This year’s severe storms underscore the power of nature and the vulnerability of our coasts. While nature can destroy, it can also defend. Supported by federal funding for Hurricane Sandy recovery, we’re working with partners to restore and strengthen natural systems that provide not only habitat for wildlife, but also protection against rising seas and storm surge. This is one in a series of stories highlighting results of our ongoing efforts to build a stronger coast.
For decades, New Haven’s Pond Lily Dam was a nuisance to the community, having long outlived its time as a part of an old mill. Sitting astride the West River, it contributed to flooding, blocked fish passage upstream, and threatened to one day break and cause devastation in the area.
Now, with the help of the Service and partners, that dam is gone, and the pond behind it has been replaced by a sprawling green nature preserve and a free-flowing river. This is the story of the team that got it done.
This year’s severe storms underscore the power of nature and the vulnerability of our coasts. While nature can destroy, it can also defend. Supported by federal funding for Hurricane Sandy recovery, we’re working with partners to restore and strengthen natural systems that provide not only habitat for wildlife, but also protection against rising seas and storm surge. This is the first in a series of stories highlighting results of our ongoing efforts to build a stronger coast.
“What did the fish say when it hit the wall? Dam!”
Whether you laughed or groaned, this joke captures the conundrum faced by migratory fish ever since European settlers harnessed the power of the Northeast’s rivers to make everything from flour to textiles to paper.
Fish like alewife and blueback herring (collectively called river herring), American shad, and American eel split their time between freshwater and saltwater habitats. They’ve been shut out of their spawning and nursery grounds in many waterways for centuries, whether by dams or other barriers. Bad news not only for them — river herring are under review for potential Endangered Species Act protection— but for big ocean species like cod and tuna who prey on them.
Following Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service received more than $100 million to improve the health of coastal habitats to benefit wildlife and people. Since then, we’ve worked with partners to remove 12 dams and improve passage at two other sites, re-opening more than 100 miles of river to migratory fish.
With obstacles gone, the fish are returning to their old ways across the Northeast, often at the first opportunity.
In 2005, the rain-swollen Mill River threatened to breach Whittenton Pond Dam and flood downtown Taunton, a half-mile away. The incident made national headlines and spurred an effort to remove the river’s aging and unsafe dams, which kept migratory fish from reaching spawning grounds in Lake Sabbatia and its tributaries.
We worked with others to remove the dam in 2013 — and the river’s final barrier, West Britannia Dam, in January 2018.
Last spring, an underwater camera monitored by the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries captured a river herring using the fish ladder at Lake Sabbatia — the first to enter the lake in 200 years. Before spawning season was done, at least 1,200 herring swam through.
A few sea lampreys passed through the ladder, probably the first to do so since the dams were built. Although lampreys are a problem in the Great Lakes watershed, where they are an invasive species that out-competes native fish, they are a boon to rivers and streams along the East Coast.
More than 1,300 young-of-the-year American eels made the journey to Lake Sabbatia, as well — more than any previous year. Eels reproduce in the ocean and mature in rivers and streams — the opposite of river herring, shad, and sea lampreys.
The Pawcatuck River runs from Worden Pond in Rhode Island, west to the Connecticut border, and south into Little Narragansett Bay. Since 2010, we’ve worked with partners to remove four dams and update two fish ladders on the river.
White Rock Dam was taken down in 2015 and improvements were made to the fish ladder at Potter Hill Dam in 2016. Surveys in 2017 found river herring and shad above the White Rock site, which was once all but impassable. The fish count at Potter Hill was the highest in 15 years.
Last winter, Bradford Dam was replaced with a nature-like fishway, clearing nearly all of the river’s 34 miles to migratory fish.
Hyde Pond Dam held back Whitford Brook, a tributary of the Mystic River, for some 350 years before its removal in 2015. This year, more than 1,200 alewives were trapped upstream of the former dam.
In 2016, the dam blocking the West River on the Pond Lily Nature Preserve in New Haven, Conn., was taken down. The next spring, several alewives were seen above the former dam site. This year, 33 alewives were collected above the restored area.
Removal of Norton Mill Pond Dam in 2016 opened 17 miles of the Jeremy River to migratory fish. The following year, 127 sea lamprey nests were found above the former dam site; in 2018, there were 165.
In 2016, Hughesville Dam on the Musconetcong River was removed. A tributary of the Delaware River, “the Musky,” is a National Wild and Scenic River.
The next spring, the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife confirmed an American shad upstream of the former dam site — possibly the first to make it that far since the dam was built in 1889.
Wreck Pond was once connected to the ocean by a natural inlet that allowed fish to pass between the water bodies. After the inlet was replaced with a narrow pipe in the 1930s, the health of the pond deteriorated, and river herring struggled to enter the pond, the gateway to spawning grounds upstream.
Hurricane Sandy overwhelmed the existing entry to the pond, cutting a new inlet and flooding nearby homes. In 2016, partners installed a large box culvert next to the existing pipe to improve fish passage and reduce flooding.
In Fall 2017, young-of-the-year alewife on their way to the Atlantic were netted near the culvert — a clear sign that adults were making it to the spawning grounds upstream. This year, more than 150 were found — a 30-fold increase over any other year.
