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Boosters seek to return fish to the Blackstone

Fish teem where Narragansett Bay is closest to the Blackstone River, as the many people who cast lines there know. The fish travel no farther upstream, however – blocked by a dam and the crashing force of yellow-brown water gushing over it.

Although the Blackstone was historically a thriving fish run where fish would swim upstream and spawn, at least four dams now prevent fish passage, according to John Torgan of Save the Bay. The state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and a University of Rhode Island (URI) study support Torgan’s view. The study found that anadromous fish, meaning that they migrate from the sea to breed in freshwater, like shad, herring, and salmon, were plentiful in the Blackstone.

As far back as 1869, the Rhode Island Inland Fishery Commission found, " The principle rivers in the State, which were formally the home of the salmon, shad, and herring, are the Blackstone, Pawtuxet, and Pawcatuck, and these have become so obstructed with dams, that they no longer offer passage to their upper waters, which nature prompts the fish to seek at spawning time. " Now, almost 135 years later, discussions about returning these fish to the Blackstone River have resurfaced.

According to the DEM and Save the Bay, fishery restoration would fix a 300-year-old problem by putting in place fish ladders – inclining step with resting pools at consistent levels – that would enable fish to bypass the dams.

However, Charlie Rosenfield, who owns a dam in Pawtucket, has a different perspective. Rosenfield, disputing the URI study, says that there’s no solid proof that fish like salmon and shad ever existed in the upper portions of the Blackstone. He agrees the fish would use the ladders, but says it would be a matter of creating new fish runs, not restoring old ones.

Advocates are exploring the use of fish runs in other rivers, like the Ten Mile, where dams built over the last few centuries have dramatically impacted the presence of fish. In this case, local fishermen have helped the remaining herring by scooping them up and getting them over the dams in nets. The City of East Providence has also committed to putting ladders on the three dams that block fish passage and the river will be stocked to recreate the fish runs.

Rosenfield’s concerns include the financial effect that fishery restoration might have on his business. He owns an unmanned hydroelectric plant that and he sells the energy to Narragansett Electric. If the DEM pays for the installation and maintenance, Rosenfeld says, he would have no problem with the fish ladders. According to Torgan, supporters are seeking funding for the project.

Issue Date: July 11 - 17, 2003
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