Atlantic Salmon Return to the Connecticut River Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Atlantic salmon were reintroduced into the Connecticut River system after being eliminated early in the 1800’s. Once a national issue, the protection of the salmon became an international issue by the 1960’s.

Summary of Event

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, an interstate effort successfully reintroduced Atlantic salmon to the Connecticut River system, from which they had been eliminated more than one hundred years ago. The return of the salmon signaled an important reversal of hundreds of years of environmental damage to the river system and to the nation in general. Salmon, protection Atlantic salmon Conservation;animals Connecticut River system;salmon [kw]Atlantic Salmon Return to the Connecticut River (1975) [kw]Salmon Return to the Connecticut River, Atlantic (1975) [kw]Connecticut River, Atlantic Salmon Return to the (1975) Salmon, protection Atlantic salmon Conservation;animals Connecticut River system;salmon [g]North America;1975: Atlantic Salmon Return to the Connecticut River[01790] [g]United States;1975: Atlantic Salmon Return to the Connecticut River[01790] [c]Environmental issues;1975: Atlantic Salmon Return to the Connecticut River[01790] [c]Animals and endangered species;1975: Atlantic Salmon Return to the Connecticut River[01790] Dingell, John D. Johnson, Edwin C. Wulff, Lee

The Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) is native to New England and maritime Canada. It is born in small freshwater streams, where it lives for two to five years before it migrates to areas in the Atlantic Ocean near the Faroe Islands or off the coast of Greenland. When it has been in the ocean for one to five years, it returns to the freshwater stream of its birth to spawn. Unlike Pacific salmon, adult Atlantic salmon may return to the ocean after spawning and return to fresh water again the following year. Critical to the survival of the salmon is the ability to migrate freely from the stream of its birth to the ocean, to feed freely in the ocean, and to return freely to the same stream in which it was born to spawn. Atlantic salmon from New England, Canada, and Western and Northern Europe may all share the same ocean feeding grounds, but when they return to fresh water, they almost always return to the small streams of their birth. Each river has thus developed a unique strain of salmon.

Before the settlement of New England, the Connecticut River system was the largest salmon habitat in the area that would become the eastern United States. Native Americans used the salmon for food and fertilizer and taught the white settlers to do the same. This increased the harvest of salmon from the Connecticut River system, and probably decreased the stocks slightly. The first major reduction in the salmon population, however, came in the 1700’s, when dams were built on many of the tributaries to the Connecticut River. As late as 1790, salmon were reported migrating to the upper reaches of the Connecticut River, but in 1798, a sixteen-foot-high dam was constructed across the Connecticut at Hadley Falls, Massachusetts, blocking all access to the upper sections of the river and the northern tributaries. Dams were also constructed on all the tributaries on the lower sections of the river, so that by 1814, the entire salmon run for the Connecticut River was eliminated, and the Connecticut River strain of Atlantic salmon became extinct.

The elimination of salmon from the Connecticut River was caused by dams that prevented the salmon from returning to their native streams to spawn, not by chemical pollution of the river. Technology has long existed to provide fishways, or fish ladders, that allow salmon and other migratory fish to circumvent dams. In the 1870’s, in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts finally forced the owners of the dam at South Hadley Falls to install a fishway to allow salmon to return to spawning grounds on the upper reaches of the river system. Salmon were stocked for several years, but none were known to return to the upper river. This was attributed to fishing pressure in the lower river at the time, but genetic factors may also have played a role. Another unsuccessful attempt to restore salmon to the Connecticut River system was made in 1953, when the Connecticut State Board of Fisheries and Game stocked 100,000 salmon eggs in the two important tributaries in Connecticut, the Farmington and Salmon rivers.

The restoration of salmon to the Connecticut River system proved too great a task for any individual state or group to accomplish. The successful return of the salmon to the river began on August 9, 1950, when Congress passed the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act, Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act (1950) cosponsored by Michigan representative John D. Dingell and Colorado senator Edwin C. Johnson. This bill, which became known as the Dingell-Johnson Act, Dingell-Johnson Act (1950)[Dingell Johnson Act] provided funds for fish management programs, funded in part by a 10 percent excise tax on sportfishing equipment. This act ultimately provided the bulk of the massive funding needed to restore salmon to the Connecticut River. Additional funds for restoration became available with the passage of the Anadromous Fish Act in 1965. Anadromous Fish Act (1965)

In 1967, the Connecticut River Salmon Commission was formed as a cooperative effort among the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. the National Marine Fisheries Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. and the four states that the Connecticut River flows through or borders: Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire. All the successful efforts to restore the salmon to the river have been directed by this commission.





