Blackstone River Fisheries Restoration

The Blackstone River flows 46 miles from the city of Worcester, Massachusetts to Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Its winding course is a living tie that binds the forests, fields and streams of the watershed with the tidal waters of Narragansett Bay-uniting two states, 40 cities and towns, and nearly 500,000 citizens in a shared environmental history and destiny.

Through thirty years of hard work, citizens, grass-roots organizations, and local governments-helped by federal and state agencies-have made great strides in cleaning up the Blackstone. A river that once ran foul with textile dyes and mill waste has become a regional destination and source of economic revitalization. Cyclists cruise its bikeways, ecotourism boats ply its waters, and communities restore forgotten waterfronts. In 1986, Congress recognized the Blackstone's importance, designating it one of 14 American Heritage Rivers nationwide.

There's a big piece missing, however, from the Blackstone River's renaissance. Before industrialization, the Blackstone supported annual spawning runs of migratory fish-herring, shad and salmon-that swam upstream from Narragansett Bay each spring, far into the rivers, lakes and ponds of the watershed. More than a century ago, the fish runs were wiped out, primarily by dam construction for industry and water supply.

In 2002, a group of stakeholders and scientists led by the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program developed a fisheries restoration plan and historical study for the lower Blackstone. The study estimates that fish passage restoration at the first four dams on the river will produce returns, on average, of more than a million river herring and more than 20,000 American shad annually. Restoration of these fish runs will:

  • Improve fresh-water recreational fisheries by increasing forage for game fish such as largemouth and smallmouth bass, trout and pickerel;
  • Benefit watershed wildlife by providing food for herons, ospreys, otters, mink and other native birds and mammals;
  • Improve recreational and commercial fisheries in Narragansett Bay by boosting saltwater herring schools, supporting striped bass, bluefish and other sportfish;
  • Benefit the region's economy-recreational fisheries generate an estimated $75 million annually in Rhode Island alone;
  • Benefit the communities of the watershed with an important new opportunity to celebrate the river environment, as people flock to see the annual fish runs-providing new opportunities for stewardship, education and public access to the Blackstone River.

Over the past year, the project has gained momentum thanks to the efforts of local stakeholders such as the Blackstone River Watershed Council, Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, Blackstone River Watershed Association, and Slater Mill, Inc.. Federal and state agencies such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service, R.I. Department of Environmental Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor are providing critical funding and resources. Also essential is the support of other non-governmental partners such as Save The Bay, Inc.,, the R.I. Corporate Wetlands Partnership and, of course, NBEP.

The Blackstone restoration is highly innovative insofar as we're working to integrate the goals of ecosystem restoration and carbonless energy production. The lower Blackstone is home to several hydroelectric facilities-in some cases, the same dams that obstruct fish passage also produce clean energy. NBEP laid the foundation for a ground-breaking effort to work with, rather than against the hydroelectric operators in restoring the river.

At present, we're evaluating alternatives to allow river herring and American shad to migrate upstream over the first four dams on the lower Blackstone River. On the first, second and fourth dams (Main Street in Pawtucket, Slater Mill in Pawtucket, and Valley Falls in Central Falls, R.I.) we expect that denil fish ladders will be the best option for fish passage. For the third dam upstream, Elizabeth Webbing Mills, NBEP proposed the idea of purchasing and removing the dam, which the state is now pursuing.

The entire restoration is expected to cost about $3.5 million. Roughly $2.5 million of that total has been earmarked by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service under the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP). WHIP is an excellent fit with our collaborative approach-the program is designed to work with private landowners (in this case the dam owners) to restore habitat.

Roughly $1 million in match funding will be necessary to complete the project. The project partners are currently seeking these dollars from federal and non-federal sources. Once we've secured all necessary funding, we believe that migratory shad and herring can be restored to the lower Blackstone River by 2010.

Main Street Dam in Pawtucket, R.I., at the mouth of the river

Slater Mill Dam in Pawtucket

Elizabeth Webbing Mills dam in Central Falls, R.I.

Valley Falls dam in Central Falls

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