Nearly a year after Tropical Storm Irene, the White River National Fish Hatchery sits empty.
"It's a dramatic change," said Ken Gillette of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
When the White River flooded its banks it inundated the hatchery, filling the fish ponds with mud and taking brood stock downstream.
"It was amazing," Gillette said.
Beginning in the late 18th century, dams installed on the Connecticut River eventually wiped out the natural salmon runs. The Bethel Hatchery, built in 1982, was intended to be the cornerstone of federal efforts to restore the Atlantic salmon. And initially those efforts appeared successful. But beginning in the 1990s, the number of ocean-going fish returning to the Connecticut mysteriously plummeted. So far this summer, less than 50 salmon have been monitored.
"You're always hoping each year that this would be the year you'd see a lot of fish. You didn't know if it was global warming or if there was some other issues that were out there, but it's a tough thing to be able to figure out," Gillette said.
The poor returns and then Irene sealed the deal. Last week, the Fish and Wildlife Service decided to pull the plug on the program.
"There a lot of mixed feelings," Gillette said. "In one way you want to see if you can make the thing work, but on the other hand we take a look at the program and the results of it and they haven't been great. So I understand it from that standpoint."
With feds out of the picture, that leaves Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont to decide how to proceed with the program on their own.
"That doesn't mean there's no value in having salmon in the system at some lower cost, some lower investment-- that's really what we're looking at-- is there a role? And we don't have an answer yet," said Eric Palmer of Vt. Fish and Wildlife. "But is there still a role for salmon in the Connecticut River system? It's a species that was in the system for tens of thousands of years. Now it's gone. What do we do about it?"
The federal change also leaves the Bethel Hatchery looking for a new role.
"It's still an unknown," Gillette said. "I think hopefully we'll know something here in a few months as to where we're going, but I think there's a lot of opportunity out there for the facility to be able to help, certainly in restoration species is what we target."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife's Eisenhower Hatchery in Chittenden will also stop rearing Atlantic salmon. Vermont officials say they will now have to rely on Connecticut and Massachusetts for salmon fry.
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