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Solving Problems with Nature - Naturally

Certified Wildlife Biologist
Wildlife Author - Wildlife Lecturer - Wildlife Photographer
Non-Lethal Control of Bats since 1983

NH Nature

New Hampshire Nature Notes by Eric Orff

Wednesday 08/25/2004 A fish kill at the China Mill Suncook

I had a long day working yesterday, but nearly finished a several-year project I had been working on with furbearer biologists from Vermont and Massachusetts. We completed putting together 20 "furbearer education kits" that will be provide to 19 states and provinces in northeast North America. I have been on an education committee of the Northeast Fur Resources Technical Committee which is composed of the state and province furbearer biologists from the central east coast and the eastern Canadian provinces. We have met annually since the late 1970s.

The education kits contain skulls, plastic scats and tracks of a dozen furbearers as well as track ID material and life history information. Central to the kits is a school curriculum geared to the middle schools which is designed to be integrated into the ongoing Project Wild Program. Teachers will use these kits to educate seventh and eighth graders about the life history and how to identify common furbearers found in their states or provinces. A set of pelts will soon be added to the kits as well. Hopefully this will start a national educational program about furbearers including management issues. The three of us who have worked several years pulling the material, and thankfully getting an experienced wildlife educator from the NH Fish and Game Department to write the curriculum, were very excited about seeing the project in its final stages.

So last evening I was late, almost 8 PM, joining Rick Hamlett for a relaxing evening on his deck overlooking the Suncook River. He told me that the annual alewife migration had started last Friday. Each spring the US Fish and Wildlife Service in cooperation with the Fish and Game Department has been transferring 2,000 adult alewives from the Cocheco River in Dover to Northwood Lake to bolster the fish population in the Merrimack River. These adults lay millions of eggs in May and the lfour-inch long survivors migrate out of Northwood Lake down the Little Suncook River and into the Suncook which empties into the Merrimack River in Suncook.

For over an hour until pitch dark last evening we watched the telltale dimpling of thousands of juvenile alewives as they migrated by us. Likely 10 million will descend the Suncook over the next several weeks. Due to the high water and cool temperatures the fish are leaving about a month earlier than usual.

I decided to check the hydro stations located on the river in Suncook as they have caused massive fish kills during this migration in past years. A little after 8:00 am this morning I arrived at the first hydro station in Pembroke and all seemed well. In fact I saw no fish in the power canal where the intake for the turbine is located.

A few minutes later I arrived at the lower dam just above the Suncook's confluence with the Merrimack. It is called the China Mill Dam and a huge old brick factor building towers over the river. A canal leads from the dam a hundred yards above and funnels the water into a huge intake pipe that delivers the falling water to turbines in the bowls of the building. The rumble of the turbines can be heard and felt as you stand by the canal. Unfortunately there were hundreds of baby alewives being sucked into the turbine intake and were being chopped up. None were using the small bypass channel that I later learned had been opened over the weekend to divert the young fish. My heart sank as I watched hundreds, probably thousands, of the beautiful fish I had watched dimple the river last night getting sucked into oblivion.

I made several frantic calls as my cell phone beeped "low battery." This hydro station had been shut down for a couple of years but has been reopened by the Essex Power Company. I drove to the boat ramp at the end of Ferry Street in Allenstown and witnessed a terrible sight. Thousands of chopped up baby fish lined the banking below the discharge to the Merrimack River.

My prayers were answered when a Fish and Wildlife biologist returned my call which was followed a few minutes later by one of the dam operators. They agreed to work harder to bypass more juveniles over the next few weeks. They seemed cooperative and in fact have provided Mary Fougere, chair of The Friends of the Suncook, a list of contacts so citizens along the Suncook can tell them when the alewives are running so they can bypass or stop the turbines to reduce the fish kill.

I am hopeful that a satisfactory compromise can be worked out to allow for the downstream migration of the millions of juvenile alewives. Plenty of other people will be watching as well. After all the water belongs to all the people of New Hampshire as well as the fish in it. Not a few who will profit financially at a great biological loss to us all. Striped bass fishermen should be all over this one. Alewives are a prime forage fish for them.


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