Why Are People Fishing for Cars in the Merrimack River?

[dropcap size=small]T[/dropcap]he Merrimack River runs for 117 miles through New Hampshire and Massachusetts. On its way to the Atlantic Ocean, it passes through some of the most picturesque landscape in New England. Thoreau wrote a literary classic about its rolling black water in 1849, but now, 160 years after, the backdrop of Thoreau’s book finds itself home to a different kind of story.

In 2014, that story revolves around fishing…sort of.

According to a Boston Globe report, for the past 13 years the Clean River Project (CRP) has been fishing for cars abandoned in the Merrimack. The process isn’t easy, but it’s an important step in restoring a polluted waterway that once inspired the stuff of legend. Volunteers for the non-profit use specially-rigged 30-foot pontoon boats to excavate debris with cranes. However, they also implement old-fashioned rakes, nets and hands to get the job done. Officials from the CRP say they’ve pulled 54 vehicles from the river so far.

“We sit above the boats and send down divers to get the cars ready,” said CRP President Rocky Morrison. “Sometimes we have to float them up with airbags and tow them downstream to be taken out.”

Indeed, the Merrimack’s isolated location and dark waters make the perfect hiding ground for criminal evidence. They also make the perfect hiding place for fish.

According to Morrison, the group has found eel, carp and smallmouth bass hiding in the interior of the cars. “A lot of fish like to burrow themselves into the interior, behind the headlights and underneath the hood for some reason,” he says. When the CRP finds residents in the vehicles, they always put them back in the river.

But that’s just part of the tale the Merrimack has to tell.

Before Thoreau ever plied its’ waters, the river was a migration route for Atlantic salmon who made the 117 mile journey upstream, climbing Amoskeag Falls en route to their breeding grounds. Native American legends tell of an incredible fishery located at the falls, and the name itself—Amoskeag—translates to “great fishing place.”

But in 1836, the falls were dammed, and for the next 153 years the salmon were blocked from their ancestral home. In 1989, 15 years after Congress passed the Clean Water Act, a fish ladder was built at Amoskeag Falls, paving way for the Amoskeag Fishways Learning and Visitors Center. There, visitors can see fish migrating through the falls via an underwater viewing deck.

It’s that center along with the work the Clean River Project is doing that have been serving as catalysts for the river’s restoration.

According to the Fishways’ website, river herring, shad and sea lamprey now traverse the fish ladders; however, officials say the salmon populations will never return.

Attempts by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Agency to reintroduce the salmon to the Merrimack have been in progress for two decades without success. And though a managed population has been established, funding for that project will end when the calendar year rolls over 2014. Under the federal program, salmon swimming up the Merrimack were transported out at the first of three dams along the river and taken upstream to a breeding ground.

Helen Dalbeck, Executive Director at the Amoskeag Fishways Learning Center, says without the government’s help, the salmon will not be able to access the cold water tributaries they need to spawn. At the end of the year, returning salmon will be allowed to take to the Merrimack’s fish ladders, but biologists say it would be impossible for a naturally-breeding population to take hold. Federal funding for the river’s salmon restoration program will be redirected to rivers in Maine.

“Here, this program is ending and people are bummed out about it,” said Dalbeck,”but honestly they gave it their best shot.”

Dalbeck says, on a hopeful note, other Merrimack species are now thriving again. “American shad, river herring and even sea lampreys for that matter are using the fish ladders and thriving,” she notes.

Back at the Clean River Project, another kind of hope is kindling for the river’s future. Morrison says the group has strong support from the public. “We’re constantly having people come up and tell us what a good job we’re doing.”

That’s good news for the CRP and good news for the Merrimack. Hope is growing everyday. And really, with river restoration, that’s all you can ask for.

*Editors note: You can donate to the Clean River Project on their GoFundMe donation page. Proceeds go to keep their operation running. You can stay up-to-date on the Amoskeag Fishways Learning Center by following them on Facebook.