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Author Topic: The Lost Alewife Weirs of Connecticut 1600's  (Read 2711 times)
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« on: July 09, 2014, 04:11:29 PM »


The Sound School Inter-district Marine Education Program
IMEP Newsletter #20

Habitat Information for Fishers an Fishery Area Managers
Understanding Science Through History

The Lost Alewife Weirs of Connecticut 1600’s
Senior Capstone Topic Building a Native American Fisheries Habitat History
The Cove River Site, West Haven, CT
Tim Visel, The Sound School – 60 South Water Street
West Haven Land Trust Membership Meeting – June 2011
Submitted to the EPA-DEEP Long Island Sound Study, April 2012*
Revised for Capstone Habitat Research Projects 2014

{IMEP Habitat History Newsletters can be found indexed by date on the CT Fish Talk™ salt water reports thread and The Blue Crab™ info fishing, eeling and oystering thread websites}


The Cove River site in West Haven is one of many in Connecticut that has been identified as having a significant Native American coastal element for fisheries.  Several Conservation Commissions and Coastal Land Trusts may also be interested in sponsoring student research regarding a alewife fisheries history.  As such they are capable of securing land owner permission, permits and in many cases own the property of the proposed study site.  In return they like to have presentations about the research to membership meetings in which students may give a short talk, PowerPoint™ or present a poster about their research findings.  A report of a Stream Walk map survey is a part of the study.  These requirements fulfill many elements of The Sound School Capstone Project Outline:  See Elements of a Stream Walk and Survey – USDA-NCRS which can be found at www.ct.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/.../streamwalk_initiative.htm
-   Topic Area Archaeology – Native American Fisheries for Alewife – Habitat Histories
-   Civic or potential local sponsoring agencies – Coastal Conservation Commissions, Coastal Land Trusts, Audubon Society, Native Conservancy 
-   Work Product(s) PowerPoint, posters, maps, Stream Walk Survey Maps
-   Proposed Site Cove River, West Haven, CT – (others are possible such as Madison/Old Saybrook).  Many coastal land trusts have tidal areas which may have contained alewife runs.

A detailed survey map is necessary to determine likely placement of Native American fish weirs. The mapping refers to a habitat stream morphology map – pools, rocky areas, slope, and bottom consistency.  It is a very different type of map depending upon the (energy) stream flow.  A pipe is used to test bottoms and habitat features such as riffle pools, wood or bank structures are noted.  I used to do them on Cape Cod (1980s) for alewife streams but today they are frequently referred as a stream walk survey detailed by (USDA-NRCS).  A Stream Walk survey is an important first step in determining the potential of a restored or renewed alewife run.   

The second part of the study includes a fisheries history (or habitat history) which attempts to combine old local reports and Town Hall records to possibly locate Colonial alewife weir locations – often before mill dam building (1840 to 1880) for the much later industrial boom (1880-1920), but that includes dams for ice ponds also.  It is hoped that in Connecticut an old mill pond or ice pond has perhaps a buried (submerged) old Colonial fish weir or better yet a Native American Vee wing wall trap.  These areas could be mapped as part of the Stream Walk survey, and in the process discover these lost alewife weirs.  They were in use in the 1600s pre Colonial settlement period and commonly called the Vee traps named for the some Vee shaped structures that remain in some North American Streams and Rivers*.

A Local “Public Fishery” May Exist in Colonial Records

Many coastal communities two centuries ago would “bid out” alewife runs at a public auction or later franchise the fish rights to them at town meetings such as the early toll roads and bridges.  The franchise rights included a responsibility to help maintain the run (similar to bridges) in the general public interest.  In exchange the franchise holder could charge a toll.  Records of these franchise rights (now extinguished by modern State legislation) can be found in town hall records or early family histories.  Many Connecticut coastal towns – Lyme and East Lyme especially at one time used to bid out these fisheries, a share for the public usually 12.5 percent (one bit) but some records say “1 hogs head for every ten.”  The Boards of Selectman have these “minutes” in meetings in Town Hall records. The franchise holder had an interest in improving such runs to help and maintain fish passage. 

The fisheries or habitat history of a particular run should also be indexed against long term temperature and energy patters especially those recognized to be a feature of the North Atlantic Oscillation or “NAO.”  Catches of a particular run for alewife or smelt can often be found in town hall meeting records until the 1880s.

