River Restoration Helps Fish Reach Habitat

Main Street dam and technical fishway and nature-like fishway weirs
The Main Street dam after the fishway was installed.

River Restoration Helps Fish Reach Habitat

June 16, 2016

The Saugatucket River in Rhode Island is home to important spawning and rearing habitat for migratory river herring.  River herring are important “forage fish,” which means they are food for other fish like striped bass, summer flounder, and bluefish. These migratory fish populations have been negatively impacted by humans.  

These impacts began in the early 1800s, when dams were built on the river, blocking the fish from upstream habitat. Two fish ladders—called fishways—were built in the 1970s so fish could swim over the dams. But the ladders were too steep, and the flow of water was too fast for the fish. For the past few years, a team of volunteers helped to relay the fish over the dam by hand. This helped to sustain the herring run, but more effective passage restoration practices were needed.

Between 1967 and 1983, the Rose Hill Quarry was used as a landfill for household and industrial waste. Toxic metals from the landfill leached into the river, Saugatucket Pond, and downstream, injuring fish and other wildlife.

In 1996, the North Cape tank barge grounded in nearby Block Island Sound. The barge spilled approximately 828,000 gallons of heating oil into the water. It was the worst oil spill in Rhode Island history. The spill killed a massive number of animals, including 4.2 million fish.

NOAA and our trustees entered into settlement agreements with the parties responsible for these two disasters. Under the terms of the settlements, we recovered funds to help restore the migratory fish runs.

NOAA and our trustees have contributed more than $260,000 to rebuild the fishways on the Saugatucket River.  We also relocated the entrance to one fishway to make it easier for fish to make their way upstream.

With the new fishways in place, river herring can now reach more than 300 acres of upstream spawning and rearing habitat.  We expect that tens of thousands of river herring will now be able to reach this habitat each year.