Tag Archives: American shad

Yield of Streams: If you remove it, they will come

Little feet tread through slushy April snow and approach the railing, peering over the edge of the bridge into the cold, flowing water of the Shawsheen River in eastern Massachusetts.

“I see one!”

They counted them 1,2,3.

The Joshi family children shouted out numbers as silver blue blurs glided through the dark water.

“We counted 95,” recalled Andover resident Jon Honea. He explained that this meant that as many as 425 passed by when volunteers weren’t watching.

They were counting river herring­­ – alewives and blueback herring, two closely related species of migratory fish that hadn’t been seen in the river for nearly two centuries.

And while river herring are no Shoeless Joe Jackson, their homecoming to the Shawsheen points to the success of the recent removal of the Balmoral and Marland Place Dams.

“All you have to do is make space,” said Honea, member of the Andover Conservation Commission and an environmental science professor at Emerson College.

Tracking the herring’s return to the Shawsheen River was a community affair, drawing over 250 volunteers. Residents from the Atria assisted living facility – whose residence was threatened by increased flood risk from the dam – joined the fun, alongside Andover high school students and dedicated families like the Joshi family, who counted multiple times every week.

“The removal of these two dams not only increases the resiliency of the Town of Andover, but reconnects the community to the river by restoring lost recreational opportunities and natural ecological processes upon which we all rely,” explained Bill Bennett, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist.

Not only were these dams a public safety hazard – heightening flood risk and threatening paddlers – they also blocked the travels of migratory fish throughout the river.

Dams prevent rivers from flowing naturally, impairing water quality and interrupting natural stream processes that both people and wildlife populations rely on.

Partners and volunteers have already documented a steady reappearance of river herring in the Shawsheen, but other wildlife such as American shad and American eel are also expected to arrive.

These removals opened up 4.1 miles of the river and restored 16 acres of wildlife habitat, allowing these fish to reach spawning grounds that are critical for their survival.

Though these smaller fish aren’t coveted by anglers, they are eaten by other wildlife such as larger game fish – like striped bass – shorebirds, raptors and river otters.

Snapping turtles and great blue heron have also been observed enjoying the free-flowing state of the lower Shawsheen River, below the remaining Ballardvale Dam.

Jane Cairns of the Andover Historical Society explained the rich history of the Shawsheen River, mentioning that the Marland Place Dam supported mill operations in the town, even powering a site that at one point supplied gunpowder to George Washington’s Continental Army.

She, like Honea, is also a member of the Shawsheen Greenway, an organization focused on making the Shawsheen River corridor a vital recreational, cultural, transportation, and educational resource for the entire community and region.

“We’ve been reminded, as many other communities have before us, that a clean and healthy, free-flowing river is a significant asset for the town, and can provide a boost to both our recreational and business resources,” Cairns said.

Nick Wildman, a restoration specialist from the Massachusetts Department Fish & Game, has been involved with these removals since 2009. He called the projects a “public investment for public benefit,” adding that the dam removals along the Shawsheen River represent a resurgence of the place that rivers have in our lives.

It doesn’t end there. Though public safety and stewardship of the river and fisheries were paramount to community leaders, fewer dams are a home run for experienced paddlers, who no longer have to transport their boats around the dams on land.

“The newly opened stretches of the river are quite beautiful and exciting,” Honea said. “There are long stretches with just forest on either side and several newly accessible drops, including a couple very exciting rapids.”

“These projects are not possible without strong partnerships between the federal, state, and local communities,” Bennett said.

Some of these partners embarked on a celebratory paddling trip in May to explore the newly free-flowing Shawsheen River.

Three canoes set out on the river. Eric Hutchins of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Bill Bennett of the Service in one, Nick Nelson of Interfluve – a national firm focused on river restoration – and his son in another, and Andover’s Conservation Commissioners, Jon Honea and Floyd Greenwood, in the third boat.

While paddling, Hutchins and Nelson noticed a gizzard shad also exploring the newly restored river.

“Rivers are the lifeblood of our nation and their stewardship is of the utmost importance,” Bennett said.

The town sees it the same way.

“The Town of Andover is very excited about the removal of the dams – many people see this as the start of a real renaissance of the Shawsheen,” said Bob Douglas, conservation director for the Town of Andover. “Our residents are looking forward to being able to paddle the unbridled Shawsheen from the Ballardvale mill district, through the center of town, all the way to the mighty Merrimack.”

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.

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.