By Alex Lippa
---- — Funding and optimism for restoring Atlantic salmon to the Merrimack River have dried up.
The Merrimack River Atlantic Salmon Program will be shut down after 38 years.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced this week that they will stop stocking the river with Atlantic salmon, due to a low population returns and budgetary concerns.
“Science is suggesting that these fish just aren’t returning,” said Joe McKeon, supervisory fish biologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife in Nashua. “Because of that, we are going to be stepping away from the Atlantic salmon restoration.”
For decades, more than 1 million salmon fry were released into the Merrimack River every year. Last year, only 750,000 were released.
The fish are released in the fall in the river’s tributaries.
By cutting the program, the Fish and Wildlife Service will save $750,000 a year, money that will be allocated to other resources. No jobs will be cut due to the program’s closure, McKeon said.
Biologists count the returning salmon at the Essex dam in Lawrence in the spring. The first 300 salmon — if there are that many — are taken back to the hatchery in Nashua to be used to produce the next year’s fry.
But rarely have 300 salmon returned.
McKeon said just 22 fish returned this year. In 2011, there were more than 400.
“We believe that to be the anomaly,” he said. “But the stark reality is that we are seeing the changing climate affect the habitat and the food base.”
Budget cuts also contributed to the decision to stop the program.
“We have budget cuts and are under sequestration,” he said. “So, we’ve had to restructure some things.”
Fish and Wildlife already has shifted resources to the American shad, which is being stocked in New Hampshire rivers, McKeon said.