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Radio Tagged Fish Project Explores Impact Of Hydroelectric Dams On Deerfield River

Josh Landes
Ted Castro-Santos of the USGS operates on a fish

A local conservation group is teaming up with federal scientists to learn more about the effects of industrial water flow manipulations on the fish of Western Massachusetts.

On the banks of the Deerfield River in Rowe, Massachusetts, a group of scientists are crowded around a basin filled with water and bookended by a pair of metal plates attached to a machine. In that basin lies a fish – a fish about to receive a shock. Well, the first in a series of shocks.

“There’s some discussion and debate in the scientific community as to whether they’re in fact anesthetized and whether they’re conscious while this is happening or not. They call it electro anesthesia, so it’s a form of non-chemical anesthesia that allows us to do a surgery on the fish without having the fish react the way it normally would to getting a knife stuck in its gut,” said Ted Castro-Santos.

When the trout comes to, it will be part of something much larger than itself.

Castro-Santos is a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center. His team and their mobile fish surgery unit is working on taking the wild trout of the Deerfield River and turning them into living transponders, offering an unprecedented look into life among the fish of Western Massachusetts.

“We’re going to take a scalpel – I should have spoken a little more carefully. So, this is surgical instrument. But the fish doesn’t care," Castro-Santos told WAMC. "But in any case, we’re going use that to make an incision into the abdominal wall. We will then use this curved needle here, which is just a modified hypodermic needle, large gauge, that we then pierce the body cavity near that incision with that needle, and then it comes up through the opening in the incision. We then take this radio – so, this is a radio transmitter here – and the antenna will go through that needle, we’ll pull that antenna back out through that hole that we used to pierce the body cavity. This goes down into the incision and then we suture that incision back up so the tag is now inside the fish.”

The undertaking is part of a public and private collaboration.  

“We already know that there are a large number of wild trout in this section of the area and that they are spawning and that they are repopulating in the main stem of the Deerfield. However, we believe it could be significantly better if we get better, higher flows in the wintertime," said Kevin Parsons, the past president and current board member of the Deerfield River Watershed Chapter of Trout Unlimited. “Trout Unlimited is one of the largest conservation organizations in the United States, and our chapter’s mission is for the Deerfield River Watershed – which includes the Deerfield River and all of the tributaries in Western Massachusetts, so it’s a pretty big area. The mission of TU is to enhance and promote and protect cold water fisheries for the benefit of wild trout and salmon.”

The reason the flow of the Deerfield is in question is simple: it’s been monetized.

“This is a very strange river to say the least," explained Parsons. "This is a river, is a big working river, hydroelectric facilities up and down the rivers. There’s 10 different dams, a number of different impoundments and daily fluctuations in flow, dramatic changes in flow from a minimum flow of 125 CFS all the way up to 900 to 1000 CFS, and that happens almost daily.”

That’s cubic feet per second. When companies impound water in dams on the Deerfield, it’s essentially liquid money that they can convert into power for the grid when needed.

“So these fish are in a constant battle of dealing with up and down flows, and that so that’s part of the problem that’s going on and that we’re investigating with the United States USGS Silvio O. Conte Center and Mass Fish and Wildlife to assess what’s going on with these fish as these hydropeaking flows are happening, and particularly the effects on their spawning, which happens in October,” Parsons told WAMC.

He says the group has already found that when the fish spawn during a high flow, the resultant eggs are then vulnerable to the elements when the water returns to a low flow. So now, as the state and federal government relicense hydroelectric companies, TU and the government scientists are hoping the experiment will establish what’s at stake for the fish. While the river is partially stocked, its native population is making a comeback – and alongside conservationists and scientists, local river guides like Chris Jackson are banking on that return.

“It’s a beautiful, majestic river out here in the Berkshires and it’s a source of recreation not just for fly fishing but people who inner tube, there’s rafting companies on the river – so this is really kind of a big deal out here in the Berkshires in terms of recreation,” said Jackon.

He’s one of at least a dozen guides working on the Deerfield, and says thousands of visitors come to fish in the area each season.

“We’re actually trying to quantify what’s here in the river and ultimately we would like to see changes made that kind of enhance the fishery," Jackson told WAMC. "Recreation is a big driver of the local economy, and our hopes is that we improve this fishery that it’ll kind of dovetail into improving the local economy.”

For now, Parsons says TU just wants to marshal enough information together to convince the government that hydroelectric companies can do more to work together in considering the fish by making the changes in the river’s flow less extreme.

“Brookfield says don’t blame us, we just pass through what we get from Great River, Great River says baloney, you’ve got pump storage, you’ve got all the storage up above, and if you want to ameliorate some issues as far as your hydropeaking and these higher winter flows that are being asked for, you can do that through your pump storage, and they’re saying no, because we’re being paid a bunch of money – 70 percent of their income is coming from that storage, so if they reduce that, then that reduces their income," said Parsons. "But we believe that there can be some give and take between these two companies, and that’s really what we’re hoping for.”

Brookfield offered the following statement: "Specific to the Deerfield River, Brookfield Renewable operates the Bear Swamp pumped storage facility and the Fife Brook hydro facility, which play an integral role in safely and compliantly providing the people of Massachusetts and the greater Northeast region clean, reliable and renewable energy.  In better understanding the environmental impact that these two facilities have upon the Deerfield River along with other extenuating factors, we work in cooperation with nongovernmental organizations and state and federal agencies to effectively study aquatic life, river habitat and the local ecosystem."

TU eventually wants to see the study expand beyond brown trout to rainbow and brook trout as well.  For now, the fish must be tagged and the stories of their lives must be told through little radio blips up and down the Deerfield. It has attracted enthusiasts from across the region to come out and volunteer their time. TU chapter president Mike Vito.

“These are people from all over. Some people wanna just come out and do it just a couple times from the Boston area. This has really captured a lot of people’s imagination," Vito told WAMC. "Fly fishing is really where science meets the sport. It’s is all about conservation for us, because we love fishing the way we do, and we can make it better.”

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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