Swimming upstream just got a little easier.
A new fish passage on the Bronx River reestablishes a herring habitat blocked for hundreds of years by a dam.
City officials gathered on April 10 to cut the ribbon on the project at River Park, completed in December after more than 10 years of planning from the Parks Department and Bronx River Alliance, to mark the beginning of the first spring in centuries that river herring will be able to swim upstream in the Bronx River over the East 182nd Street Dam to 12 acres of spawning and rearing habitat.
River herring live most of their lives in the Atlantic Ocean and return to freshwater streams to spawn every spring.
They used to be plentiful in the Atlantic Ocean, but their numbers have significantly diminished over the years, partially due to the proliferation of dams eliminating their freshwater spawning habitats, said Marit Larson, director of Wetlands and Riparian Restoration, Forestry, Horticulture & Natural Resources at NYC Parks.
The small fish are food for larger, commercial fish including stripped bass and tuna, as well as mammals like dolphins. As the numbers of herring decrease, these other populations are threatened.
“It’s important to try to create access to habitats for these fish because they fuel the food train,” said Larson.
The fish passage encompasses a series of ramps and switchbacks that allow the fish to swim around the dam.
An improved canoe portage was also incorporated into the construction of the passage to facilitate boating on the Bronx River Blueway, open to recreational kayakers and canoeists.
Because fish haven’t been upstream for more than a century, Marit said the process of fish spawning north of the dam will start slowly and by accident as fish find their way through the passage.
“In the long run, we hope we’ll have hundreds of fish coming up the river,” she said.
Progress in the passage will be monitored by video and a fish counter, and the parks department can intervene and jump-start the process if needed.
The project is the first of its kind in the city, said Larson, and is the first effort to get the fish back into the city’s largest freshwater stream.
“It’s really an action that we hope will maximize the ecological health of the Bronx River,” she said.
The effort will continue with two more fish passages planned for dams further up the Bronx River in the next several years, as well as the creation of a passage specifically for the American Eel, another species that has been absent from the waterway as of late.
The $1.87 million project was made possible in part thanks to major funding and support from Congressman José E. Serrano through the Wildlife Conservation Society’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Lower Bronx River Partnership, Borough President Ruben Diaz, the Environmental Protection Agency, the New York State Department’s Environmental Protection Fund, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
“Thanks to the hard work of NYC Parks’ Natural Resources Group and the Bronx River Alliance’s dedicated team of scientists, fish will be able to reach an ideal habitat that was once off limits to spawn a next generation – a great sign of the resiliency of the Bronx River,” said NYC Parks Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver, FAICP.