There has been much recent discussion among archaeologists in Connecticut on the chances of finding a predisturbed or moderately disturbed (reused) coastal weir – for eels or alewife.  Many feel the best chance of discovering them is during the stream walk surveys, especially when a 17th/18th century period ice pond is drained on the headwaters of a tidal stream.  The Cove River site in West Haven is thought to support such Native American fisheries and much information is already on file.  Other areas are certain to exist.  The “Vee” wall stone alewife traps are easily distinguishable from their location often between two slow moving stream sections that are relatively narrow.  That leaves about a half mile (depends upon slope) between tidal waters and headwaters which was usually a “kettle pond” or deep ponds created as the last ice sheet retreated north about 10,000 years ago.  Alewife needed to reach salt ponds, coastal features that frequently contained “short runs” and “kettle ponds” spring fed are those more often associated as “short runs.”  Alewife would also return into main “stream” larger rivers that would break off into smaller streams, the so called “long runs” each spring as they returned to spawning habitat.  Often these small traps simply look like stone walls built in the stream bed resembling a “vee” apex pointed downstream.  They gathered stream flows to fill it is thought a series of graduated pools allowing fish to ascend into a trap.

The Need to Examine Lost Stream Habitat Capacity – A Madison Case History

A stone alewife weir was once thought to be on the lower reaches of what today is Tuxis Brook in Madison, CT.  The early records of these weirs would however be found in Guilford’s records – as Madison was one part of Guilford.  Some of the same habitat quality (catches) centuries ago needed certain stream flows and rushing water to make the trap work.  This includes detailed stream morphology just above the tidal zone.  Colonial Guilford records to mention the existence of such weirs in the East River.

In addition to stream features surveys should include habitat quality, slow flows, shallow hot pools and organic rich bottoms are poor habitats generally.  Vegetation can ruin a run forcing fish into shallow flows where they can become easy prey.  Many alewife runs on Cape Cod in the 1980s were completely filled with leaves.

Many coastal areas have salt marshes in which alewife pass into creeks and then advance up brooks to headwaters.  It is these long runs that are susceptible to fouling debris, sticks, leaves, tree trunks that can block or degrade conditions for returning alewife.  Also in high heat, head water temperatures (ponds) may exceed lethal limits for the small alewife fry or where a combination of winter street sand and organic debris have filled deep stream beds and the alewife run has been eliminated. 

In the Town of Madison for example, Tuxis Brook was cleared of fouling debris (Shoreline Times, December 9, 1982) with the use of back hoes and some 10 truckloads of sand and leaves were removed from just 600 feet of stream.  Conversations with the Town of Madison Maintenance Dept then indicated most of the material was “winter sand” applied over decades of winters to assist automobile traffic during snowfalls.  Over the decades Tuxis Brook at Route 1 had been filled with this street sand and had created flooding events and now stream course “widening.”  Old alewife weirs may in fact be out of the current stream bed and buried by such accumulations. 

A similar stream survey of Alewife Cove New London/Waterford (the name does give away its former significance) found that the easterly side contained tons of winter street sand and below a layer of approximately six feet of sand lie buried quahogs.  Interviews with area residents (The Alewife Cove Watcher program 1985) indicated that hard-shell clamming occurred here in the 1920s but by 1985 tons of winter street sand had washed into this region of Alewife Cove. 

Between Old Lyme and Stonington some 28 salt water marshes “dead end” at the railroad rail bed, thick growths of phragmites often occur in these blocked wetlands.  These dense phragmites blockages no doubts reduced alewife runs and any remnant stone weirs may have succeeded to phragmites habitats.

Habitat Quality Concerns – A Renewed Forest Canopy

The eastern CT region also lost many alewife runs with the coming of the railroad which when presented with narrow access or tidal exchanges simply filled them in.  Other areas were subjected to climate influenced organic loadings (a return of leaves).  In coastal regions roads road causeways also became a source a sandy fill, often in the case of Tuxis Brook (which obtained storm “street water”) over the decades was nearly completely filled with it*.  Any long run streams would need to be evaluated for winter sand deposits (usually storm (street) water related) and leaf (forest canopy) organic accumulations.  As such any storm water pipes or drainage features should also be noted.  Some communities have created sediment “traps” simply by excavating catch areas for storm water runoff.  This has helped reduce the amount of organic “oatmeal” pulp from roads being washed into streams.

A century ago many coastal areas had been cleared for agriculture – some areas up to the stream itself.  The last century has seen many such acres abandoned for agriculture, and forested or developed for housing.  After a regional leaf burning ban in the early 1970s the amount of organic matter entering streams significantly increased from a returned forest canopy or residential housing.  Fishers on Cape Cod noticed that leaves raked into streets (but not burned) were quickly turned into a brown organic mush called oatmeal on Cape Cod (personal conversations, Tim Visel 1982-84).  Raking leaves into streets was a practice related to residential lawn care and before composting became popular often dumped into low areas, wetlands and streams.  It still continues today although many organizations now recognize the negative impacts of excess organic matter in New England streams especially in periods of high heat.  In fact rotting organic matter that then putrefies in high heat can release significant amounts of deadly sulfide which in high enough concentrations can create a chemical barrier to returning Alewife frequently called a sulfide “block.”  Streams with high sulfide levels are toxic to returning Alewife, they just will not enter them.  The increase in leaf litter also should be a part of a local habitat map or survey.

