May 9, 2008

Migrating Fish Get a Boost at Omega Pond Dam

By Alisha A Pina; Tim Pindell

With the help of residents, conservationists, and anglers, herring surmount a major obstacle to their annual migration and spawning.

EAST PROVIDENCE The adventure starts in March when Long Island waters and the ocean begin to warm. That temperature change triggers a need to procreate.

Thousands of blueback herring race through Connecticut's waters, South County's streams and the Providence and Seekonk rivers. All along the tiring, month-long journey to freshwater, the weak fall off.

The strongest make it to the Omega Pond dam and face the impossible: none can scale the 12-foot-high wall of water gushing at them.

It's another obstacle before reaching their native, freshwater spawning grounds along the Ten Mile River, which spans from East Providence to Attleboro, and farther upstream.

"Think about an Olympic swimmer trying to get up Niagara Falls," said Armando Medeiros, of the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association. "It ain't gonna happen, but they're great swimmers ... the best even."

"...And it's man's fault they [the herring] can't. If we put this barrier here, at least we can help them over it."

People from Attleboro, Pawtucket, Providence, Barrington, Coventry and certainly East Providence came out to assist the herring on Saturday. The Ten Mile River Watershed Council and its leader, Keith Gonsalves, started the annual "Scoop the Herring" and river cleanup day over the last few years, but residents claim to have been voluntarily transporting the fish over the dam for decades.

The council, with 50 members, also holds monthly paddles on the river to introduce people to the recreational opportunities. Its goals are to restore a balanced ecosystem and then keep the area protected, clean and public for all to enjoy.

The restoration project specifically hopes to reinstate 340 acres of spawning habitat and over three miles of riverine habitat. The targeted species include American eel and several in the herring family, such as the blueback, alewives and American shad.

There were so many in the waters in the 1900s that farmers would use them as fertilizer. They are also the food source for the area's bigger fish, such as striped bass and bluefish.

The herring live most of their lives -- a lifespan of about a decade -- in the ocean and return in the spring to the local freshwater rivers to spawn. The eggs hatch and the young and adults, which can get as big as two pounds and up to 14 inches long, travel back to the ocean in the autumn months.

For more than 200 years, however, dams on the Ten Mile River have blocked upstream migration of these anadromous fish.

"The dams were built during the Industrial Revolution to produce water power and other needs for the mills," said Tim Pindell, a resource conservationist with the National Resources Conservation Service, which is a part of the federal Department of Agriculture. "Those back then didn't look at the negative effects the dams brought to fish."

Constructing denil fishways -- which are commonly known as fish ladders -- at the three lowest dams on the Ten Mile River (Omega Pond dam, Hunts Mill dam and Turner Reservoir dam) will provide for that upstream journey herring historically took. Slots would also be cut into the existing spillways at Omega Pond and Turner Reservoir to facilitate downstream travel for the juveniles.

Grants from the Department of Agriculture have been secured for the $2.2-million project. Gonsalves said work should begin in July and that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers designed the ladders.

The entrance channel would be flat and located as close as possible to the base of the dam. Concrete floor beams are sloped and spaced out along the ladder so the fish can easily go over each step and have a spot to rest in between, Pindell explained.

In the meantime, Gonsalves and crew scoop the fish over the dam with big fishing nets that are attached to 10- and 12-foot poles. They start catching the herring in late March. The most herring are caught in mid-April and the entire process -- which is officially called dip netting -- is highly regulated by the state Department of Environmental Management.

The Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association, which is based in Coventry, received the permit to scoop herring at the Omega Pond dam this year. Those individually listed to perform the work, including Gonsales and Medeiros, have to count the amount caught each day and submit it to the state agency when they are finished.

The watershed council and friends helped 1,400 herring in the three days leading up to the Scoop the Herring annual event. Some say the tide is an important factor in catching them, while others think it's the type and color of the net used. Ed Erminelli, of Pawtucket, who built the nets being used Saturday, said a full moon helps, too.

"On Wednesday night, I went down to wash my hands off and the fish were all over me," he said, recalling the recent full moon. He's been helping to clean the area for four years.

Said Pindell, "These people have been scooping them by hand and it's backbreaking."

Sweat dripped down Paul Shorts' forehead and neck as he pushed the net against the current toward the base of the dam where the herring sit trying to figure how they will get up and over. The Providence man has been coming here to fish since he was a boy. When a break was needed, he and the others guided the new helpers in learning the best ways to scoop.

Standing on the sides of the dam, rather than in the water with waders on, is best, most participants said.

"Most of the fish go where the pressure is," Medeiros explained while pointing at the bubbles. "They get up to this point and don't know what to do. They look for little pockets that are advantageous to them and the sides are where they can rest and then charge at it."

Just as he said it, Shorts pulled the net out of the water and a half-dozen bluebacks flipping and flapping helplessly in the net. People snapped pictures of the catch as the pole was handed off to someone at the top of the dam.

"That's it, we got some now," an excited Medeiros said.

Erminelli then walked the net to calmer waters and tossed the fish in with one whipping motion. Only one remained stuck in the netting. The more the fish are traumatized in the mesh, the less likely they'll survive and swim upstream.

And some -- still shocked by the temporary exit out of the water - - let themselves fall back down the dam.

"The other day, three went back down the waterfall," Kathie Ventura, Gonsalves' sister, said. "I tell them, 'Now, stay up there,' but they don't all listen. But we have to keep going because none of them will make it up if we stopped."

"The dams were built during the Industrial Revolution to produce water power and other needs for the mills. Those back then didn't look at the negative effects the dams brought to fish."