Curt Johnson meanders toward his canoe that’s perched on the rocky shore of Holly Pond at Stamford’s Cove Island Park. It’s late August but feels like mid-September — a light breeze glides in from the north on a temperate Tuesday morning. Across the island sits Johnson’s sailboat, resting after a journey down from Bridgeport, and ready for more sailing after Johnson takes his canoe up river with Chris Cryder to examine a point on the Noroton River that needs some help.
Johnson, director of programs for the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, and Cryder, outreach associate for the same organization, embarked on a week-long journey down the sound to meet with people and see first hand the effects of recent conservation efforts.
“People are saying the water is visibly cleaner,” Johnson said, as he prepared the canoe for departure.
On the shore, a group of kids and adults tossed lures into the shimmering water, and just as quickly reeled in small snapping bluefish from Holly Pond.
“The small ones are really sweet,” Johnson said of the fish. “That’s nice to see.”
Heading up Holly Pond, the low tide revealed an assortment of aquatic debris mingled with the occasional aluminum can or plastic plate. Cormorants stood on exposed sand bars with their wings extended out like robed monarchs seeking an embrace. Snowy egrets stalk the shoreline for a snack or something more. Canada Geese wade through the muck among gulls and sandpipers, watching the conservationists paddle by.
But nature watching is a byproduct of this particular canoe trip. Johnson and Cryder want to see the spot where a four-year project will come to fruition sometime in 2013 — the Noroton River fisher ladder.
For thousands of years, the alewife herrings swam from the Atlantic Ocean through the Long Island Sound and up the Noroton River to spawn each spring, then returned to the ocean until the next spawning season. This ancient life cycle was unknowingly interrupted in the name of progress when President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration began connecting the country through a massive interstate system, and by the late 1950s, Interstate-95 cut through the Nutmeg State’s coastal rivers.
Since that time, alewives have been unable to jump the yard-high culvert that runs under the turnpike to allow the river to pass through. Populations of alewives dwindled to the point where Connecticut, along with Rhode Island, Massachusetts and North Carolina, instituted moratoriums on catching and keeping the valued forage fish.
“Everything loves to eat them,” Johnson said of the fish. “Striped bass, egrets, herons, ospreys, all the big game fish, you name it.” Since the population has declined so dramatically, the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service listed the alewife as a species of concern.
“Old timers talk about how the river was literally black with alewives coming up in the 1950s,” Johnson said. “The population has dropped in a huge way.”
But recent restoration efforts have helped bring the population back over the past few years, Johnson added. The Darien Land Trust has been stocking Olsen Woods Lake each spring with 400 pregnant alewives. These fish are able to swim down the culvert once they spawn, and their young can also swim down once they are large enough to leave. By the time these fish are 5 years old, they will be ready to return to the Noroton River.
To get back up to the lake, however, they need a little help. So the Darien Land Trust and the Connecticut Fund for the Environment partnered to bring a fish ladder to the river that will let the anadromous fish swim up the I-95 culvert and on to Olson Woods Lake where they can again experience a natural life cycle.
“We want the ladder ready for them when they come out,” said Shirley Nichols, executive director of the land trust.
The land trust has taken 200 water level readings at the culvert over the past four years. With help from volunteers, including Darien High School’s Ecocitizens club, the trust walked the length of the Noroton River to Holly Pond picking up trash and making sure the alewives have a clear swimming path to make it to and from the ocean.
Steve Gephard, a fisheries biologist with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, submitted the land trust’s application to the state for the fish ladder. A Princeton, N.J., company is designing the ladder for the site, and construction should start sometime in early 2013, Johnson said. It would cost somewhere around $100,000, and would be funded mostly through grant money from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Nichols said grant money has been drying up quickly, so she hoped the money will still be there once the state approves the design plans.
“We did all the leg work,” Nichols said. “It’s out of our hands now.”
Another species that migrates up the Noroton River to spawn are sea lampreys. These parasitic fish don’t get as much attention because of their unattractive appearance and surly nature, but their survival is of equal importance as the survival of the alewives, Cryder said, as each species is a source of food for higher predators.
Ironically, the alewives and sea lampreys are both considered invasive species in the Great Lakes. The lampreys attacked native predator fish, such as trout, to the point where the alewives thrived for lack of predators. The introduction of salmon to the lakes helped keep the alewives population under control, but lampreys continue to wreak havoc in the Great Lakes.
In Connecticut, the native lampreys and alewives need the Noroton and other coastal rivers to survive. Some continue to spawn downstream, but Johnson likened that scenario to a small hotel compared to a large hotel.
“If there’s a few people and there’s only one room available, there’s not that much breeding going on,” he said. “If you have an entire Holiday Inn full of people, well that’s a lot of breeding.”
The Connecticut Fund for the Environment, which merged with Save the Sound in 2005, has helped with 20 different coastal projects over the years. The projects involve fish ladders, tidal gates to balance salt water flow into marshes, and working to restrict stormwater runoff into the sound.
Darien stormwater does not get collected with wastewater from homes and offices, but instead gets dumped directly into the rivers and eventually the sound. This carries pollutants, such as lawn fertilizers and chemical pesticides, directly into the sound. Some larger cities merge stormwater with wastewater, and others use large catch basins to capture sediment, debris and pollutants before the water returns to the natural aquatic system.
After visiting the culvert and discussing the fish ladder, Johnson and Cryder paddle back toward the mouth of Holly Pond where the tide had risen too high for them to take the canoe through the water rushing over the small dam. They land their canoe, carry it around the bend where their sailboat waits to take them to Mamaroneck. From there it’s on to Oyster Bay and finally Port Jefferson.
Taking off from New Haven, Cryder wrote in his journal about the first leg of the trip: “We saw a few big blues surface around Morris Cove. Terns were circling some baitfish… It is very calm and peaceful right now as we tack to open water and soon pass breakwaters… It is a gorgeous night on the sound — calm, light wind and warm water. We can see Stratford Point in the distance, a flashing beacon leading us to Bridgeport harbor.”
“We also wanted to have some fun,” Johnson added.