Life Science Aspects of Alewife Restoration – A “Habitat History”

While most restoration efforts to date have focused upon eliminating man made barriers to returning fish (undersized culverts, dams, and piping) little attention has been directed to understanding long term habitat quality and capacity of the alewife “run” itself.  For many streams a century of wood debris, leaves and sediment (street sand) has washed into coastal streams.  Storm water from paved surfaces has done much to degrade stream carrying capacity for the alewife.  These negative impacts thermal pollution (hot or warm street water causing thermal shock) increased sedimentation – flash floods and increased organic loadings.  A by product of organic and high heat has caused a review of the century old Saprobien system (1909).  One of the byproducts of high heat and high organic inputs into streams is the production of toxic sulfides.  The New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) rates hydrogen sulfide as a very toxic substance to aquatic organisms with exposures (continuous) levels as low as .002 ppm is deadly to most fish.  The fisheries management fact sheet (pg 98) also notes “hydrogen sulfide is more toxic at low temperatures and pH.”  This has been the source of winter sulfide fish kills in acidic waters.

New England streams mostly because of oak leaf fall are naturally acidic – a brown coloration frequently occurs in them from tannins released from oak leaves.  So color of water pH and sulfide levels are critical to determine stream potential for a restored alewife fishery.  Students wanting to learn more about the negative impacts of organic matter should investigate dystrophic water classifications.  Alewife eggs for example require a pH between 5.0 to 8.5  (Funderburk et al 1991) pH measurements under 5 is a concern.  Fish are also harmed by increases in sulfide formation associated during low oxygen periods which influences bottom sediments sulfide levels (Tenore 1972).  A simple pole/cup device can sample bottom sediments and human sensory can detect match stick sulfur levels at .5 parts per million far above lethal amounts.  In fact during summer months when thermal heating (both natural and unnatural) fishers often report the sulfur rotten egg smell made infamous during The Great Heat – 1880 to 1920 period.  These horrific fish kills during this period were termed ”black water deaths.”  One of the more notorious “chocolate” water fish kills occurred in Narragansett Bay in August of 1898.

Those black water deaths are nearly always associated with hydrogen sulfide smells (rotten eggs) reported during the Great Heat the 1880 to 1920 period.  The production of sulfide in streams used by returning alewife has been recorded for over a century.  In 1971 Hynes describes a condition that even “natural” streams may show the characteristic signs of pollution.  In densely wooded regions that autumn leaf fall may add so much organic matter to water that fish are asphyxiated.  Hynes mentions the earlier work of Schneller (1955) and investigations of American Streams and summarizes,

   “In such places the water is murky and smells foul when disturbed, and
   decaying leaves near the surface are covered with a white coat of sewage
   fungus.”

This thin paper white crust on mud or those bottoms with organic matter are sulfur reducing bacteria which strains may sometimes color the water green or purple.  Hynes (1971)* describes the work of Liebmann 1951 who identified a distinct purple sulfur bacteria strain.  In New England such areas subject to enormous organic deposits often record “purple waters” (see Narrow River Studies Narragansett Rhode Island). 

Much earlier two German researchers (Kolkwitz and Marisson 1908) described a system of assessing “organic” pollution and a normal process (stream energy and bio attenuation of nitrogen and phosphate compounds related to stream energy – fast moving streams were able to clear organics “faster” than slower streams.  This ability to clear organics was connected to oxygen levels and stream energy roughly described as flow rate elevation and oxygen saturation.  Natural stream turbulence can keep oxygen levels higher and prevent sulfide production and is a key indicator to those streams able to sustain trout as the presence of a cold water “sulfide block” for smelt or alewife.  A slow moving stream with its stream bed filled with rotting (often acidic) leaves should be cleared of such debris.
 
For returning alewife the accumulation of decaying leaves in hot weather followed by a cold ice filled winter helps keeps stream beds free of leaves.  In times of heat however leaves can accumulate in slow reaches that are removed only by flooding events.  Additional high heat low oxygen decomposition can lead to a sulfur smelling organic ooze or black jelly substance called Sapropel.

Summary – Habitat Quality Has A Chemical Footprint – Can The Past Help Us Now?

