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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Yellowfin madtom. Credit: Mike Pinder, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries

Mini catfish swims back South

Yellowfin madtom. Credit: Mike Pinder, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries

Yellowfin madtom. Credit: Mike Pinder, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries

A small, minnow-sized catfish tinged with yellow has made an encouraging comeback, taking again to creeks and small rivers in southwestern Virginia and eastern Tennessee where it was once common.

J.R. Shute, co-director of Conservation Fisheries, Inc., holds up a bag of yellowfin madtoms. Credit: Shane Hanlon/USFWS

J.R. Shute, co-director of Conservation Fisheries, Inc., holds up a bag of yellowfin madtoms. Credit: Shane Hanlon/USFWS

The yellowfin madtom (Noturus flavipinnis) once thrived in the Powell River and Copper Creek, a tributary to the Clinch River. These bodies of water are among the most biologically diverse aquatic ecosystems in the nation.

By 1969, biologists thought the fish was extinct, lost to sedimentation and water pollution from agriculture and coal processing.

But then the fish was discovered at two locations in Virginia and Tennessee, and the Service listed the species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1977.

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and a number of non-profit organizations support the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in efforts to recover the species. The VDGIF has used ESA funding to conserve the threatened fish. A state grant awarded in 2006 helped purchase conservation easements on two properties totaling 184 acres along the Clinch River—a project that reduced sedimentation and improve water quality to benefit the yellowfin madtom and seven federally endangered freshwater mussel species.

Check out other stories of endangered plant and animal conservation in the Northeast – We’re sharing them throughout the year!

Conservation Fisheries, Inc., a non-profit organization in Knoxville, Tennessee, has also helped restore the species by raising the species in captivity, reintroducing it into its historic range, and monitoring its status.

This map shows all the streams where yellowfin madtoms can be found. Created by Kurt Snider, USFWS.

This map shows all the streams where yellowfin madtoms can be found. Created by Kurt Snider, USFWS.

In 1986, Conservation Fisheries, Inc., began its captive propagation program for the yellowfin madtom. Fourteen years of raising and releasing fish paid off when snorkeling biologists discovered the yellowfin madtom at three new sites in the Powell River from 2000 to 2003. They even found non-tagged fish, documenting successful breeding in the wild. …Keep reading this story!

Protecting Virginia’s waters

Holding mussels

Endangered mussels bound for the Powell River. Credit: Gary Peeples/USFWS

“What do we use the river for?” Mike Pinder, a Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries biologist, asked a group of elementary students standing knee-deep in southwestern Virginia’s Clinch River.

“Swimming and fishing!” one boy answered enthusiastically.

Leading students into river.

Biologist Mike Pinder leads students into the Clinch River. Credit: Gary Peeples/USFWS

“What animal helps keep it clean?” Pinder asked.

The boy proudly shared his new knowledge: “Mussels!”

Pinder then began helping students place freshwater mussels in the sand and gravel of the Clinch River.

In September 2010, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries – with support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), these elementary students, and other volunteers – released more than 6,500 mussels of seven species, including the federally endangered oyster mussel (Epioblasma capsaeformis).

Check out other stories of endangered plant and animal conservation in the Northeast – We’re sharing them throughout the year!

This was a monumental moment in freshwater mussel conservation, as this was the largest release of endangered mussels to date in the eastern U.S. – Finish reading the story!

Visit a stream near your house. Find any freshwater mussels?
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UPDATE: We’ve got great news for another endangered species in Virginia! Biologists with the Center for Conservation Biology documented a modern day high of 53 red-cockaded woodpeckers during the winter population survey at The Nature Conservancy’s Piney Grove Preserve. This marks the highest population number in Virginia since the 1980s when red-cockaded woodpeckers began their rapid decline! Learn more.