Tag Archives: American eel

Harvell Dam on the Appomattox River

Downing Harvell Dam opens up 127 miles of Virginia’s Appomattox River

Today we hear from Albert Spells, our fisheries coordinator for Virginia, sharing his story about the recent demolition of the Harvell Dam and what it means for migratory fish.

Harvell Dam_GONE_AWeaver

Photo credit: Virginia Dept of Game and Inland Fisheries/ Alan Weaver

Albert Spells, Virginia Fisheries Coordinator. Photo: USFWS

Albert Spells, Virginia Fisheries Coordinator. Photo credit: USFWS

Wow! It has  been almost surreal to experience the Harvell Dam being removed in Petersburg, Virginia. It is a project I have worked on for nearly five years, and it is so gratifying to see the water flowing freely along this stretch of the Appomattox River.

Harvell Dam on the Appomattox River

The Harvell Dam as it sat in the Appomattox River in Petersburg, Virginia. Photo credit: Virginia Dept. of Game and Inland Fisheries/ Alan Weaver

Since 1930 the dam has been a clog in the free flow of the river, impeding fish and other aquatic wildlife from reaching their native habitats. There is even historical evidence that there has been a dam structure at or near the site of the Harvell Dam dating back to the mid-1700s. And just below the site of the dam there is still visible evidence that Native Americans altered fish movement with rock weirs to help collect food.

All these structures have impounded the river’s free flow and for centuries have blocked upstream movement of American shad, river herring, hickory shad, striped bass and American eel.

Working to remove the Harvell Dam. Photo Credit: USFWS/ Albert Spells

Working to remove the Harvell Dam. Photo Credit: USFWS/ Albert Spells

On July 1, 2014, work began to remove the dam. Deconstruction was slow to begin, but on July 23 water breached the barricade. And now, with the demolition complete, the river runs freely again for the first time in more than 250 years. A good change has come upon the river; it’s been a long time coming.

Dam removal is complete: A free flowing Appomattox River. Photo credit: USFWS/ Albert Spells

Dam removal is complete: A free flowing Appomattox River. Photo credit: USFWS/ Albert Spells

From a viewpoint at the dam’s former site, I have seen American shad, American eel, river herring and other fish species swimming in the river. These migrant swimmers have gained access to nearly 127 miles of spawning and nursery habitat upstream. And although there are additional man-made obstacles structures upstream, there are fishways installed that allow passage past them.

I am excited about the possibilities of improved fish returns and plan to monitor fish movement on the river next spring and in the years to come.

Photo credit: USFWS/ Albert Spells

Photo credit: USFWS/ Albert Spells

Many partners have made this event possible, but none more than the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the great work of Fish Passage Coordinator Alan Weaver. The VDGIF and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay Program funded the feasibility study for the dam removal. The design and removal phase was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Restoration Center, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Fish Passage Program and VDGIF. American Rivers has continued to provide much needed support and promotion of the project, and the project would also not be possible without the cooperation of the owner, Harvell Dam Corporation and local support from the City of Petersburg.

Read the news release to learn more about this project.

Elvers climbing to base of Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River. Elvers are juvenile eels that migrate to brackish waters and begin to develop gray to greenish-brown pigmentation.

Bringing back American eels in the Susquehanna River

In today’s post, Sheila Eyler, fishery biologist and Project Leader for the Mid-Atlantic Fish and Wildlife Coordination Office, shares her success in working with American eel populations on the Susquehanna River.

In today’s post, Sheila Eyler, project leader for the Mid-Atlantic Fish and Wildlife Coordination Office, shares her success in working with American eel populations on the Susquehanna River.

When deciding to attend graduate school, I must admit that the American eel was not on the top of my list of fish to study. However, an opportunity to evaluate the impacts of hydroelectric dams on eel migration helped make the decision for me.

Seven years later, what I have learned about this unique and often misunderstood “snakelike” fish species has made me one of its biggest fans.

Historically, eels were abundant in estuaries and freshwater tributaries in much of the eastern U.S. and Canada. The construction of dams changed all this, drastically limiting eel migration routes from the ocean to upstream freshwater areas.

As a fisheries biologist, I continually look at the impacts that a species’ decline has on an entire ecosystem. In the case of the American eel, the population decline has an important – and fascinating – connection to certain native freshwater mussel species. Larval mussels need to attach to the gills of a fish in order to complete their life cycle. Some mussel species specifically need American eels to survive.

Elvers climbing to base of Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River. Elvers are juvenile eels that migrate to brackish waters and begin to develop gray to greenish-brown pigmentation.

Elvers climbing to base of Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River. Elvers are juvenile eels that migrate to brackish waters and begin to develop gray to greenish-brown pigmentation. Credit: Maryland Fisheries Resources Office, USFWS

With fewer eels headed upstream, mussel larvae have fewer hosts to help them survive. In rivers where dams have excluded eels for decades or longer, some freshwater mussel populations have also declined. Fewer mussels means poorer water quality because mussels have the ability to filter gallons of water a day.

Working on the restoration program for American eels on the Susquehanna River is never dull and continues to bring daily adventures. Along with several partner agencies, my colleagues and I have been trapping young migrating eels at the Conowingo Dam and stocking them into the upper watershed for several years. In 2013, we collected nearly 300,000 elvers (baby eels) for the restoration program.

Stocking eels has been very successful in the Susquehanna River. And to our delight, we are now finding eels with larval mussels attached to the gills, which will promote the growth of the mussel population.  

Watch American eels swim upriver

For me, it has been very rewarding to be part of this successful restoration program. I am proud to share the story of the American eel – an underappreciated resident of much of our freshwater streams with an amazing life cycle and connection to our environment.

For more information on the Susquehanna River American eel stocking program, read more at: http://www.fws.gov/northeast/marylandfisheries/projects/Eel%20passage.html.