Fish counts in Woonasquatucket booming

Fish counts in Woonasquatucket booming

Alicia Lehrer, executive director of the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council, said she and others were surprised at the size of a population boom of herring in the river.
It's a good thing for state's future, say advocates

PROVIDENCE - The Woonasquatucket River is setting modern records for fish.

From March through May, Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council volunteers "counted" nearly 40,000 fish swimming through the fish ladder at Rising Sun Mills dam in Olneyville, more than quadrupling numbers from just two years ago.

This is good news for a river that's gradually being restored to its former state, say local advocates, as both the environment and economy benefit when fish supplies are plentiful.

Fishing will be illegal on the Woonasquatucket for many years to come, but the hope is that restoring migrating fish and getting the river completely cleaned will allow the practice to be revived. Smaller migratory fish help feed other fish that are caught as part of the state's larger industry.

The Woonasquatucket runs from North Smithfield through Smithfield, Johnston, North Providence and Providence.

Seventy-one river herring, also known as alewives or buckeyes, swam through the gate in 10 minutes on April 16. Similar numbers were recorded around the times of the full moon. These fish swim from the mid-Atlantic Ocean to spawn in the freshwater where they were first hatched.

More than 40 volunteers help to count fish as they pass through Rising Sun fish ladder every year.

The following are the number of fish counted for the past four years:

* 2014 - 39,518

* 2013 - 12,336

* 2012 - 9,264

* 2011 - 7,269

"Thanks to years of hard work with our partners, we are really starting to see results," said Alicia Lehrer, executive director of the WRWC in a news release. "In addition to our own donors and volunteers, we thank the Rhode Island Fish and Wildlife staff. They stock our river almost every year with spawning herring from other parts of the state. The young fish, or fry, born and raised in the Woonasquatucket now return here to spawn as adults."

Lehrer told The Breeze that volunteers count the fish twice a day for 10 minutes each. Data is then extrapolated from those numbers.

Could there have been a mistake in the counting?

"We're pretty confident," said Lehrer. "I have never seen so many fish in this river."

She said she's not surprised that there's been a population boom based on efforts to restock spawning fish since 2008, but she's "surprised at how much" the numbers grew.

Lehrer thanked the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Fish and Wildlife Service, the R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council, the R.I. Department of Environmental Management and many other partners who invested in fish passage in the Woonasquatucket.

For generations, these fish arrived in Providence and stopped at the base of the Rising Sun dam. Blocked from moving further upstream, some spawned in the river near Donigian Park on Valley Street. The WRWC constructed the Rising Sun dam fish ladder in 2007. This is the first barrier on the river that fish can now pass.

Over the next few years, the WRWC took down two more dams and built a second fish ladder. Now fish use the whole river to spawn up to Manton Dam in Johnston. WRWC officials hope to construct a special "nature-like" bypass around that dam in 2015. They are still looking for more money to pay for that project.

According to Lehrer, representatives from the WRWC have been planning fish bypasses since the 1990s. The eventual goal, which is still many milestones away, is to get them all the way into the Georgiaville Pond in Smithfield.

Young herring leave the river in September and October for their adult lives at sea until they return to spawn. Commercial fishing, getting eaten by larger fish, and until a ban, recreational fishing, have decreased the population.

According to the WRWC "no herring, no larger fish" has been a link that was almost broken in the natural food chain.

Historical records once described the migrating fish as "running silver" in the coastal creeks of New England. Native Americans advised using them as fertilizer in planting corn.

For more information visit www.wrwc.org or call the WRWC at 401-861-9046.

Stock photo of river herring.