Perks for people, too
Removing barriers to fish benefits people, as well. A 2011 Service study found that every mile of river opened can contribute more than $500,000 annually in social and economic benefits once fish populations are at their full productivity.
Free-flowing rivers make the coast stronger in the face of future storms. They carry sediment downstream, where it nourishes coastal marshes and beaches that provide a natural defense to rising seas and storm surge. During Hurricane Sandy, coastal wetlands prevented $625 million in flood damages. In many cases, the risk of local flooding above a former dam is also reduced.
And then there’s the fun part — more opportunities for recreation like fishing and paddling. The American shad already returning to the Musky and Pawcatuck are prized by anglers for their feistiness. Experienced paddlers are able to “run” the nature-like fishways on the Pawcatuck instead of portaging around the old dams, making their passage almost as easy as that of migrating fish.
This is just the beginning. Three Sandy-funded dam removals happened last summer, and two new projects were funded this fall.
In the coming years, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation will oversee nearly $3 million of ecological monitoring at nine sites where dams were removed. The work includes tracking fish with radio-telemetry as they move through waters once off-limits.
One thing is already clear, though — given a chance, rivers will rebound, fish will return, and people will benefit. That’s what we call a stronger coast.
This summer, Nancy Finley joined the fabulous team at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia as the new Refuge Manager. Nancy is joining the Service in the northeast from the National Park Service in Nebraska. To get to know Nancy a bit better, we’ve asked her a few questions: here’s what she had to say!
1. How did you become interested in pursuing a career in environmental conservation?
I was always the kid that was outside and mucking around with things. I would always be bringing home some animal I found, alive or dead, creating some squeamish moments for my poor Mom. We lived on the coast and I was constantly in the water.
In high school, a biology teacher was working on his Ph.D. He was researching why diamondback terrapin populations on this barrier beach were declining, and because he was still teaching and needed assistance in the field, he created field internship opportunities. I jumped at the internship and started going out to the beach with him every day after school, every weekend, and all summer. At 14, I was one of his primary go-to field hands and put thermistors in turtle nests, radio tracked turtles, monitored for nesting, did beach profiles. You name it, I was there. I loved it, and was hooked on conservation ever since. I worked with him through the completion of his doctorate, and years after, we are still in touch and still laugh about some of the old days! I am grateful to him for exposing me to science in a formal way, and I entered college knowing exactly what I wanted to be – and never turned back.
A juvenile diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin) is released by Chesapeake Bay Program staff at Ferry Point Park in Kent Narrows, Md., on July 17, 2010. (Photo by Alicia Pimental/Chesapeake Bay Program)
What do you enjoy most about working in the conservation field?
I am a hands-on gal for the most part. That is why I love working in applied sciences, where you can see the results of your decisions and can adjust as need be to make things better. Both National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offer a great opportunity to do a variety of jobs within the job. I was up at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore acting as the superintendent this last fall, and this wicked storm came through with sustained 40 knot winds and gusts over 100 knots. It was an incredible storm to watch, very powerful. It pushed a good bit of Lake Superior into the area that the park headquarters sat on and knocked down a lot of trees. I stayed at the office until about 10 p.m. that night, getting pumps going to remove water that was coming up through the basement of this historic Coast Guard station. Volunteers came in from town and helped us remove trees from the cross country ski trails so that they would be up and running quickly. Staff from all programs just worked together to get the job done with the community, and we helped with issues in town, as well. These moments of pulling together with the staff and the community are just so gratifying. I try to make every day like that in small ways; you don’t need a major event to keep those philosophies close at hand.
How do you think Chincoteague will be different from your previous experiences?
Every place I have been is so different, and I really enjoy learning new things. I have lived in coastal areas that are important tourist destinations, but I think Chincoteague is unique in that it is in a generally rural area, and then suddenly gets this influx of visitors. I think that is something to consider in balancing visitor enjoyment with the needs of the community and, of course, protection of resources at the refuge. I have a lot to take in and learn.
What kind of experience do you want visitors to have at the refuge?
I would like them to really see the place for what it was intended, a place to experience wildlife, specifically migratory waterfowl, experience the unique coastal habitat, take in the salt air, and relax. I know Chincoteague is known for the beach but there is so much more to see and I would like to see visitors have those other experiences too. But yes, also come to recreate and have fun, that is important too.
What are your favorite outdoor hobbies?
I like to do anything outside. My husband and I fish and boat, although that’s been a challenge in Nebraska! I like to walk a lot with my four year old golden retriever as my sidekick – he is the beautiful one in the family.
Do you have a fun story or memory you would like to share?
I was doing aerial surveys for sea turtles off the coast of Virginia in an old de Havilland Beaver and I was very focused on the line I was surveying (and seeing lots of sharks down there). But all of a sudden I hear the plane start sputtering and coughing and I look over at the pilot and he is holding a knob in his hand. The knob was the switch that switched from one fuel tank to the other, and it broke! Thankfully after the tank switched over, the plane stopped coughing. Pheww!