For centuries, alewife — a silver-scaled herring-like fish — return to Riverhead’s Peconic River estuary to spawn, making it as far as Grangebel Park to lay their eggs. But a series of dams set up decades ago to promote industry and agriculture halted the fish’s annual migration from traveling the rest of the journey up the Peconic River.
On Thursday, the fish got one step closer to reaching their final destination.
A restored dam on the Peconic River just west of Edwards Avenue was officially opened to applause by local environmentalists and politicians, who say the dam’s new fish ladders will allow local wildlife to soon travel back upstream in the Peconic River — Long Island’s longest river.
“Today we celebrate that real substantial actions are being taken to restore and protect Peconic Estuary,” said Sheri Jewhurst, the acting director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s regional office and the Peconic Estuary program coordinator. “Let’s make sure that now that these animals have access to this habitat that it is healthy for them to continue to live.”
The nearly $1 million state Department of Environmental Conservation project was funded through the New York Works program.
Alewife can’t use the ladder on Edwards Avenue yet, since three other dams farther downriver block their path. But work is underway at the other dams to install ways for alewife to get through. As many as 1 million alewife may run through the area once the fish passages are complete, EPA officials said.
“This project will greatly enhance this fish population as part of a larger project to restore this sensitive ecosystem within the Peconic Estuary,” said DEC Division of Marine Resources director Jim Gilmore.
The dam also includes an eel ladder that will allow the slippery creatures to swim back upstream into the Peconic, as well as an area for kayakers to remove their boats from the river.
Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine said the Peconic River splits three towns: Riverhead, Southampton and Brookhaven. But the waterway is something residents can unite around, he said.
“Honestly, this is all of our rivers,” Mr. Romaine said, “it doesn’t matter what town it’s in … We must be forever vigilant if we are to keep our rivers as natural as we possibly can.”
Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter thanked the state’s DEC and local towns for “working together to solve a problem.”
“It really is a partnership,” he said. “We are forever grateful for that.” Mr. Walter said recent sightings of seals near Grangebel Park on the Peconic Riverfront proved the fish passage was working, since alewife were returning to the area.
“Today is really about tomorrow,” Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) said. “Those fish that come up to spawn, they’re filtering the water, they’re filter feeders.” He said the project was the culmination of a multi-year effort between all levels of government.
Special praise went to volunteer Byron Young, a member of the Peconic River Fish Restoration Commission and retired DEC biologist, who had pushed for the dam to be restored and personally tracks how effective the fish passages are.
“[This project] a great thing,” Mr. Young said. “It’s reconnecting the Peconic to the coastal resources and vice versa.”
Photo caption: DEC Regional Fisheries Manager Chart Guthrie goes for a quick jaunt in the Edwards Avenue dam on the Peconic River Thursday morning.