In 1967, the restocking of the river began with the introduction of five thousand salmon. More juvenile salmon were released in each following year, with salmon released at different locations throughout the river system and at different stages of development, ranging from recently hatched fry to two-year-old fish. The first sign of success came in 1975, when a returning adult salmon was seen in the river.

The success indicated by the return of the salmon to the Connecticut River, as well as similar results in restoring salmon to rivers in Maine, showed that the effects of the Industrial Revolution on the environment could be partially reversed. Although salmon have returned to the Connecticut River, the original Connecticut River strain was wiped out more than one hundred years ago.


The success of reintroducing Atlantic salmon to the Connecticut River system increased public interest in the project and furthered governmental support. Biologists began to realize that the younger a fish was when it was first released into the river, the greater the chance of its returning to the river. Experts also suspected that the genetic makeup of a fish was involved in the probability that it would return to a river. In 1975, a genetic-engineering study was completed that charted the course of hatchery breeding for successive salmon generations. By carefully choosing the breeding stock, biologists were able to develop a strain of salmon that would be more likely to return to the river. Salmon returns to the river started to rise, and reached 530 returns by 1981.

The salmon were protected from fishing by law, and returning salmon were captured at fishways on their tributary rivers for hatchery breeding. This allowed an increase in the number of juvenile salmon that could be released from the newly developed strain. The restoration project expanded, and 1981 saw the opening of a federal salmon hatchery in Vermont to provide more juvenile salmon for the Connecticut River system.

Restoration of the salmon fishery of the Connecticut River system involves much more than simply planting juvenile salmon. In order for the salmon to return, the waters must be clean, and dams must not impede the progress of the salmon to migrate downstream to the ocean, or to return to spawn. Steady progress has been made in cleaning the Connecticut River and its tributaries. While this effort is not related directly to the salmon restoration efforts, it is a help. In addition, means must be provided to allow the salmon to circumvent the dams. By 1987, the five lower dams on the Connecticut River, as well as some of the dams on tributary streams, had fishways or other means for returning salmon to bypass the dams. Continuing progress was made, not only in the number of dams that could be passed but also in the ease of passage, particularly on the downstream migrations.

In October, 1991, the second important sign of success came from the Salmon River in Connecticut, one of the tributaries of the Connecticut River that was stocked with juvenile salmon. A pair of thirty-inch adult salmon were found spawning in the river. These were 2 of the 45,000 salmon that had been released into the river in 1989. Until this discovery, any known reproduction of restored salmon had taken place in a hatchery. This event indicated not only that salmon would return to the Connecticut River system but also that they would have the instincts to spawn. During the period 2000-2003, about 40 salmon per year were counted at Connecticut River dams, increasing to 69 in 2004 and 186 in 2005. These data seemed to justify hopes for the return of the salmon population.

While the effort was being made to restore salmon to the Connecticut River, another, potentially disastrous, development was taking place. Atlantic salmon from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean are known to be anadromous: They mature and feed in the ocean and return to the streams of their birth to spawn. For years, the location of the Atlantic salmon’s ocean habitat and feeding grounds remained a mystery. In 1963, the U.S. submarine Nautilus was cruising the waters off Greenland when it happened upon large numbers of salmon. This discovery triggered a drastic increase in commercial fishing, which resulted in a decrease in the number of salmon available to return to spawn.

In subsequent years, another area of the Atlantic Ocean off the Faroe Islands was also found and commercially fished. Retrieval of tags from the fish from Greenland waters revealed that salmon from North America and Europe fed together in the ocean and then separated to return to native streams to spawn. These developments were significant on two levels. The salmon were at risk of being caught in different developmental stages, when they were in their ocean feeding grounds, as well as when they returned to spawn. Also, the salmon’s survival moved from being a national issue in each country that possessed salmon rivers to being an international debate of ownership and protection of ocean salmon.

In the 1940’s, Lee Wulff, an author, conservationist, and salmon fisherman, had proposed the radical idea that, in order for the Atlantic salmon to survive, commercial fishing of the species should be banned. He pointed out that sportfishing for salmon contributed more to an area’s economy than commercial fishing and at the same time preserved the fish. His ideas were not taken seriously at the time, but they became the basis for salmon conservation in the 1980’s.

