Peconic fish passage project earns award

TIM GANNON PHOTO | Riverhead town supervisor Sean Walter speaks at a celebration Wednesday for the completion of the Peconic River fish passage project.

The fish passage at Grangebel Park had a big party in its honor Wednesday morning, as local, state and federal officials gathered to celebrate the receipt of the Coastal America award for the Peconic River Fishway Partnership Team.

The fish passage project, which was about 10 years in the making, replaced an old dam that was built many years ago and was blocking alewives from traveling from the salt water portion of the river to the fresh water part, where they spawn.

The alewives are born in the fresh water and live in the bay, but return to the fresh water to spawn. The dam was replaced with a rock passageway that the fish can navigate on their own.

“Over the years, when places like this were built, we didn’t know what we were doing, necessarily,” Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter said. “We never really understood the damage to the environment.”

Mr. Walter said it’s nice to know that such environmental damage can be undone.

“One of my proudest moments as town supervisor was when that seal was chasing the alewives up the fish passage in Grangebel Park last year, because that means that we did the right thing and we corrected something that was wrong, and we repaired the environment,” he said.

Coastal America is a nationwide partnership of federal agencies, state and local governments, and private organizations “that work together to restore and protect our coastal marine environment,” said Virginia Tippie, the group’s director.

Two private corporations that are Coastal America members, National Grid and Specra Energy Partners, came up with the money to allow the project to move forward at a time when it looked like government funding would fall about $40,000 short, she said.

“This fish passage project has turned a stretch of the Peconic River back into the important fish habitat it once was,” said EPA Regional Administrator Judith A. Enck, who was present Wednesday. “The rock ramp for fish in Grangebel Park will be vital to re-establishing populations of American eel and alewife, both of which have dramatically declined in recent years.”

Shortly after it was constructed last spring, the fish ramp was dedicated in remembrance of Bob Conklin, the former Riverhead biology teacher who was the driving force behind the project. Around 1998, Mr. Conklin began organizing spaghetti dinners and knocking on doors at area businesses to try to raise cash for a solution to help the alewives travel upstream, a problem that had gnawed at him for years.

He later recruited Jim Miller of the Calverton-based Miller Environmental Group for help, and their efforts raised some $25,000 for an aluminum fish ladder that was installed each spring for about a decade.

As the years went by, grant money came in from various agencies to fund the permanent and more effective structure.

Mr. Conklin died at age 71 in December, just three months before construction of the passage was completed.

The $1.37 million fish passage project was part of an overhaul upgrade of Grangebel Park that includes restoring the bulkheads and pedestrian footbridges and building a new bandstand and lights. Town officials have estimated that more than $5 million in renovations have been made at the park over the past 10 years.

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