Virginia rivers opened for the first time in 100 years!

Colonial leaders got it right for fish … and people too.

As far back as 1670, Virginia prohibited structures like dams that would hinder fish migrating up and down our rivers. Why? They recognized their future depended on the millions of delicious migratory fish swimming our coastal rivers. Fish biologist Albert Spells will tell you that feasting on Atlantic sturgeon saved the first permanent English colony in America at Jamestown.


Albert Spells with an Atlantic sturgeon caught on the Chesapeake Bay. Credit:USFWS

Flash forward to the 1900s, and the rivers paint a different picture. The growing cities and towns have built hundreds of dams and road culverts blocking fish from their spawning grounds. Commercial fishing has expanded rapidly to feed the region and the world. Fish numbers drop, and keep dropping.

Where does that put us today? Well much has changed on the Chesapeake Bay and the rivers that flow to it from Virginia. One change is a return back to that early wisdom. We are removing obstacles to fish migration so fish can reach their spawning habitat and produce new generations of fish. Our goal is to reverse the trend in declining fish populations and create truly sustainable fisheries.

Albert Spells with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the Virginia Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office in Charles City, Virginia and Alan Weaver, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), have been working together for years, alongside the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, American Rivers, dam owners, local watershed groups and towns to re-open Virginia’s rivers to migratory fish like American shad and river herring. And restore our fishing heritage.

Over 1000 miles of river have been re-opened to migratory fish in Virginia in the past decade thanks to these collaborative efforts.

In 2005, the Embrey Dam (built in 1910) was removed, re-opening 106 miles on the Rappahannock River and gaining a full 186 miles of free-flowing river. American shad, blueback herring and striped bass have all been found upstream of the former dam.

This past October, a large section of the 150 year-old Monumental Mills Dam on the Hazel River was removed, re-opening 83 miles to fish migrating up from the Rappahannock.

In 2010, the Riverton Dam was removed on the beautiful North Fork Shenandoah River, a tributary to the Potomac River. This opened 95 miles of the North Fork to migratory fish returning from the Chesapeake Bay.


Riverton Dam being removed on the North Fork Shenandoah River. Credit: Alan Weaver/ VDGIF.

After removing the Harvell Dam in 2014, over 127 miles of the Appomattox River, a tributary to the James River, were open to migratory fish for the first time in 130 years.


Over 127 miles of the Appomattox River is open to fish now that the Harvell Dam has been removed. Credit: Alan Weaver/VDGIF

The Harvell Dam removal was a high priority for migratory fish restoration in Virginia because it was the first obstruction on the Appomattox, and therefore, a critical fish passage site. Just one year after it’s removal, hickory shad, alewife and blueback herring were found upstream of the former dam.


Hickory shad found upstream in the Appomattox River one year after the Harvell Dam was removed. Credit: Robert Willis/VDGIF

A strong fisheries can help generate a strong economy. And removing barriers to fish migration will allow a great number of fishes to recover – if we adhere to water quality and fishing regulations.

Albert and Alan will continue to work together to remove obsolete and hazardous dams, and install fish-friendly culverts that allow more water (and fish) to pass. Fewer roads and bridges will wash-out during high water events; fewer accidents will occur around obsolete dams and more fish will thrive in the rivers of Virginia.

And more people will enjoy the music of flowing rivers, enjoy fishing and boating, and know that beneath the water’s surface is a world of fishes that are fun to watch and good to eat.

10 thoughts on “Virginia rivers opened for the first time in 100 years!

    1. Catherine Gatenby Post author

      Hello, and thank you for your interest in restoring our native fisheries back in Virginia. As you know, fish need time to rebuild their populations after being at such low numbers – like the river herring, shad and sturgeon. Fish needed places to spawn to produce more generations of fish, but 100 years of not reaching good spawning habitat really hurt their ability to sustain themselves. By removing these barriers the fish will be able to rebuild populations, but it will take time. The adults don’t mature until at least 4 years of age. Many of the dams we reported on in this story were removed in the past 10 years, and some just within the past two years. We are seeing progress, however, and believe the fish can rebuild themselves as long as we provide good habitat and we give them time to recover their numbers.

  1. Richard Owens

    Fantastic work. Any chance to open up the South Anna River in Virginia by opening up the Ashland Mill Dam at Route 1?

  2. Anne Stout

    There is a natural dam om logs and trees on the South river out of Waynesboro that needs clearing and it will take heavy equipment or dynamite to clear. PLEASE

  3. HB Atkinson

    Thank you and great work guys! Any word on when we could take down the seven damns on the Mighty James River between Lynchburg and Big Island?


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