Posted by on Apr 12, 2012 in Nature | 19 comments

Things I’ve learned this spring: not all river herring use fish ladders the way we’d like them to. Many of the fish swim right on past, don’t use them at all.

The fish ladder at Wakefield, RI. It’s on the westside of town near the Chevy dealership. This ladder (some people call them fishways) connects the Atlantic Ocean and Point Judith Pond with the Saugatucket River. Anadromous fish–fish that live at sea but spawn in freshwater– use the ladder to gain access to spawning areas upriver. The Wakefield ladder mostly sees alewives, a kind of river herring that act like miniature salmon except they don’t die after they spawn.

In the above picture, notice the cement ladder running to the dam; notice too the wooden 4X4s in the upper right-hand corner; notice the sea gulls standing on the dam. The ladder isn’t small, covers maybe 80 feet. I like this ladder. I like this part of the river–it’s close to where I live, a short walk away.

But this ladder doesn’t work very well at getting fish over the dam. It passes some fish, but not many. I don’t think it has anything to do with this year’s drought, either. Because the same thing happened last year, a year of plenty springtime rain. The alewives seem to prefer another route. Instead of taking a right-hand turn after passing underneath Main Street–a turn which would put their little noses into the ladder’s entrance– they swim straight up the set of small falls, ending up in three pools at the foot of the dam.

JP Lee

This photo’s looking downstream. I’m standing on the dam. Notice where the entrance of the ladder is relative to the flow of the stream. Would the ladder perform better, move more fish from point A to point B, if it were in-line with the flow of the river, not at a right angle to it? I mulled this question over at the top of the dam, the green plants flowing in the current, the sunfish getting ready to bed. I like the history of dams–mills, paper, and snuff. I understand that this dam, once it became operational, wiped out the river herring. I understand that the herring I see today are not original fish, are not part of a lineage that stretches back to when the river had no mills, had no town. I understand that the fish I see were put here after the ladder was built, I’m guessing sometime in the 1970s. These fish are stocked. They probably came from Massachusetts. I originally came from somewhere else as well, we all did. So I can relate. It doesn’t matter much to me that the herring I see today in the Saugatucket came from places like the Taunton River, the Merrimack.

If you look at the above photograph, look into the pool, squint your eyes through the glare, you’ll see the pool is stuffed with alewives.  The gulls see them too and don’t easily forget it. The herring are stuck in these pools. I watch them search for holes in the dam. It won’t happen. Maybe at night they descend back down the falls and find another way upriver. But I doubt this. My fear is the fish become exhausted swimming around the pools, searching for a way in. Predation is high. I see the guano on the rocks and on the dam, like a hundred white cakes. Gulls, herons, raccoons, weasels.

The Saugatucket herring run has been going on for about four weeks. The intensity of the run is not uniform. One day to the next, the migrating herring act as differently as a child. The fish run with changes in the weather, changes in the tide. Rain fall. Full moons. It all matters. I understand none of it, none of it well.

The past few days–warm weather, an overcast sky. The stream’s once again loaded with fish. And the bulk of the fish once again aren’t using the ladder. They’re all pooled up next the dam. So I jumped the rail, grabbed a net, and climbed onto the 4X4s. I got the fish over the falls. I had permission to use the net, permission to handle the alewives. I   signed papers, gave my number. Alewives are a protected species–you cannot tamper with them. If you want to help these fish you need permission to do it. And so I netted some fish, and the work felt good, a small contribution, a giving back.

Photo credit: Zach Harvey

By the end of my efforts, I got 300 herring swimming in the right direction, got them going where they wanted to go–up the river and past the yoga studio, the elementary school, the high-end fitness club, past the neighborhood guild, the playground, the methadone clinic and on until the river slows its way into a pond. Then they’ll come to the surface, swim in a tight slow circle, fish flashing their colors in a kind of mating dance.

The spawn. These fish need numbers. Herring are a prolific tribe of fish–or want to be, need to be. But the numbers in the Saugatucket are too low. More fish need to pass the dam. I did see some fish use the ladder. I’d stand at the top of the ladder, on the boardwalk the town built a few years ago, and count the number of fish that swam through. My best count was 50 fish in half and hour, which isn’t bad at all. But many of the other times I was there counting there were few or none–and these times were not times of a migratory lull: I could see herring rush the falls, swimming on their sides when the water got shallow. Then gulls had their moment. I thought of hurling rocks at the seagulls, screaming profanities. But the f-word doesn’t mean much to a gull.

It all feels a little futile. Netting fish over a dam, yelling at seagulls. And this problem can’t be unique–other herring runs, from Wakefield to Woods Hole and beyond–each must have their own sets of problems. Some problems might be with cormorant predation, others with not enough rain is this; still others with inefficient fishways, poor passage. It’s easier to point to the commercial herring fleet and say there’s our problem. And that might be a problem. But I think another problem is with the streams and rivers–the hundreds of places where herring should be spawning. But aren’t. Because they can’t. It’d be one thing if the fish weren’t even there, an empty waste of amber water, beer cans, and soggy maple leaves. But when I see the fish try to run and get trapped–it’s a lame feeling. We have to give the fish a chance to spawn, the opportunity to flash scales and turn broadside, boil at the surface.

Solutions? I have some and they require money and that’s a problem, though nothing is insurmountable.