Waves of Change: Making a Dam Plan for Fish Habitat | Conservation Law Foundation

Waves of Change: Making a Dam Plan for Fish Habitat

Hannah Dean

Image Copyright USFWS

An engineer, a politician, and a fish walk into a dam. The engineer says, “We could have built it bigger.” The politician says, “We should have built it cheaper.” Fish don’t talk, but if they did, they probably would have asked for a ladder.

Dams were built in the 18th century to power mills, and in the 1940s to provide cheap electricity and irrigation opportunities – when they were considered great achievements of engineering that would benefit generations to come. Across the nation, dams have been utilized for energy production, flood control, irrigation, and water storage. But, if they are not appropriately planned, sited, and maintained  dams can have devastating impacts on fish populations.

In the early 1900s rainbow smelt supported a robust recreational and commercial fishery in the Northeast, but today NOAA Fisheries Service has listed them as a species of concern in this region. One of the problems in the Northeast has been the loss of suitable spawning habitat due to development like dams, which can prevent fish from moving upstream. But now there may be light at the end of the tunnel for rainbow smelt in southern Maine.

At the end of July, the Great Works Regional Land Trust (GWRLT) announced the removal of Shorey’s Brook dam and the restoration of the Shorey’s Brook on Raymond and Simone Savage Wildlife Preserve in Eliot and South Berwick, Maine.  Fish surveys are already showing rainbow smelt as far upriver as the former location of the dam and further upstream will be suitable for spawning habitat. If other dam restoration projects across the U.S. can be taken as indicators, rainbow smelt may soon be taking advantage of upstream habitats.

Larger scaled restoration efforts are also progressing in Maine. Earlier this summer, Talking Fish reported the demolition of the Great Works Dam on the Penobscot River in Maine – a restoration effort that will open thousands of miles of upstream habitat to Atlantic salmon and other fish for the first time in almost two hundred years. And, here at CLF we have been working to restore native alewives – an important prey species in both marine and fresh waters for many fish, mammals, and birds – to the St. Croix River in Maine. Read more about that work here.

The pressures on our fisheries are enormous, with overfishing, bycatch, pollution, ocean acidification, and habitat destruction all playing a part. We need a better way to plan in the face of all these different stressors. Partnering among local, regional, state, and federal stakeholders in the Northeast alone has culminated in 299 projects to improve and restore fish habitat in rivers, marshes, and estuaries.

New England’s need for habitat conservation and restoration is great, and other regions have similar challenges. Restoring damaged ecosystems to ecological and economic productivity is a fundamental component of the National Ocean Policy, and one more reason why the National Ocean Policy is right for New England.

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