Cover image credit: Kalil Boghdan.
If you’ve read any of Trout Unlimited’s recent magazine articles, blog posts, or social media stories, you clearly understand the immense amount of work and effort being put into restoring salmon and steelhead populations in the Snake River. The Snake River, a tributary of the Columbia, is fed by a number of streams and rivers that form the principal spawning habitat for salmon and steelhead on the West Coast. Unfortunately, four dams on the lower Snake built in the 60’s and 70’s block the migration of these salmonids. While TU’s efforts to remove the lower Snake River dams and reconnect salmon and steelhead to their historic spawning sites are monumental, they overshadow the outstanding work being done at a local level across the nation.
This past Saturday, I was lucky to be in the presence of some Northeast Massachusetts fisheries conservation giants as the Nor’East Chapter of Trout Unlimited (NETU) met to learn more about some of the work that has been and is currently being done. Though it was a brisk morning (ice was beginning to form on some of the ponds and backwaters), spirits were high, and the readiness to learn even higher.
The group began at Hood Pond, a critical spawning site for native river herring. Sixty percent of the pond’s shoreline is protected land, enabling numerous rare species, including herring, to thrive in the pond and surrounding wetlands. Despite how pristine the area is, herring face a number of barriers that hinder their spawning success in the pond.
First, Robi and Skip Tobin, longtime neighbors of Hood Pond, described the invasion of aquatic plants like Chinese water chestnut, variable leaf milfoil, and fanwort. In recent years, these invasive aquatic plant species have completely overrun the once clean, clear pond, displacing native species and concerning homeowners. As Robi put it, “We knew we were losing our pond.”
Jim MacDougall, a friend of the Tobins, TU member, and incredibly knowledgeable ecologist, explained that herring prefer a sandy bottom in still water for spawning, and that the invasive plants not only reduce the available spawning habitat, but also hinder spawning success rates.
Instead of accepting the ill fate of the pond and its native, rare species, the Tobins and MacDougall worked together with the Ipswich River Watershed Association (IRWA) and Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) to attack the invasive species using herbicides. Now, all of those involved in the project claim the pond is far cleaner and healthier than it has been in many years.
The second barrier to herring migration into the pond was an impaired culvert at its outlet. The removal and consequential replacement of this culvert is likely the most important factor to the health of herring populations in the watershed right now.
The outlet of Hood pond flows into Pye Brook, which then enters Howlett Brook, and Howlett eventually converges with the Ipswich River. Upstream of Howlett’s confluence with the Ipswich, a swamp sucks much of the dissolved oxygen out of the water, creating a natural barrier. This prevents many herring from ascending the Ipswich much farther than Howlett Brook, making Hood Pond one of the last suitable spawning habitats before the swamp.
Thanks to funds raised by NETU, IRWA, and Friends of Hood Pond, ground is planned to be broken on a replacement culvert in the spring of 2022. When work is completed, it is believed that herring runs could jump from a couple hundred individuals ascending the Ipswich each year to a few thousand, as evidenced by the millions of herring that have returned to Maine rivers after the removal of dams and other barriers.
The next spot on our adventure was Pye Brook where it crosses Pye Brook Park. There, a flood control structure partially blocks the passage of migratory fish. But, as Jim McDougall pointed out, “There’s more life here than herring.”
Jim taught us about the critical and rare cedar swamp that is present here. Cedar swamps are the only habitat for a number of threatened and endangered species, including species of orchids, butterflies, dragonflies, and turtles. Unsurprisingly, they are also good habitat for beavers, which have caused problems for the swamp in the past.
A wire Beaver Deceiver has been installed at the head of the flood control structure to prevent the damming of the brook. Unfortunately, wire Beaver Deceivers dissuade fish from passing, creating an additional barrier for herring.
Unlike many other biologists and ecologists, Jim believes that beavers are a keystone species and are crucial for fish. He hopes to implement a Beaver Deceiver that works like an electric fence, which he believes could set the precedent for similar projects across the world.
Before we left, Neil Shea outlined a rough overview of the legislative processes all these projects must go through. The procedure gave me a headache just listening about it, helping me appreciate the incredibly talented individuals who push these efforts through the necessary boards and groups to help save an ecosystem.
Finally, we headed to Gravelly Brook, a once-pristine-and-premier brook trout fishery, but one that has suffered the effects of drought, sedimentation, and climate change. Luckily, the one thing that hasn’t changed for the brook is its location in entirely protected land. The clean water of the brook was home to all life stages of brook trout when it was electroshocked in the early 2000’s, but an eDNA test just a couple years ago revealed no signs of the once prevalent fish. NETU is hopeful something can be done to save the species in this watershed before it entirely disappears.
As we said our goodbyes and took our final glimpses of the water, I looked one last time at the party. As I scanned the pack, I realized this group of lawyers, construction consultants, ecologists, doctors, and engineers are the true stream heroes. Their combined efforts create impressive results that save otherwise imperiled species.
Though the fisheries conservation projects done on the East Coast get little attention compared to the massive efforts being done to save salmon and steelhead on the West Coast, they are arguably just as important. Without the tireless work done by an occupationally diverse group of devoted conservationists, we too would be saying our final goodbyes to a number of species the human race has relied on for millions of years.