Fish in the Wreck Pond watershed now have a little bit of extra room to roam thanks to the Earth Day opening of a fish ladder at the Old Mill Pond Dam.
The 60-foot-long fish ladder is part of ongoing efforts to restore Wreck Pond and its 12.8 square mile watershed in the southern Monmouth County municipalities of Wall Township; and the Boroughs of Spring Lake Heights, Spring Lake and Sea Girt.
The restoration project, which launched in 2014, has been coordinated by the American Littoral Society in conjunction with federal and local partners.
The opening of the ladder, on April 22, 2021, will provide access an additional mile of habitat for alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus) and blueback herring (Alosa aestivalis), both river herring species that live in saltwater but spawn in fresh water. This stretch of habitat has been inaccessible to the migratory fish for more than a century, due to the installation of the dam at Old Mill Pond.
"This is incredible," said George K. Newberry, Wall Township Mayor, who was present for the opening. "I'm simply amazed watching something that hasn't been possible for more than one hundred years."
River herring are classified as species of special concern. That means their numbers are declining and appear to be in need of concentrated conservation actions.
Once abundant along the east coast, river herring numbers have drastically declined to as little as 1% of their historic populations due to over harvesting, and the blockage of their historic spawning rivers by dams and other obstructions.
“River herring are anadromous, meaning they live their adult lives in the ocean but return to freshwater streams and ponds to spawn each spring,” said Capt. Al Modjeski, Habitat Restoration Program Director for the American Littoral Society. "This project is taking steps to hopefully build back the local population and expand access to historical spawning habitats."
Wreck Pond and its watershed were once prime spawning grounds for migratory fish such as river herring. However, their access was largely cut off decades ago with the closure of the inlet from the Atlantic Ocean. The fish ladder complements the larger restoration project that provided more access to Wreck Pond from the Atlantic Ocean.
The initial phase of the larger restoration project, which was completed in 2015, included installation an underground fish passage from the ocean to the pond. Partnering with the municipalities around the pond, as well as state and federal agencies, the first step was designed to address pollution in Wreck Pond, reduce flooding in the adjacent communities, and restore the pond as a breeding ground for migratory fish.
Subsequent work has involved monitoring the watershed to determine if river herring were returning and taking steps to open the upper reaches of the watershed.
The initial fish passage work led by the American Littoral Society was done in partnership with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, through a Coastal Resiliency Grant received from the a US Department of the Interior in conjunction with another grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Partners included the Army Corps of Engineers, the NJ Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP), Monmouth County, the Borough of Spring Lake, Monmouth University, Rutgers Cooperative Extension, Leon S. Avakian, Inc., and Najarian Associates.
The fish ladder work was funded by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Atlantic Coast Fish Habitat Partnership, and the Spring Lake 5k. Thanks to Wall and Spring Lake Heights townships for traffic coordination, as well as Princeton Hydro, Atlantic Lifts, Ground Hawg Demolition, the Mill at Lakeside Manor, and NJDEP. Special thanks to the late Don Byrne of NJDEP who provided the inspiration for this project.
Click here to learn more about the Wreck Pond Restoration Project.