Helping Fish Get By...One Crossing at a Time

Thanks to dedicated supporters and partners, The Nature Conservancy’s efforts to restore fish passage on rivers in Maine have been unprecedented in both scope and success. On the Penobscot, more fish are reaching more distant parts of the watershed than likely have at any other time since the Civil War. More than just dam removal, The Nature Conservancy’s efforts involve analyses to understand entire river systems, from head waters to tributaries to where they flow into the ocean. Comprehensive surveys of road/stream crossings are a critical part of this work. Many fish, including imperiled Atlantic Salmon, need to get to tributary streams and head waters in addition to main stem rivers, but inadequate access where roads cross streams may keep them out. Conservation leaders recognized a need for additional information to develop a path toward solving this challenge, and a TNC has helped lead a coalition formed to take action.

In 2007, the Maine Forest Service directed the first season of road/stream crossing survey work. Initially focused just on the Penobscot River Watershed, the project quickly expanded to consider all road/stream crossings in Maine. The Nature Conservancy took on full management responsibility of the project in 2011. The crew, this year comprised of Donald Jones, Lissa Pelletier, Tyler Spillane, and Andres Buitrago, works from early June through October. While on assignment in some of the most remote corners of Maine, they stop at every road/stream crossing to measure things like water flow rates and depth, substrate distribution, and the dimensions and condition of the culvert or bridge. All of the data is entered into iPads, where it is stored digitally and later uploaded into a large spatial database where it can be compared and combined with other mapped habitat data. Once processed, data on public roads is also accessible to everyone in an open online data viewer.

The Nature Conservancy and many partners use this wealth of information to develop and carry out improvement projects at hundreds of culverts across the state. In the Penobscot, our goal is to increase access to 65% of the river’s spawning habitat (up from 4% before restoration efforts). Increased access to habitat should increase the size of fish and their populations thanks to these restoration projects. These efforts not only improve river health, but also create a safer road network Communities and businesses benefit significantly as improved road/stream crossings flood less frequently and require less costly maintenance over time.

By the completion of the 2016 field season, 21,000 road/stream crossings had been surveyed since this effort began in 2007, which is roughly 85% of the total in the state. The database is now the largest of its kind in the country, and is expected to include nearly 100% of Maine’s road/stream crossings by the end of the 2018 field season.

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