Detour Ahead: TNC and DEM Keep Fish from Taking Wrong Turn at Gilbert Stuart Museum

Effort to keep thousands of herring on the right track during spring run

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The Nature Conservancy (TNC) recently teamed up with the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and other partners on a project to strengthen the herring run at the Gilbert Stuart Museum in North Kingstown. The goal is to prevent returning river herring from making a wrong turn and getting stranded in the mill race out in front of the museum. 

The Gilbert Stuart Brook, which runs alongside the Gilbert Stuart Museum, serves as a key passageway for migrating river herring traveling upstream to spawn in Carr Pond. In spring, however, elevated water levels result in river herring taking a wrong turn toward a mid-1700s mill race canal – ultimately getting trapped at the base of the Gilbert Stuart dam. For many years, the DEM relied on temporary plastic fencing to help mitigate this issue, until recently teaming up with TNC to find a more effective solution, a wood and fiberglass structure called a picket weir.

Protecting fish populations, such as the river herring, benefits Rhode Island’s entire coastal ecosystem, impacting largemouth bass, osprey, otters, striped bass, bluefish, terns, seals, and more. As a result, fish passage has been a priority of the DEM and TNC for years. To bring additional expertise, TNC contracts a fish passage engineer from the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) who helps evaluate obstacles to fish passage and provides recommended
solutions. Bryan Sojkowski, USFWS fish passage engineer, developed the picket weir solution at Gilbert Stuart.

“There are only a handful of people in the northeast with Bryan’s skillset,” says John O’Brien, policy and partnerships specialist at TNC. “His practice integrates the science of hydraulics and hydrology with a detailed understanding of the swimming behavior of river herring. He has an intimate knowledge of how herring move upstream and how to design and build a structure that matches their capabilities.”

The river herring project at Gilbert Stuart is an inspiring example of collaboration, with each organization playing a vital role. “Having continuity on the team,” O’Brien says, “builds trust, allows us to carry forward lessons learned from one project to the next, and makes river herring restoration work in Rhode Island much more efficient.” 

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