Struggle of the Dammed
New Hope Spawns for Salmon in the Saranac
As fall descends on Lake Champlain each year, landlocked Atlantic salmon return to their birth rivers to spawn. Guided by a biological compass still not fully understood by scientists, salmon are driven upstream by a primitive obligation to mate. In the Saranac River, this drive to reproduce is met with an insurmountable obstacle: dams.
For centuries, the lowest portion of the Saranac River, which flows through Plattsburgh, has been mired in controversy. Salmon have long struggled to reach its spawning grounds and were once completely extirpated from the river. Today, Lake Champlain’s salmon are the result of stocking efforts that began in the mid 1900s. The last wild salmon was caught from the Saranac in 1824. The namesake of Plattsburgh, Zephaniah Platt, was a primary culprit.
“Our founding father is responsible for some of the degradation of our river,” said Dr. Tim Mihuc, director of the Lake Champlain Institute.
Platt built a dam near the mouth of the river, which completely blocked the salmon spawn. In 1819, years after his death in 1807, the dam was subject to a lawsuit. The suit declared his dam in violation of New York’s dam law, which required dams to be passable for salmon. The Platt family won the trial after a judge ruled his stretch of river was private property. Native salmon never recovered.
Today, Platt’s dam is gone, and the controversy lies with the fate of the Imperial Mills Dam. The dam once powered Imperial Wallpaper Mill, one of the largest polluters on the river.
“If they were using yellow dye that day, they would be discharging their water directly in the river and the river would turn yellow,” Mihuc said.
Now the dam stands as a relic of industry, blocking Atlantic salmon from reaching their spawning grounds every fall.
“They can’t get there because they’re currently blocked from going past Imperial Dam,” Mihuc said.
To remedy the decades-old issue, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are working to install a fish ladder on the dam. The Lake Champlain Chapter of Trout Unlimited has advocated for the complete removal of the dam, as it would better the health of the entire river ecosystem. But according to federal Fish and Wildlife officials, the plans for the project are complete, and construction is set to begin in 2023. But even if the ladder is finally completed, a plan which has dragged on for decades, the salmon still face considerable challenges up river.
Above Imperial Dam lies yet another obstacle: Indian Rapids. The fast flowing overflow is the result of an intentionally breached dam. Just the center was breached, which created a rapid too strong for salmon to overcome. But even if the fish could fly over the rapid, upstream they would find the debris of Fredenburgh Falls Dam, yet another barrier.
Thankfully, the Fish and Wildlife is set to remove these obstacles next season. Central Rivers Power, the owner of Indian Rapids Dam, has agreed to provide funding for deconstruction.
“None of the work we do happens without strong partnerships,” said David Minkoff, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fish biologist.
The final wall between salmon and their spawning grounds is Treadwell Mills Dam, 6 miles upstream from the mouth. This dam already has a fish ladder, but has never once seen a salmon. Beyond Treadwell is open river until High Falls, which is the first natural barrier to salmon. Below this is believed to be the best spawning habitat for the fish.
To help salmon recreate an abundant, natural spawn on the river, the DEC is working with the Fish and Wildlife service, Plattsburgh Boat Basin and Trout Unlimited’s Lake Champlain Chapter to imprint stocked salmon to the waters of the Saranac. An experimental five year pen-rearing program has been developed to hold thousands of salmon smolts at the mouth of the river in hopes that the fish will return to spawn when they have matured.
However, the future of the river and its salmon does not fall squarely on the shoulders of these efforts. In the big picture, the river and Lake Champlain have issues of their own. Currently, a massive cleanup project is underway to remove coal tar in the river. The tar is the product of a Manufactured Gas Plant, which made gas for city lamps, heating and cooking in the 1800s. The project has been underway for nearly a decade and should enter its final phase in 2024.
For the first time in nearly two centuries of struggling, salmon may soon return to their spawning grounds. This would mark a historical rejuvenation of both the fishery and river as a whole. Only the coming years will tell.