Author Archives: Catherine Gatenby

About Catherine Gatenby

Fish Biologist and Communication Coordinator, Northeast Fish and Aquatic Conservation U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Hope Floats

Summer is packed with reasons to go outside – fishing, boating, or just taking a walk. On a somewhat cloudy and misty June day, 160 paddlers from 6 states went outside to Float the Fork from Good Hope, West Virginia to West Milford – 6 miles downstream. Indeed, after 9 years of negotiations, plans, and hard work, folks were ready to go outside and celebrate a restored West Fork River!

Removing three dams on the river back in 2016 improved boat access and fish passage along the West Fork. But perhaps more importantly to local residents like Clarksburg Water Board Member Al Cox, the river could become a tourist destination and a place to hold fun community events.

Guardians of the West Fork Watershed hosted the first event on June 2, 2018 – Float the Fork – along with partners including American Rivers, the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, West Milford United Methodist Church, the town of West Milford and the Service’s West Virginia Field Office and Appalachian Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office. The Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center, CKB Airport also helped shuttle paddlers to and from the river.

Afterwards, everyone enjoyed a picnic with food from local vendors and learned about plans for West Milford Park.

It’s the end of the Float, but not the end of the celebration. Credit_ Haley Hutchins, AmeriCorpsJPG

A river walking trail and park are a couple of the other projects that have been launched by the collaboration hoping to restore the river’s recreational and economic potential.

The West Fork River flows north 103 miles, meandering through the valleys of north-central West Virginia until it joins with the Tygart Valley River to form the Monongahela River (or the Mon’ as the locals would say).

Although the area is dominated by forest and pasture land, coal mining had been a mainstay of the region’s economic livelihood from the 1800s to the 1970s.

In the early 1900s, four small dams were constructed south of Clarksburg, WV  – the West Milford, Two Lick, Highland, and Hartford – for drinking water and irrigation.

The dams blocked the river for more than a century. By the late 1990s, the West Fork River and its 98 tributaries were on West Virginia DEP’s list of impaired rivers. Three of the dams became obsolete after the construction of the Stonewall Jackson Dam in 1996.

After a series of tragic accidents, landowners, county officials, state and federal agencies, and a community watershed group came together to navigate a solution for repairing the broken river.

The West Virginia Field Office and Appalachian FWCO proposed removing the obsolete West Milford, Two Lick and Highland Dams. Problems at the Hartford Dam would be mitigated by installing fish passage modifications. Removing barriers to fish passage  would improve and increase the amount of suitable habitat for fish and other aquatic life, as well as, improve fishing and boating opportunities, promote safety, improve water quality, and reduce flood risks to nearby communities.

The project took years of building trust and planning. Eventually, the collaboration gained community support to move forward with the project – remove the dams, restore the river-banks, and build a trail and park that would connect everyone to the river. A cleanup effort led by the Service and volunteers removed more than 61,000 pounds of trash from the river – including 1,212 tires, several televisions, and even a car.

This would mark West Virginia’s most significant river restoration effort and first dam removal project. Since the deconstruction of these century old dams in 2016, fish move freely through 491 miles of streams and tributaries. And the Clarksburg Water Board reports a savings of at least $50,000 dollars a year in water treatment costs.

Damages to the environment can take a lifetime to repair. But removing the ‘kinks in the line,’ allowing rivers and streams to run free, can go a long way towards restoring rivers and the quality of our water. When nature takes its course, sediments are distributed naturally and sustain good fish habitat, nutrients and contaminants break down as they move through the system, and fish return.

More of the beautiful West Fork, WV. Credit_ Haley Hutchins, AmeriCorps

The West Fork River restoration shows us how hope, integrity and perseverance can be a catalyst for restoration and how it doesn’t always take decades to see results.The actual repair and resulting improvements took only 2 years to realize.

I don’t live in West Virginia, and may never get to the West Fork, but I feel a lot better knowing another place in our world has been restored. Thanks for giving us hope y’all!

Secret lives of fish

April 21 is World Fish Migration Day, a day to celebrate the importance of healthy, open rivers and the migratory fish that rely on them.

Many fish are mighty migrators!  Every spring and fall, millions of fish around the world are migrating between the oceans and our coastal rivers to produce new generations of fish. Millions more live in freshwater all year and are also on the move, some swimming 2,000 miles to spawn, feed and grow.

Along the way, migratory fish encounter multiple obstacles such as dams and culverts, which prevent them from migrating out to the ocean or migrating back upstream to spawn and reproduce. And this has contributed to a decline in fish populations worldwide. World Fish Migration Day is an opportunity to raise awareness on these issues, and share resources for restoring fish passage. Through our national fish habitat partnerships, and with States, Tribes, watershed associations and many private landowners, the Service works to remove or modify these obstacles so fish can move freely.

Since 2009, the Service and partners have removed or replaced more than 507 barriers to fish passage from Maine to West Virginia, reconnecting more than 4,020 miles of rivers and streams and 19,300 acres of wetlands.

