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Holyoke fish elevator open for Mother’s Day visitors

The fishway will give out free carnations to mothers who visit the facility Sunday. In addition to commemorating Mother’s Day, the flowers symbolize the spirit of rebirth on the Connecticut River, organizers say.

Holyoke Gas & Electric Co., which owns and operates the fishway, will also host its 48th annual Shad Derby May 18 and 19.

Mother’s Day at the Barrett Fishway “has become a tradition for families in the area,” the company’s marketing coordinator, Kate Sullivan, said in a telephone interview. “It should be a great day.”

Visitors can see videos about the fish that migrate up the Connecticut River, and activity booklets will be available for children. Fishway coordinators will be on hand to answer questions and share their knowledge about the fish, Sullivan said.

The Barrett Fishway, the first and most successful fish lift on the Atlantic Coast, was built in the mid-1950s after people upriver from the Holyoke Dam noticed they weren’t seeing as many fish as they once had. Last year, more than 500,000 fish passed through the Barrett Fishway during the spring migration season. That makes 2012 the largest run since 1992, when the fishway counted more than 1 million fish migrating upstream.

The fishway begins operating each year in April, when the water reaches the right temperature for fish to migrate, Sullivan said. The fishway has tallied more than 40,000 fish so far in 2013.

Anadromous fish such as American shad, sea lamprey, and Atlantic salmon are born in the Connecticut River and its tributaries but spend most of their lives in the ocean. In order to breed, they must return to the fresh waters where they were born. Fish lifts like the Barrett Fishway enable migrating fish to navigate over dams and reach their home waters.

Like a fish ladder, the fish lift uses an “attraction flow” of water to draw fish into the facility. Then elevators lift the fish over the dam.

During the height of the season, “it’s literally every 15 minutes or every half hour that we’re lifting hundreds of fish over the dam,” Sullivan said.

An observation deck overlooking the Connecticut River allows visitors to watch the lifts in action. Visitors can also see fish swim by viewing windows as they continue their migration upriver. Nearly 11,000 guests visited the facility last year.

This year’s Mother’s Day activities fall on the first weekend of the Holyoke Gas & Electric Shad Derby, in which people compete for the biggest catch on the Connecticut River. Competitors are divided into two divisions, youth (ages 14 and under) and senior (ages 15 and up). Cash prizes are awarded to the top 10 catches in each division, ranging from $50 in both youth and senior divisions up to $1,000 for the first prize in the senior division. Last year’s grand prize went to Al Valiquette, whose catch weighed in at 5 pounds, 7 ounces, according to the Shad Derby website .

Entries will be weighed between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. at the Shad Derby headquarters on the Hadley Falls Station access road. Awards will be given on May 19 at 5 p.m. Registration is free.

The Barrett Fishway is open for viewing 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday and Memorial Day, Monday, May 28. Its 2013 viewing season runs through June 16. The fishway is located off Bridge Street in Holyoke, just west of the South Hadley-Holyoke Bridge. Admission is free.

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