Writing & Photography of Jim Murtagh

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The Writings & Photography of Jim Murtagh

Returning Home

Even a hundred years of failure cannot suppress the natural instinct to survive, and as futile as the attempt may prove, thousands of foot-long silver-sided river herring will once again embark on a spring migration. Called from the salty water of Long Island Sound by internal biological forces, alewives and blueback herring begin a journey that takes them from the sea, upstream into the cool freshwater of Queach Brook, a tributary of the Branford River, on their way to find suitable spawning grounds.

The surrounding pine forest, its unique soil composition, and the underlying bedrock, collaboratively stain the brook’s flowing water with a singular chemical scent, which the fish recognize as the birthplace of their ancestors, and can follow from deep within the Atlantic Ocean. For nearly a century, on warm spring nights, thousands of these anadromous fish would swim the migratory route only to discover an impasse - a sixteen foot high stone dam, which traps 86 acres of open water, and forms the Branford Supply Ponds.

The fish, traveling as far as civilization would permit them, and denied access to their spawning grounds, end their journey in vain.

Beyond the ponds lie nine acres of riparian habitat and five miles of river and stream habitat; all of which are prime spawning terrain for these migratory visitors. The watershed supports resident pickerel, largemouth bass, and sunfish populations, as well as dozens of species of birds and reptiles.

River herring are not sport fish, but rather they are the prey upon which stripers, cod and haddock grow fat. They are an essential part of the food chain. When the dam was erected in 1899, this baitfish was a plentiful resource, but as development and housing has reduced or eliminated access to breeding grounds, the herring population has suffered.

In 2003, the Branford Land Trust (BLT), with cooperation from the CT DEP, began an effort to bridge the headwater of Queach Brook with the Supply Ponds by constructing a fishway. The fish ladder would become a seasonal passageway that would restore access to upstream spawning habitats for anadromous species like herring, sea lamprey and sea-run brown trout. In 2006, the fishway enabled 3,200 herring to reach water which had been inaccessible for over a century.

At a ceremony on May 7 th, Coastal America, a national partnership organized to protect and restore coastal watersheds, recognized the work of the Branford Land Trust, as well as the DEP and numerous federal, local, and non-profit partners by presenting the groups with a Coastal America Partnership award, one of only four awarded nation-wide.

Tom Cleveland, Vice-President of the BLT and project manager for the fishway said “It’s a great example of cooperation.” to a crowd of nearly 100 people.

The 90 foot long aluminum fishway provides migrating fish with a 29 inch deep trough that connects the Supply Ponds to Queach Brook. The gate to the fishway is notched 14 inches below the spillway and passes water only during the spring and fall migration periods, so it does not drain the ponds during the summer.

As the water flows down the fishway, a series of baffles create turbulence, slowing the stream from 20 feet per second to a navigable 3-4 feet per second current. The tiered design permits fish to rest periodically on level stretches while making their ascent.

At the exit from the fishway, the herring pass through three-inch diameter PVC pipes. An electronic counter installed and monitored by Dr. David Post from Yale University, records changes in electrical conductivity as the fish move through the pipes. Post noted “Over 1,000 fish have been recorded in 2007 so far.” and that number is expected to increase as the water temperature rises. He pointed out “A few thousand fish coming up the fishway can produce a few million young.”

DEP Fisheries Biologist, Steve Gephard notes the Branford fishway is different from any of the forty other fish ladders scattered throughout the state. “Unlike other fishways where the counter was installed after the fact, this counter was installed from the onset of the ladder. From day one we can see how populations respond to being able to recolonize habitat.”

Herring reach sexual maturity at four years and then begin their yearly migrations from saltwater to freshwater to breed each April. Immediately after laying their eggs, the adults retreat to the ocean, leaving the juveniles to hatch and grow in the fresh water ponds, streams, and marshes for the next six months. The offspring will swim back to the ocean, before their first winter, and become a valuable food source for larger fish and marine animals. Survivors will return in four years to repeat the cycle.

Gephard said “In a couple years, when the first little guys come back, we’ll see how big of a jump we get.”

The three-year project was funded by donations and grants totaling $203,500. The Town of Branford, as owner of the Supply Pond land, has accepted responsibility to maintain the fishway. First Selectwoman Cheryl Morris said “We are very proud of the Supply Ponds Fishway and grateful to all of the partners that worked so hard on this project.”

When the conditions are right, and the next wave of herring descends upon Queach Brook, they will pass through the Supply Pond’s dam unimpeded. Some fish will choose to breed nearby, while others will continue onward, going as far as Linsley Pond, nearly two miles away. Their journey to return home will have been a success, and a testament to the unrelenting tenacity of nature.