Bob Conklin, hero of the environment

04/15/2010 12:00 AM |

Bob Conklin in November 2008, standing above the spot where his long-fought-for fish passage now operates in Grangebel Park. Mr. Conklin died in December at age 71. Work on the passage, which is named in his honor, was completed in March.

A dedication ceremony was held this week in remembrance of Bob Conklin, the former Riverhead biology teacher who was the driving force behind the newly constructed fish passage in Grangebel Park. Mr. Conklin died at age 71 in December, just three months before construction of the passage was completed.

Family and friends, some former students, gathered Monday to say a few words about Mr. Conklin, who more than a decade ago launched his effort to help alewives migrate over a dam in the park and head upriver to spawn.

“He probably would have been embarrassed, but we weren’t embarrassed to accept it for him,” his wife, Joyce, said of the ceremony, which saw the dedication of a plaque affixed to a boulder. “It really is something to be proud of.”

Before her husband began his campaign to bring a fish passage to the park, Ms. Conklin recalled, he would take science students on an annual field trip there — to do the work themselves.

“He used to bring the kids down from school. They would scoop the fish and throw them up over the dam,” she said with a light chuckle. “He believed that the well-being of the community depended upon the well-being of the environment.

“He would often speak of the food train, and that each level depended on the next level,” Ms. Conklin said. “And now the future of the alewives is assured, at least here for the Peconic River.”

Around 1998, Mr. Conklin began organizing spaghetti dinners and knocking on doors at area businesses to try to raise cash for a better solution: a ladder that would help the fish — a favorite food of bluefish and striped bass — travel upstream.

He later recruited Jim Miller of the Calverton-based Miller Environmental Group for help, and “I guess they started to go after everybody for donations,” Ms. Conklin said.

Their efforts raised some $25,000 for an aluminum fish ladder that was installed each spring. As the years went by, grant money came in from various agencies to fund a permanent and more effective structure.

“We got some grants and approvals,” Mr. Miller said, “but every time we got ready to go there was another study, another engineering report, another delay. Time went on and here we are, years later and just over a million dollars in costs, and it works unbelievably well.

“There’s tens of thousands of fish now visiting the Peconic River,” Mr. Miller continued. “That number of fish spawning could actually turn into millions of fish and it has the potential of impacting the entire Peconic Bay system. It’s just an amazing thing that a person in his lifetime could make such a substantial contribution to restoring the environment in such a monumental way.”

All the while, his wife said, a somewhat bashful Mr. Conklin remained in the background, even as town and state agencies sent out press releases touting their roles in the effort.

“You’ll notice that whenever there was a picture taken when they put in that ladder, or when they took it out,” she said, “he would just be that red hat in the distance, with his head turned.”

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