U.S. Fish and Wildlife restores blueback herring to Connecticut River

Last modified: Friday, June 20, 2014

There are now thousands more fish in the Valley than there were just over a month ago.

That is thanks to the efforts of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other conservation groups across the region which have been working to restore the populations of river herring and other species of fish that for years have been declining.

During the month of May, biologists with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Sunderland transferred over 4,000 blueback herring from Wethersfield Cove, Connecticut, to parts of the Connecticut River once blocked by dams but which now are accessible by the fish passageways that have been built.

The blueback herring is a small, silver-colored fish characterized by the bluish coloring on its back. The drop in its population is due in part to loss of habitat, as well as to becoming “bycatch” with commercial fish, said Kenneth Sprankle, Connecticut River Coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

It is a migratory fish, which means it lives in both fresh and saltwater at different stages of its life cycle. It is born in fresh water in the summer and migrates to the ocean in the fall. When it is old enough to spawn, it often returns to the same freshwater source where it hatched, said Sprankle.

The hope of transferring the fish during a few weeks in late spring — the peak spawning season for the blueback herring — is to accelerate the rate at which they repopulate the freshwater in this area, said Sprankle.

“We could sit back and wait for these fish to naturally recolonize the habitat,” Sprankle said. “I wouldn’t have an answer for you for how long that might take.”

These efforts are guided by the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, a partnership of state and federal agencies that was established in 1967 to restore the salmon population. Since that time, the efforts have expanded to other species, Sprankle noted.

Manhan River

On a recent afternoon, Sprankle and his team poured 600 blueback herring into a section of the Manhan River in Southampton from a 1,000-gallon circular tank on the back of a Fish and Wildlife Service truck. Earlier that morning, they had caught the herring in Wethersfield Cove, Connecticut, by electro-fishing, in which a small electric shock is sent into the water that temporarily stuns the fish so they can be scooped up with a large net.

The Manhan is a tributary of the Connecticut River previously blocked off by the Manhan River Dam in downtown Easthampton. That changed at the end of last year, when the City of Easthampton completed the construction of a fish ladder — or pools of water in the shape of steps — over the dam.

Caleb Slater, anadromous fish project leader with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife in West Boylston, said that it has been over 100 years since migrating fish have had access to the Manhan.

“It’s our hope that when the fish produced there come back, they will have some fidelity for the Manhan River,” he said in a telephone interview.

Other fish passageways in the area include the fish ladder constructed at the West Springfield dam on the Westfield River in 1995, and the Robert E. Barrett Fishway built at the Holyoke dam in 1955.

As Sprankle attached a pipe to the circular tank, some water spilled out with a few blueback herring. They momentarily flopped on the rocks and in the grass before being scooped up in the hands of Phillip Herzig, a biologist for the Central New England Fishery Resources Office in Nashua, New Hampshire, who promptly tossed them into the river.

Once the pipe was attached, the cascade of fish began. They fell out in a thick stream that gradually thinned out. Sprankle and David Rogers, 24, an environmental science student at Clemson University who is interning with the Student Conservation Association, used a net to gather the last fish from the tank. They handed the net off to Herzig, who dropped the fish into the stream.

“The fish are swimming strong. They look really good,” Sprankle said to Herzig as they watched the fish swim upstream, or against the current.

They transferred between 600 and 1,000 fish about nine times over a three-week period, Sprankle said. Besides the Manhan River, the Fish and Wildlife Service team also sent fish into the Oxbow, a section of the Connecticut River that runs through Northampton and Easthampton.

River herring, which includes both blueback and alewife (also a small, silver-colored fish) play an important role as part of the food chain, serving as prey for larger fish such as striped bass and birds such as osprey.

“Basically anything that eats fish will eat herring,” Sprankle said. “They’re tremendous fuel ecologically for the river system.”

A census is typically done in late summer to check on the population growth, said Slater. Special attention is paid to the number of juveniles, which serve as proof of successful reproduction, he explained. There is also a camera at the fish ladder on the Manhan River Dam that allows the Fish and Wildlife Service to monitor the fish passage.

Sprankle, who has been a fish biologist since 1994, said that watching the fish being returned to their historic habitat is one of the most fulfilling aspects of his job.

“I get an absolute thrill out of it,” he said. “It’s one of the most rewarding things I do.”


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