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'We've come a long way': In Holyoke, balancing power production and fish conservation

American Shad swim by a viewing window at the Holyoke Fishway on their way upriver to spawn.
NEPM / Carrie Healy
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American Shad swim by a viewing window at the Holyoke Fishway on their way upriver to spawn.

Dams on New England's rivers, producing hydropower but also upsetting ecosystems, have long been controversial.

Fish heading upstream in the Connecticut River to spawn have some huge hurdles, including Holyoke Gas and Electric's 30-foot-high dam. So fish take a lift on one of two large buckets, like elevators for fish.

Regulators and oversight agencies, including the Connecticut River Conservancy, monitor the river's health, and hold the dam operator accountable for getting as many fish as possible past the dam.

There are people in a counting room who actually click tally counters for every fish that rides the elevator. Since early April, more than 90,000 shad have used the Holyoke Fishway, and they're still coming.

 HG&E guide Nancy Condon tours school groups through the Holyoke Fishway this year.
NEPM / Carrie Healy
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HG&E guide Nancy Condon tours school groups through the Holyoke Fishway this year.

In total last year, nearly 260,000 fish — including shad, lamprey, herring and bass — used the lift system to navigate the dam. [PDF]

Nancy Condon, coordinator of public programs at the Robert E. Barrett Fishway: It's gone through a number of iterations and improvements through the years, starting with a fish ladder in years past which did not work at all, and proceeding to a stage in which men with ropes and pulleys hold up buckets of fish to dump in a flume upriver.

 An American Shad passing through the Holyoke Fishlift on a migration upriver.
Cody Darr
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submitted
An American Shad passing through the Holyoke Fishlift on a migration upriver.

We've come a long way ... and have large buckets now for fish coming up both the river proper, and the tailrace. And we do keep track and we count all the fish that make their way over, and we keep track through the years. This data informs us of our efficiency.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: As you see a species that is getting too exhausted by the time they get up here, are there tweaks that can be made in order to evolve how they get upstream?

There have been many tweaks made to the fish passage system. The most recent included enlarging the entranceway for fish to be able to find their way to the buckets to get over the dam. Also, our louvered system to prevent fish from going either in the powerhouse, through the turbines, or into the canals.”

I'm no good with birds, but I think I saw a great blue heron out here.

 Outflow from the  the canal and the turbines are shown on the right. The main body of the river, filled by the spillway is to the left of the canal.
Paul Cooper
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Creative Commons / flickr.com/photos/29261037@N02/
Outflow from the the canal and the turbines are shown on the right. The main body of the river, filled by the spillway is to the left of the canal.

You will see a number of great blue heron. Yes, there are a number of fish-loving birds who do love to hang out here in the river and try their hands — try their bill — at catching fish. We have ospreys, we have bald eagles, we have cormorants, great blue herons. Yes, they know when the shad are running, as well.

Does helping the fish get upriver impact the biodiversity of creatures upstream further?

Yes. These anadromous fish who have eaten grown in the ocean are bringing all that energy to our river here as they come up and lay their eggs. For many of them, this is the end of their life cycle. And so, the plentiful fish that are now dying are a feast for not only the bird life here, but raccoons and other animals who come to the river for food, reap the benefit of the ocean's energy that's now in the Connecticut River. So, yes, it's a wonderful service that these anadromous fish provide for our resident wildlife of all sorts.

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