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Fish ladder gives rare fish a lift

By Carolyn Miller

Estuaries Feature

NRCS and partners are celebrating National Estuaries Week, Sept. 23-29.

Hallville Estuarity Photo

This fish ladder allows the alewife to migrate around dams and other manmade barriers.

Few have witnessed alewife fish swim en masse to their historic breeding grounds near Preston, Conn., in decades.

But USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and partners are working to make the silvery fishes’ treks more common in the Long Island Sound estuary. It’s an effort important to highlight this week, Sept. 23-29, during National Estuaries Week since estuaries are unique bodies of fresh and salt water that create a diverse ecosystems for all types of life.

Historically, alewife journeyed from their native estuarine habitat, Long Island Sound, to the Thames River, and from there a system of waterways to spawn in Avery Pond. But dam construction hindered the journey, reducing alewife populations nationwide. For the sound, alewife are a critical species, serving as prey for larger fish, birds and mammals while at sea, in estuaries and in rivers.

Preston businessman Joe Piela said he remembered as a child watching them swim into the brook that flowed beside the old mill that housed his grandfather’s electric business. He watched them jump all night in an attempt to get over the 15-foot high Hallville Dam. “It was an amazing thing, but now you hardly see them,” he said.

Once he took the reins of his grandfather’s company and property, Piela wanted to help the fish migrate. He recalled that his father had been approached several decades prior with the idea of building a fishway. Fishways, or fish ladders, are engineered structures that enable the passage or migration of fish over or around an artificial barrier. Piela knew it was the answer.

The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, Connecticut Conservation District, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Fisher’s Island Ferry District, Andrew Tate Memorial Fund and NRCS helped provide funding and expertise for him to build the fishway and help the struggling fish.

“Since day one, our partners have been truly remarkable,” said Scott Gravatt, executive director of the Eastern Connecticut Conservation District and the project manager. “They recognized that the benefits of a strong and healthy Long Island Sound are enormous. The cooperation of the Piela family who owns the property was just fantastic, along with so many others that helped make this project happen.”

NRCS provided $50,000 to Piela in financial assistance through the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program for the fish ladder, which opens up migration passageways for the alewife.

The fishway was completed this spring, and it’s already having a positive impact through the restoration of access to fish spawning habitat that is critical to the downstream estuary. Connecticut’s environmental protection department projects over 100,000 adult alewives using the fishway to gain access to upstream spawning grounds.

After spawning, alewife return to the sound and ultimately help support larger populations of other species, including game fish that are a large part of the $8.5 billion Long Island Sound economy.

“The Hallville Fishway is an excellent example of the ecosystem services that can be restored when state, federal and local entities work together,” said Lisa Coverdale, NRCS Connecticut state conservationist. “Through the tremendous efforts of the conservation partnership, good things are happening to protect the state’s valuable aquatic resources. NRCS is proud to be a part of this group. The newly-completed fishway will now serve as a springboard for further restoration efforts.”

The Hallville Dam was the first and largest of three barriers to migratory fish in this watershed. Now that they have successfully opened the door to passage, the partnership can address the remaining two.

“NRCS is committed to working with landowners and other partners to install conservation practices on private lands that have downstream benefits,” Coverdale said.

Piela is one of many landowners that work with NRCS to improve the environment, including estuaries. NRCS joins Restore America’s Estuaries and other partners this week to celebrate National Estuaries Week to promote conservation of private, agricultural lands for cleaner water flowing into estuaries, better overall health of fisheries, and other wildlife and sustainable production of food and fiber.

To find out how you can install conservation practices on your land that will not only benefit you, but your local ecosystem, contact your local NRCS field office.