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Mar 9, 2018 1:36 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Expert: Fish Ladders Could Help Save East End's Herring Population

Byrone Young casts the thermometer into the Peconic River. VALERIE GORDON
Mar 13, 2018 12:12 PM

It’s not easy to tell the difference between a blue back river herring and an alewife herring. The sliver of blue scales along the dorsal fin of the blue back herring is just about the only difference between the two.

But telling them apart won’t be a problem much longer—because there won’t be any left.

According to Enrico Nardone, executive director of the Seatuck Environmental Association in Islip, river herring populations on Long Island have significantly decreased over the years.

At a recent Eastern Long Island Audubon Society meeting, held at the Quogue Wildlife Refuge on Old Country Road, the avid fisherman attributed the decline in the diadromous fish—those that can migrate between fresh and salt water—to the construction of manmade dams that were built decades earlier to power mills, and assist the commercial cranberry businesses and ice harvesting operations.

“Populations that once numbered in the hundreds of thousands are now down to single digits,” according to a report by the Herring Alliance, an association of 109 organizations that represent Atlantic coastlines from Maine to North Carolina.

According to Mr. Nardone, the sharp decline in river herring, which live approximately eight to 10 years, will eventually lead to the collapse of local ecosystems as almost every fish, bird and mammal depend upon them for food.

“I love seeing all the birds,” said avid bird watcher Adrienne Woodduck, who lives in Southampton. “Taking away their food source—that’s near and dear to a bird lover’s heart.”

Mr. Nardone explained that when the herring migrate in early spring from saltwater to fresh water to spawn—typically when the temperature is approximately 48 degrees—they get trapped in one of Long Island’s 144 permanently dammed tributaries.

“River herring can swim through a water column but can’t handle a 5- or 6-foot dam,” Mr. Nardone said, noting that Big Fresh Pond in North Sea is the only tributary left on Long Island that has not been permanently dammed. “Almost every tributary has multiple dams.”

To help mitigate the problem, representatives from Seatuck created the River Revival Project in 2016. It seeks to restore the ecological health of the region’s coastal rivers and streams through the development of fish ladders—metal structures that allow diadromous fish passage over obstacles, such as tributary dams.

The State Department of Transportation installed Long Island’s first permanent fish ladder along Carmans River, downstream from Lower Lake, at Hard Lake Dam in Southaven County Park in Shirley in 2009, allowing the herring to migrate upstream, according to the Suffolk County government website.

Mr. Nardone noted that the next area in dire need of attention is the Woodhull Avenue Dam, which connects Little River and Wildwood Lake in Northampton. The estimated $372,000 project requires three permits from the DEC: one for stream disturbance, one for work on wild, scenic and recreational rivers, and a third for the removal of freshwater wetlands.

Elizabeth Hornstein, the state coordinator for the Peconic Estuary Program, a government-funded agency dedicated to protecting and restoring Long Island’s wetlands, explained this week that those permits are not yet in place. Still, she said she expects the fish ladder to be installed before the spring migration in 2020.

“It’s definitely one of the more important fish passages here on Long Island,” Ms. Hornstein said of the Northampton water body.

“The dam at Woodhull—that’s the top priority, Mr. Nardone added, noting that the money is now in place to begin construction. “There’s so much potential there.”

Ms. Hornstein, who works in conjunction with the State Department of Environmental Conservation, explained that approximately $279,000 is coming from one of the agency’s water quality improvement grants, and that the remaining $93,000 will come from Suffolk County capital funds.

In the meantime, through the efforts of the Long Island Diadromous Fish Workgroup, a union of government agencies and nonprofits which Mr. Nardone chairs, Long Island now boasts 26 herring runs, up from only 10 nearly a decade ago, he noted.

“It’s an expensive problem,” he said, “dealing with these impoundments. This is a coming attraction for Long Island. If we give these fish the chance to rebound they will. If you build it, they will come.”

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Skunk cabbage first, then alewives, forsythia, stripers and ospreys mark the return of spring : )
By Aeshtron (431), Southampton on Mar 9, 18 4:25 PM
you left out daffodils
By BrianWilliams (87), on Mar 9, 18 10:38 PM
If we keep losing the alewives and herring the whole system stops. Alewives were a good fish harvested by many for food.
By knitter (1941), Southampton on Mar 9, 18 11:20 PM
If it requires a permit from the DEC the fish will be extinct before the paperwork is done.
By bird (829), Sag Harbor on Mar 10, 18 5:24 PM
Byron in the photograph said that he will be speaking about Alewife at the World Migration Day April 21 event at Woodhull Dam. Looking forward to it. Good way to spend Earth Day Weekend.
By charles b (1), ROCKY POINT on Mar 14, 18 8:09 PM
The highest priority here should be the removal of these aritificial impopundments. Fish ladders should only be considered as a last resort, not as a first choice for solving the problem. Research has shown that only a small percentage of fish that attempt to use fish ladders actually are successful in passing the dam. See https://www.internationalrivers.org/resources/do-not-pass-go-the-failed-promise-of-fish-ladders-7889https://www.internationalrivers.org/resources/do-not-pass-go-the-failed-promise-of-fish-ladders-7889
By DougS1 (1), Brookhaven on Mar 15, 18 7:16 PM