Special type of stocking report

This time each year I write my annual column on Vermont’s trout stocking efforts. It stays consistent from year to year as the state’s stocking efforts have very little annual variation. A mix of browns, brookies, and rainbows totaling 4,000 to 6,000 get placed in the New Haven River, with the brookies going in the upstream portions.
Similar total numbers go into the Middlebury River, though it tends to get a higher percentage of brookies, all of which wind up in its three major tributaries upstream of Ripton. Otter Creek gets half a grand of browns downstream of the falls in Middlebury (to help feed the big pike that live there), plus a lot more upriver of Rutland, including some 2-year-olds in the 16-inch to 20-inch range.
About the only real change from year to year is the weather-dependent timing of the stocking, and the placement of some of the big fish in the “trophy” program. This year, thanks to the warm and dry March and April, the stocking schedule was well ahead of the usual pace. The New Haven received its first stocking within a week of opening day in early April. As for the placement of the larger 2-year-old fish, the upper Otter Creek down in Danby always gets its share. But in 2009 the Middlebury River got some of the extra large brown trout, allowing local anglers the opportunity to pull more lunkers out all summer long. And in 2010, Goshen Dam got a small supply of big brookies.
This year, however, I had the privilege of participating in a stocking program of a different kind. Cindy Brisson’s seventh-grade class at Mount Abraham Union Middle School took part in a special program to raise and release several hundred Atlantic Salmon into the White River. Their effort was part of the ongoing national program to restore Atlantic Salmon to the Connecticut River.
It began months earlier when they got a load of salmon eggs from the national hatchery in Bethel. They raised these eggs in their classroom, keeping a close watch on their development, as they hatched and began working through the alevin stage toward the fry stage.
All along, the class made scientific observations, keeping records, and of course getting lessons and making connections in biology, conservation and history. They learned, for example, that in the alevin stage of development the salmon still carry their yolk sacks of food left over from their eggs, as they cannot yet eat. They are weak and vulnerable, and hide under the gravel in the riverbeds. When these sacks are depleted, the salmon become fry; they gulp some air to achieve the correct amount of buoyancy, allowing them to swim freely in search of food. Or to escape. They become predators as well as prey.
It is just before the salmon reach this fry stage that the students release them. They transferred their many hundreds of alevin from their classroom aquarium into a large jar, packed that jar in a cooler of ice, and then packed themselves (only slightly less tightly) onto a school bus headed over the mountain.
Over in the town of Hancock, the students were met by a biologist with the National Forest Service, who gave them an additional lesson on the lives of salmon, and then helped oversee the release project. The kids headed down to the stream — one of the headwaters of the White River — and took turns getting three to five alevin in a plastic cup to carry down and release into the water, where they quickly disappeared under the gravel.
At one time, two centuries and more ago, the Connecticut River and its tributaries teemed with Atlantic Salmon. They spawned by the thousands, with many of these beautiful fish making it all the way up the White River into little streams in Rochester and Hancock and all up and down the eastern slope of the Green Mountains. In the 19th century, dams on the Connecticut, and other environmental problems including massive deforestation, put an end to this salmon run. Wild salmon became extinct in the river.
Thanks to this program, which has included construction of fish ladders on various dams on the Connecticut, a few hundred of these mighty fish now return each year. For the middle-schoolers at MAUMS, it was a chance to be a part of this restoration — a chance to hold an endangered species “in their hands,” as it were.
Odds are still against any of these individual fish, of course. Very few will survive long enough to make it back to the ocean, and of those that do even fewer will find the food they need while avoiding predators at sea in order to return to the waters in which they were released. If all goes well, perhaps three to five of the fish released might return in 6 years to lay their own eggs. But the kids who took part were still inspired by the thought that 10 or 20 years from now they might be standing on a bridge over the stream and looking down into the water at a 10-pound salmon, descended from those alevin, swimming upstream as part of a restored spawning migration.

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