Restoration of alewife runs needs an advance stream survey (NCRS provides a very helpful outline) but in New England a returned forest canopy and increase in leaves and nearly a century of winter sand application on roads requires detailed assessments roughly following the century old Saprobien system.  With the return of Connecticut’s forest canopy the amounts of natural organic matter – forest leaf fall or residential lawn care or street ground oatmeal has degraded coastal streams ability to sustain alewife runs.

Any restoration effort today should detail the existence of leaf accumulations, the location and deep of any Sapropel deposits, sand deposits from winter roadway applications before a run is established.  A seasonal look at stream sulfide levels is also required as a first step to assure there is no sulfide blocks.

In 2000 the Martin Luther King Magnet School (Journal of the Tennessee Academy of Science 75(3-4); 53-56 July – October 2000) published a paper (Anderson and Wilson) in which a new field test for acid volatile sulfides in sediments was described.  Seasonal variations in sediment AVS has been described as nitrate buffers (some refer it to as shielding) sulfate reduction a significant pathways for AVS production in high heat low oxygen conditions.  In this simple field test, a sediment sample (Sapropel) is placed into a jar, with a dilute HCL, and a paper strip moistened with lead nitrate is held by the jar lid above the sample.  The jar is swirled to mix the acid and sediment to assist the release of hydrogen sulfide gas H2S - A two minute exposure is all that is needed for the test, if the paper is blackened, a significant concentration of acid volatile sulfide is present, a light grey to brown color indicates a slight presence – no color change indicates a slight presence – no color change indicates zero AVS.  Authors stress the importance of the seasonal variability of AVS – higher in late summer but declined tremendously in spring.  It is suspected that movement of oxygen into the sediments is a relatively slow process.  It is suspected that a stream suffering from organic debris would also exhibit seasonal variability – necessitating a year of tests – 4 cycles with at least two tests per cycle, concentrating testing between November 1st and April 1st in our region.

Some early texts refer to colder winters with ice cover as beneficial to alewife habitat quality, colder water does contain more oxygen diminishing AVS potential, but rapid flooding in cold water may release AVS in deep sediments, or heat related sulfur reducing bacteria – with little or no nitrate buffer may create hydrogen sulfide releases that may alarm coastal residents by the scent of sulfur smells described as rotting eggs between 1880-1920.  In cold water oxygen deprived sulfides from sediments and move directly into adjacent waters leading to cold water sulfide fish kills.  Any stream that is considered for alewife restoration project should have a sulfide block survey for both high heat and cold.

In 2011 The Sound School compiled three possible Senior Capstone project outlines/proposals regarding alewife fisheries in 2011.  The three proposals include;

•   A Fisheries Habitat History Project – The Lost Alewife Weirs of Connecticut – The Cove River Site West Haven.
•   The Lost Alewife Weirs of New England Possible Construction Details of Stone/Wood Alewife Weirs – Design Model Diagram
•   Fish Census Projects for Connecticut Coastal Streams Monitoring Alewife Runs for Adults and Juvenile Fish.

All three are now available for potential Capstone projects.

Alewife Local History Has Been Lost -

They may be of interest to local conservation commissions and coastal land trusts that may want to check on runs or may in fact have the remains of a Native American fish “Vee” stone weir and did not know what it was.  Several Vee stone weirs might still exist today and have been found in other states (mostly Maine) with the help of photography.  The Streamwalk NCRS guide is a must to begin the restoration monitoring process.  It is during the Streamwalk survey process the discovery of ancient wing wall or V traps used by Native Americans can be determined.  Detailed stream maps compiled by volunteers can also describe tree crosses (which can trap leaves) slow stream energy areas or create “widening.”  Excess street sand may also need to be removed as well.

Municipal town records might be the best source for former alewife weir locations.  In many references pertaining to New England’s Fisheries Histories colonial alewife weirs were the same as Native American ones – often type, construction and location remained effective for hundreds of years after colonial settlement.


Interested students in this topic as a potential research project should obtain the Alewife paper titled Alewives – Once the Fish to War Over from Susan Weber.  Her email is [email protected].

For more information, please contact [email protected].

Program reports are available upon request. For more information about New Haven Environmental Monitoring Initiative for IMEP reports, please contact Susan Weber, the Sound School Adult Education and Outreach Program Coordinator, at [email protected]

For information about The Sound School website, publications and/or alumni contacts, please contact Taylor Samuels at [email protected]
The Sound School is a Regional High School agriculture Science and Technology Center enrolling students from 23 participating Connecticut communities.
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« Reply #1 on: July 13, 2014, 08:38:25 PM »

Always good reading.   Thanks for compiling and sharing.
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« Reply #2 on: July 13, 2014, 08:50:47 PM »

good read. thanks
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