by Curtis Waterman: Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force
On August 28, 2011, Hurricane Irene caused the waters of the White River in Bethel, Vermont to spill over its banks and flood the White River National Fish Hatchery contaminating the “closed well water” hatchery. This contamination was to the well water and not the fish. The hatchery rears Atlantic salmon brood stock for restoration efforts in the Connecticut River, lake trout for stocking in the Great Lakes, and native brook trout to support recreational fishing in some Vermont rivers.
The White River was known to have invasive algae called Didymosphenia Geminate. The algae are not harmful to humans but are known to clog water intake pipes and if left unchecked could choke the native aquatic vegetation and starve the trout and fisheries population. Over the last 10 to 15 years Didymo has been found across North America. It is thought to be transported on fishing gear namely felt soles on hip boots and waders. A number of states, including Vermont, have outlawed felt-soled fishing waders thought to be easy carriers of the microscopic algae. Didymo was first found in the Connecticut River in Vermont and New Hampshire in 2007 just south of the Canadian border. Since then it’s been found in various locations across the region. Didymo has been confirmed in the East and West Branches of the Delaware River (New York and Pennsylvania) and in the mainstream Delaware River as far south as Callicoon, New York. While Didymo has not spread to epidemic proportions in the northeast the National Fish and Wildlife Service didn’t want to take a chance in spreading the invasive algae by stocking with these fish from the contaminated hatchery. The decision was made by the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Northeast regional director, Wendi Weber, and the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission to process (clean and distribute) all Atlantic Salmon to Native American tribes in the Northeast. Sadly, the 434,000 Lake Trout fingerlings would be destroyed by burying them in a trench and covering them with lime to disinfect the soil. As mentioned the Atlantic salmon were not contaminated but the water they would be transported in could have residual microscopic cells of the Didymo algae. Once the hatchery is emptied it will take up to two years to decontaminate and sterilize all the rearing tanks and holding bins called Yurts. The loss of the Bethel hatchery comes as the Allegheny National Fish Hatchery in Warren, Pa., goes online after being out of service for several years. The Warren hatchery, originally established to produce rainbow, brook and brown trout for northwestern Pennsylvania streams, now is intended to produce lake trout for restoration in Lake Erie and Ontario.
The Service had been working with the state fisheries programs throughout New England and the Great Lakes to determine what to do with fish that survived the flood and that remain at the facility. A final decision about the disposition of the surviving Atlantic salmon was made on November 10, 2011 officially allowing the Service to donate the salmon to interested federally recognized native governments in the Northeast for consumption (including but not limited to, traditional feasts, special events, ceremonies, and/or their respective food banks). The Aroostook Band of Micmacs contacted the U.S. fish and Wildlife Service, Northeast region, Native American representative, DJ Monnette, to see if there was a surplus of Salmon for their upcoming 20th year celebration marking their federal recognition that took place on November 20, 2011. DJ was more than happy to reply to the Micmacs stating their allotment of Atlantic salmon would be more than enough to accommodate the 1000 plus people they expected for the 20th year celebration. The other Northeast Nations that were allocated Atlantic Salmon are: Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, Passamaquoddy Tribe, Penobscot Indian Nation, Wampanoaqu Tribe of Gay Head, Mashpee Wampanoagu, Narragansett Indian Tribe, Onondaga Nation, Cayuga Nation, Tuscarora Nation, Tonawanda Nation, Shinnecock Indian Nation, St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, and Seneca Nation of Indians.
On December 19-21, 2011 Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force members from Tuscarora, Cayuga, and Onondaga Nations met at the White River Fish Hatchery. Dan Hill of the Cayuga Nation volunteered to drive his truck and transport the Salmon back to the Nations. Keeping him company on the drive were Donna Silversmith and Dusty Parker also of Cayuga Nation and myself. We met up with Neil Patterson Jr. of Tuscarora Nation who arrived at the hatchery a day earlier. Neil was also responsible for Tonawanda’s allotment of Atlantic Salmon. The weather was clear for driving though the temperature in Vermont was a little more on the freezing side. Once at the hatchery we were advised on the processing system. The hatchery workers and visiting Nations had already begun progressing so we just got in line asking where we could help. First we put on hatchery bibs and rubber gloves. We brought our own fillet knives and warm outer clothing to keep warm. We found out the Vermont air was colder than we thought and got even colder when the sun went down. We had to take breaks just to walk around and get the body heat going again. The cleaning process started with the hatchery workers netting the Atlantic Salmon in the Yurts and putting them in a large oval plastic bin. It was quite the sight to see 5 and 6 pound salmon jumping around in the bin until there were so many there they couldn’t move. The cold air eventually had them all quiet then we could take them one by one and take their heads off and entrails out. When one bin was emptied the hatchery workers filled it back up again. Once cleaned we put the small one pounders in bags of 20 thinking this would feed a small family. The larger Salmon we put into bags of 1 or 2 and used a machine to vacuum seal the bag. One day was cleaning and packaging 450 small one pound Salmon. With the big bulky waterproof gloves it was tough to hold the small salmon because they were not only small but slippery. After a few dozen you learned the best way to hold them in place so you could make your lethal cuts. The last day was loading up the truck for the trip home. Onondaga’s Atlantic Salmon were loaded last because they would be the first off the truck. We left the hatchery with the calculations of arriving in Onondaga at 5pm. A notice was sent home with the Onondaga Nation School children stating the 5pm pick up time. I also posted on Facebook the progress of the trip and to bring a plastic bag to carry your fish. I asked Facebook members to tell their Native friends about the 5pm Cookhouse arrival.
As predicted we arrived at the Cookhouse at 5pm. There were people waiting with smiles as we unloaded the Salmon. We placed all the coolers on tables with bags available for anyone who didn’t bring their own. People took what they wanted and most were amazed at the size of them. We cooked some Salmon with just flour, salt, and pepper so people could have a taste. This was also so people could see how easy it was to cook Salmon. The taste was superb. As with most fresh fish there was no fishy smell, just the soft, buttery taste of Atlantic Salmon. The whole distribution lasted about 90 mins. There was just enough so when the last person came in they had the last of the Atlantic Salmon. We couldn’t have planned it better.