Many of the fish species that benefit are anadromous, meaning they were born in freshwater, migrate out to the sea as young juveniles and then return to freshwater to spawn. Much of their lives are spent in the ocean, where they may be a valuable commercial fish, or become food for other commercial fish. Resident freshwater fishes, such as brook trout, lake sturgeon and the American paddlefish, also benefit from improved fish passage. And fish are not the only winners. Every mile of river restored contributes more than $500,000 in social and economic benefits to people and communities. Additionally, removing dams to increase fish passage helps protect communities from flooding and enhances recreational opportunities for paddlers. Learn more about some of this inspiring work here.

Lake Champlain’s landlocked Atlantic salmon returned to the Boquet River to spawn. (Biologist Zach Eisenhower holding fish.)

You can help and have fun, too, with this Flat Fish Migration Activity. Show your support for World Fish Migration Day and keep rivers healthy and flowing free. Find an event near you at WFMD!

Fishing for steelhead in new (old) places

Today’s blog was co-written by Catherine Gatenby and Betsy Trometer, fish biologists at Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office. Visit them on Facebook

Chautauqua Creek emerges out of the slate bedrock and gravel of western New York and flows 15 miles north and west, emptying into Lake Erie about 50 miles south of Buffalo, New York. It’s among one of the top steelhead fisheries in the entire state because of the amount of public access, with anglers catching as many as 1 to 2 steelhead per hour. New York presently maintains 8.5 miles of public fishing easements on Chautauqua Creek, including 1.3 miles of catch and release with artificial lures just below the Westfield Water Works Dam. The steelhead fishery is supported extensively by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC)  stocking programs in Lake Erie tributaries.

Steelhead trout from Lake Erie tributary stream. Credit: Jacob Cochran

Steelhead trout from Lake Erie tributary stream. Credit: Jacob Cochran

Historically, Chautauqua Creek had always been perfect habitat for trout. Soldier, lawyer, diplomat, and writer, Mr. Albion W. Tourgee wrote of the Chautauqua in 1887’s Button’s Inn: “From source to mouth there was hardly a hundred yards of quiet water …Heaven grant that the foot of the despoiler may be long delayed, and that the trout which hide in its cool waters may long continue…”

Decades ago, two dams were constructed on the Chautauqua approximately five miles upstream from its mouth at Lake Erie. These dams impeded water flow and limited fish passage and fishing opportunities. Fish and anglers were limited to  5-mile reach between the dams and Lake Erie.

The uppermost dam, the  Westfield Water Works Dam, serves to pool water routed to a reservoir used for the public by the village of Westfield. The lower dam no longer serves a purpose. Chautauqua Creek also had been experiencing erosion downstream of a railroad bridge culvert 2 miles upstream from the mouth, which created a drop and another impassable barrier to both migratory and resident fishes like smallmouth bass and white sucker.

But it’s the steelhead trout that bring the anglers to Chautauqua Creek.

Steelhead trout caught in a tributary stream to Lake Erie. Credit:Jacob Cochran

Steelhead trout caught in a tributary stream to Lake Erie. Credit:Jacob Cochran

Recently, Chautauqua Creek was targeted by state and federal partners, including the Chautauqua Soil and Water Conservation District and Trout Unlimited, for habitat restoration projects that would reduce erosion and boost the recreational fisheries. Funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the Great Lakes Fish Habitat Partnership was provided to open more than 10 miles of high quality spawning and nursery habitat for migratory and resident fishes, and increase the amount of angler access to this important recreational fishery. In the summers of 2015 and 2016, rock riffles were repaired at the upper dam, and new rock riffles were constructed at the lower dam and below the railroad bridge to allow fish passage. After 3 years, the rock riffles are still in place, having withstood high river flows, due to judicious pinning of boulders which kept them stable.

James Markham, fisheries biologist for the NYSDEC’s Lake Erie Unit, reported steelhead had made it to prime habitat upstream of the Westfield Water Works Dam in the fall of 2015 and 2016 . “In fact,” Jim says “last year (2017), was a great year with smallmouth and white suckers reaching previously inaccessible prime spawning habitat above the railroad bridge, and anglers catching steelhead above the dams up into the headwaters of the stream. And we are seeing lots of natural reproduction (by steelhead) up in the watershed, along with out migration of the young fish from the upper part of the creek to Lake Erie. We are fully expecting to see natural reproduction of smallmouth and white suckers in the coming years too as a result of opening a mile of good spawning habitat.”

Finally, Markham says, “by leveraging all the support and talents of our partners, we were able to accomplish a lot more than any of us could have on our own”.

We hope that Mr. Tourgee would be pleased to see us working together to restore Chautauqua Creek’s riffles and opening miles of its cool waters so trout may long continue for anglers in New York and the Great Lakes.

Below are some before and after images from the project