An 18th century home, painted deep red, sits beside a stone mill race and small, wooden grist mill.
Gilbert Stuart Museum Water flowing over the dam creates "false attraction" to a dead-end mill race canal. © Tim Mooney/TNC

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TNC Closes a "Wrong Turn" for River Herring at Gilbert Stuart Museum

Project will keep thousands of fish from becoming stranded in the mill race, strengthening one of Rhode Island most important spring runs.

Gray fiberglass grating rests at an angle on wooden abutments in a small, calm stream.
Picket Weir A simple, removable structure made of wood and fiberglass will prevent river herring from taking a wrong turn on their spring run. © Tim Mooney/TNC

The Nature Conservancy and the RI Department of Environmental Management (DEM) recently constructed a small wood and fiberglass structure at a fork in Gilbert Stuart Brook, closing off a costly detour for migrating river herring.

The structure, known as a picket weir, consists of five removeable grates, resting on wooden abutments and set in the water at a thirty-degree angle. Durable and easy to maintain, it will be stored offsite each year from June to February and then reinstalled in March, just prior to the start of the herring run.

The goal of the project is to prevent river herring from swimming into a historic mill race canal that dates to the mid-1700s. Whenever water flows over Gilbert Stuart dam in the spring – because of heavy rain or the operation of the waterwheel – it creates false attraction to the mill race, which leads to a dead end at the base of the Gilbert Stuart dam. As the water levels recede, the fish become stranded and perish, if not rescued by DEM staff and volunteers.

The picket weir replaces DEM’s longstanding practice of using temporary plastic fencing to deter herring from the mill race. While inexpensive, the fencing trapped debris flowing downstream and was prone to failing during high flows.

The new approach was developed by Bryan Sojkowski, a regional fish passage engineer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), who assisted DEM through a partnership with TNC. Sojkowski noted that the situation at Gilbert Stuart Museum is not unique, and if the design is successful, it could be applied on other streams in Rhode Island.

“As a fish passage engineer, I’m typically designing fishways to move fish upstream or downstream, over a barrier,” said Sojkowski. “In this case, it was the reverse. We needed to block fish from moving upstream.”   

Up to 250,000 adult river herring return annually from the Atlantic Ocean and swim up the Narrow River into Gilbert Stuart Brook. The picket weir is designed to keep herring in the main channel, where they can pass through a fish ladder behind the museum to reach Carr Pond to spawn.

The work at Gilbert Stuart Museum is the latest in a series of fish passage improvement projects in South County. The TNC-DEM-USFWS project team previously corrected deficiencies at fish ladders on the Saugatucket and Annaquatucket Rivers that were preventing river herring from migrating upstream.  

“Over the past five years, TNC, DEM and the Fish and Wildlife Service have worked very closely on fish passage, taking a systematic approach to removing barriers on Rhode Island’s coastal rivers and streams,” said John O’Brien, TNC’s policy and partnerships specialist. “These fish are very important to the whole ecosystem, providing forage for ospreys, bluefish, striped bass, and many other animals.

The construction contract was awarded to SumCo Eco-Contracting of Peabody, Mass. through a competitive bidding process. The project is funded by grants from the Horace & Ella Kimball Foundation and the Narragansett Preservation and Improvement Foundation. The Gilbert Stuart Birthplace & Museum was a key partner and provided logistical support as the landowner. Total construction cost was $54,000. 

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 76 countries and territories: 37 by direct conservation impact and 39 through partners, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.