Removing the dams opened nearly six miles of the Musconetcong to migratory fish, such as American shad, that spend much of their lives in the ocean but return to rivers and their tributaries to spawn. The shad’s return is a good sign of the overall ecological health and diversity of the river.
Update (June 15, 2017) – NJDEP issued press release on the finding of American shad on the Musky. Bob Shin, NJDEP Commissioner, stated, “[t]he return of shad, a benchmark species indicative of the overall ecological health and diversity of a waterway, is an exciting milestone…. This achievement is the direct result of an ongoing partnership among state and federal agencies, nonprofit groups, and dam owners – all committed to making this beautiful waterway free-flowing again.”
On June 7, 2017, Princeton Hydro celebrated along with the Musconetcong Watershed Association (and an excellent story of the MWA, human history of the river, and the efforts to preserve the history and ecology can be found here) and other project partners, the discovery of American shad on the Musconetcong River in NJ, over 250 years after they were blocked from this major tributary of the Delaware River – On September 8, 2016, then Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, held a press conference to celebrate the initial breach of the Hughesville Dam on the Musconetcong River (time lapse of removal is here). The press conference was held as the Department of the Interior via of the US Fish and Wildlife Service provided the funding to remove this obsolete structure through their Hurricane Sandy Recovery funding and the Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration program. In addition to the Honorable Sally Jewell, NJDEP Commissioner Bob Martin, and US Army Corp of Engineers, Philadelphia District Commander Lt. Colonel Michael Bliss, were also on hand to speak about the importance of the Hughesville Dam removal and dam removal in general. To have such dignitaries at the highest levels of our Federal and State government speak at a project our firm designed was truly an honor and privilege. It was a great day to celebrate the next obsolete dam on the Musconetcong River to fall to the progress of river restoration. However, this would pale in comparison to the news we received on Wednesday, June 7, 2017, when the NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife confirmed the presence of the American shad (Alosa sapidissima) above the Hughesville Dam!
Ms. Patricia Hamilton, Fisheries Biologist of NJ Fish And Wildlife, reported that they “spotted small schools of American Shad (at most 6 at a time) and captured 4 several hundred yards downstream of the Warren Glen Dam”, five miles from the confluence of the Delaware River. This is the first documentation of American shad on this river in over 250 years! So, what is the big deal you may ask.
The American shad is the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern United States’ salmon; it is actually a clupeid, a forage type fish closely related to herrings and sardines. Like herrings and sardines, they are a very oily fish, high in omega-3 fats, and low in contamination. It is also a fairly large clupeid, reaching three to eight pounds as adults. Like the salmon, American shad are anadromous, meaning they live the major part of their lives in the ocean and spawn up the coasts’ rivers. The American shad is not a spectacularly looking fish to say the least, and in fact, looks like a “generic” illustration of a fish, unlike the sleek and sexy salmon. It doesn’t even jump. However, this fish is a long distance and endurance swimmer, who’s migration from its hatching in rivers of the East Coast to its primary habitat in the Atlantic Ocean up in the Gulf of Maine, makes it one of the Earth’s great travelers. It can swim nearly 20,000 kilometers in its first five years of life and can dive to depths of up to 375 meters. And like all of its clupeid kindred, it is both a key prey species for many large fish and cetaceans in the Atlantic’s pelagic zone (open ocean) and an important commercial fish. But it is the existence of over-fishing, pollution and dams that had brought this species to its knees in many of the major eastern US rivers.
While the Delaware River shad and herring species have rebounded somewhat from low populations in the mid-1900s with the advent of the US Clean Water Act, they continue to struggle to regain their numbers, and in fact, there is now a moratorium on catching river herring in the Delaware River, and NJ has a moratorium on the harvesting of shad and herring on its tributaries to the Delaware River and Atlantic Ocean. As far as tributary access is concerned, the largest tributaries to the Delaware, the Schuylkill and Lehigh Rivers, are still blocked by dams to their mouths with very little efficiency of fish ladders provided; with their dams having very little success in gaining support for the removal of their blockages. So, any gains in additional spawning habitat for such anadromous species is viewed as a significant victory. The opening of the Musconetcong River to migrating fish will be a large contributor to the rebound of American shad, and other river herring species.
As one of the original 13 colonies, NJ was an integral partner in the start of the United States and early industrial revolution. It has been documented through our research during the dam removal regulatory permit application process on this waterway that the Musconetcong River has been dammed just about all the way to its confluence with the Delaware River since the mid-1700s, and likely much earlier. So, before there was anyone who understood the importance of unimpeded rivers for fish migration, this particular route was cut-off in its entirety, and then remained so for well over 250 years. So, it is understandable that there was no reason to assume that anadromous fish, such as shad, would resume the use of the river in a short period of time; however, there existed the right habitat for them, should they be afforded access…and the hope of the partners working on this river. There were doubters, to be sure, but “lo and behold”, we now know these mighty fish took advantage of an opening almost immediately.
Now, I am not stating that American shad immediately realized that the Hughesville Dam was gone and took a B-line from the Delaware River to the highest unimpeded location. First, other dams downstream of the Hughesville Dam had been removed over the past several years. These dams included the Finesville Dam (for an excellent video of the story of this dam removal, check out this video by the US Fish and Wildlife Service), removed in 2011 and the Reigelsville Dam remnants (there were two additional remnants found when the first foundation was removed) soon after the Finesville Dam was removed. So, it is likely that American Shad had started moving up the river to the base of the Hughesville Dam between 2011 and 2016. Still the response by American shad is nothing short of spectacular. For the over 250 years this species has not been able to use this river, at all, and now, within a span less than six years of dam removal activities, this fish is raring to comeback and, hopefully, spawn and increase their numbers.
And the efforts are not nearly complete for the Musconetcong River. The finding of the American shad five miles upstream from the Delaware River shows that this river can and, now, does support this fish. This generic looking fish, yet awesome product of evolution should only fuel the fire of continued restoration efforts, proof-positive that the labor and funds spent here, in this river, gets results. Such funds and labor (an staggering amount of time, blood, sweat, and tears) are required in order to get the river restoration work done. These projects have received the majority of their backing from the federal government, through grant programs, natural resource damage funds, and direct Congressional authorized funds. Without support from Washington, D.C.,, and Trenton, none of this work would be possible. And to get these funds, required work by the many team partners to prepare applications, meet with federal agencies, and educate the public through open and transparent meetings and communication. This was an impressive effort by the residents of this watershed, professionals who provided their expertise, and the state and federal employees who have dedicated their lives to this kind of work.
The Musconetcong River, with its recovering ecosystem, and its human and non-human inhabitants continue to amaze me in how we should all strive to strike balance between man and nature; and all this is being accomplished in the most densely populated state in the nation.
The finding of American shad gives me reason to cheer, and is why I do what I do. This is it, the return of a species that at one time we had no assurance would return, has returned. This is hope for us, after all.