Commercial fishing for salmon consisted of two basic types. Fishing industry One was the netting of salmon as they returned to their native rivers to spawn, which was done by local people under local laws. The other type, which began around the same time that the restoration projects were beginning in the United States, consisted of taking salmon in the ocean, which presented international law problems.

Canada’s Atlantic salmon populations were decreasing dangerously in the 1980’s, as a result of commercial fishing harvests, not because of environmental factors. Conservationists began to use Wulff’s arguments that sportfishing is more economically advantageous than commercial fishing, and they finally convinced the Canadian government to ban commercial salmon fishing in some provinces. The two provinces that allowed commercial salmon fishing bought out the fishermen’s commercial fishing licenses in a voluntary program. It was proven that approximately 90 percent of the salmon harvest was taken by commercial fishing crews, but this represented less than 8 percent of the economic impact of the salmon. The partial banning and partial buyout program increased the number of salmon returning to Canadian waters but also affected the Connecticut River restoration project, as some of the salmon that had been commercially netted in Canadian waters were actually salmon from U.S. waters.

The other issues needed to be addressed in an international forum. Two agreements were signed early in the 1980’s that addressed the problems of Atlantic salmon on the international scale, although both were open to interpretation and debate. These included the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, Law of the Sea Treaty (1982) and the Convention for the Conservation of Salmon in the North Atlantic Ocean, Convention for the Conservation of Salmon in the North Atlantic Ocean (1983) which also created the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization (NASCO). These agreements prohibited salmon fishing on the high seas, required each country to practice conservation in its own rivers, and placed the burden of responsibility on each country for the salmon that originated in its rivers. There were loopholes, particularly in regard to exceptions that were predicated on commercial fishing by countries that depended on commercial fishing for their economic well-being. Ultimately, an international consortium bought out the commercial salmon fishing licenses from Greenland and the Faroe Islands in 1991. Thus, local restoration efforts took on international proportions, and while a regional effort could restore the salmon to the Connecticut River, only international cooperation could ultimately save the salmon permanently. Salmon, protection Atlantic salmon Conservation;animals Connecticut River system;salmon

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bachman, Ben. Upstream: A Voyage on the Connecticut River. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985. A good description of the Connecticut River and its history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cullen, Allan H. Rivers in Harness: The Story of Dams. Philadelphia: Chilton, 1962. An excellent source on the technology of dams and the various means of getting fish around them. Contains a chapter on the problems with dams.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Delaney, Edmund. The Connecticut River: New England’s Historic Waterway. Chester, Conn.: Globe Pequot Press, 1983. Chapter titled “The Recapture of the River” provides a good description of the efforts to bring the river back to its former state, with emphasis on controlling pollution. The reintroduction of salmon is only one part of this process.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Janes, Edward C. Salmon-Fishing in the Northeast. Lexington, Mass.: Stone Wall Press, 1973. Contains a concise treatment of the history of salmon in New England, as well as a description of the process of reintroducing salmon to the river. It also documents the original discovery of the ocean feeding grounds of the salmon.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leuchtenburg, William Edward. Flood Control Politics: The Connecticut River Valley Problem. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1953. An important source that examines the politics of dams, particularly in the Connecticut River system.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Netboy, Anthony. The Atlantic Salmon: A Vanishing Species. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968. The chapter on the life history and migration of the salmon and the chapter titled “The American Disaster” are particularly informative. Includes an account of restoration efforts in the 1870’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Salmon: Their Fight for Survival. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974. This book has excellent chapters on the evolution and life history of salmon. It also covers the initial restoration efforts on the Connecticut River, as well as the important interactions of the restoration efforts in North America with the almost simultaneous discovery and fishing of the ocean fishing grounds of the salmon.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stroud, Richard H., ed. Present and Future Salmon Management: Measuring Progress Toward International Cooperation. Ipswich, Mass.: Atlantic Salmon Federation, 1988. A difficult-to-find but extremely important book. Contains a chapter that discusses the restoration efforts on the Connecticut River, including the genetic engineering used to develop a strain of salmon to replace the Connecticut River strain that was eliminated when the river was dammed. Also includes international legal issues and a discussion of the protection of salmon in their ocean fishing grounds.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">U.S. Congressional Budget Office. The Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission: Report. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2001. The report to accompany bill S. 703.

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