problem.  Water contains a lot more heat than ice and the latent heat in water flowing through the hatchery was enough to keep the tanks clear of ice without adding a mechanical heat source.  

We had to do something about possible flooding of the hatchery.  Arley Morey came up with the idea of vertical pipes attached to the sides of the tanks that allowed the tanks to rise up as the water level increased during the Spring run-off.   Then we suspected that our salmon eggs were being handled roughly by the transportation service so starting in 2012 Club members began travelling overnight to the hatchery in Maine to bring back the eggs by car.

The club started with the use of trays in the fish tanks and the question arose: would incubators cut down on mortality?  The Adirondack State Fish Hatchery had some old excess incubators that they donated to the club.  Could we use them?  We did not have enough head to place the incubators in the sluiceway so Jim Lawler contacted Harden to see if they had a space for an incubator.  It turned out that they indeed did have a place and were willing to allow us to use it.  The space had power, running water and a drain. 
The hatchery in McConnellsvile
The hatchery showing how the tanks are
allowed to float in case of high water

By January 2014 the club had the incubator up and running to accept salmon eggs.  After the eggs hatch they are called alevin and have yolk sacs still attached.  When the yolk sacs are used up and the salmon start to be able to swim, they are transferred to the tanks from the incubators.    During 2016 the club suffered the loss of all of the fish in the incubator due to a pipe being clogged by silt.  With no fish to stock the club called various hatcheries to determine whether there were any excess salmon fry to be had.  Luckily, the Adirondack State Fish Hatchery and the Dwight Eisenhower National Fish Hatchery in Chittenden, Vermont had excess Atlantic salmon fry that they could give to the club.  Arrangements were made and members traveled to the respective hatcheries to transport the fish.  It has just been amazing that the club has gotten the support it has gotten from the public and from other institutions or agencies.  Despite obstacles, there has always been and continues to be widespread support for the Fish Creek salmon project.

Working with students
During 2013 the club began to collaborate with Trout Unlimited’s “Trout in the Classroom” program.  Together with Trout Unlimited, the club bought the tanks, chillers and filters and installed two systems at the Camden Middle School.  Trout Unlimited supplied brook trout eggs while the club supplied Atlantic salmon eggs.  The project was successful and on June 4, 2014 brook trout and Atlantic salmon were released into the Mad River by over 100 students, assisted by members of the club.

Club members also collected invertebrates from the stream to show the students the diversity of life that supports fish population.  The students especially liked stone fly nymphs and crayfish.  Working with the students has become one of the club’s annual traditions.  It emphasizes native species, care for the environment and a healthy ecosystem.

working with students
Camden Middle School students are exaiming
"life on the rocks" as demonstrated by Gene
The club decided in 2013 to reach out to the College of Environmental Science and Forestry.   The club would provide salmon fry and manpower to help anyone doing research on Atlantic salmon.  Justin DiRado and Chris Powers soon took the club’s offer and spent two years doing the field work for their Master of Science degrees.  Their work identified a Fish Creek tributary that had many benefits for the Club’s work and identified a strain of landlocked Atlantic salmon that might be more resilient in the face of climate change.

Each year for the last twenty years, the club has placed Atlantic salmon into the Fish Creek watershed.  Due to the state’s requirement for testing for disease, the capacity of the club’s hatchery is about 40 to 50,000 salmon fry because the salmon have to stay longer in the tanks for testing and they outgrow current hatchery capacity.   The club currently has four tanks for fry and two incubators for eggs.  

The club usually receives salmon eggs in January and members, on a rotating basis make a daily visit to the hatchery until late June or early July.  That takes a lot of dedication and commitment.  After being tested for disease, the Atlantic salmon fry are stocked in various tributaries to Fish Creek.  The club usually stocks about 35,000 salmon fry each year.  The club has developed a relationship with state and federal run hatcheries and if they have excess fish, the club will rent a large truck to transport the fish to Taberg for stocking.  The Ed Weed Fish Cultural Station in Vermont has been very generous to the club in the past with not only excess fish but with much needed advice.

The club receives its financial support entirely through donations, membership fees and raffles.  Recent collaboration with Spey Nation, an advocacy group for two handed fly rod fishing, has bolstered financial support for the club’s work.  Each year the club applies for the proper permits from the state to import eggs, operate a hatchery and to stock fish in the Fish Creek watershed.  The club receives untold amount of support from the public, for which members are very grateful.  The club enjoys warm encouragement from landowners who grant access to the creek.  Every landowner approached has granted access.  No one has ever refused.

So in the final analysis, is the club successful and what’s in the club’s future?  Yes, a few Atlantic salmon make it to adulthood but is that a meaningful measure of success?  Atlantics have been caught in Oneida Lake by ice fishermen and boaters.  Large Atlantics have been caught in Fish Creek.  The club has retrieved some of those fish and by analyzing the ear bones we can determine where the fish has spent its life.  The work done by the club has shown that Atlantic salmon can and do mature in Oneida Lake but we may never see the numbers of salmon that once swam in area waters.  If the club has increased the awareness of the public to the importance of a healthy environment and the idea that Atlantic salmon should be in the Oswego River watershed, then that may be enough to call the club’s effort a success.

What the future holds for the club and Atlantic salmon, are big unknowns.  Most scientists believe that climate change is causing harmful variations in precipitation and higher temperatures that could adversely impact a cold water species that has developed since the last ice age.   Atlantic salmon have evolved in a certain temperature range beyond which they cannot survive.  The big question is: will climate change warm up the streams too much for cold water species?