Fish Ladder & Lift Elevates Local Learning & Critical Thinking

All ages learn about wide variety of fish in their natural habitat and the environmental challenges facing river life

Community-based educational opportunities await children of all ages on the riverbank.

One of western Massachusetts’ (and western New England’s) most important and valuable natural resources is the Connecticut River. Over 400 miles long, the river runs from the Canadian border in Quebec to the Long Island Sound, and its waters and watershed provide habitat to thousands of species. However, our region’s history includes lots of water-powered manufacturing and hydroelectricity projects, all of which have permanently changed the Connecticut River.

Thanks to programs funded by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, educational resources are available for learning about the river and understanding the complexities of our current relationship with it. This time of year, the most fascinating way to learn about the river is by visiting a fish ladder or fish elevator, where numerous species of fish can be observed right in their natural habitat! Most importantly, families can learn about anadromous fish – ones who are born in freshwater, spend most of their lives in the ocean, and return to freshwater to spawn in the springtime. The many dams on the Connecticut River have caused a decline in populations of such fish, as they block the path from the ocean to many species’ spawning grounds. However, projects such as the fishlift at the Robert E. Barrett Fishway in Holyoke and the Turners Falls Fish Ladder attempt help to move fish from one side of a dam to another – allowing them a slightly better chance of reaching their destination and successfully spawning.

In Holyoke, the fishlift is the first and most successful lift of its kind in the Northeast, and when in operation, it moves thousands of fish daily up and over the Holyoke Gas and Electric dam. Visitors to the lift can watch it fill with fish and river water and rise above the dam, then move to a special observation room to watch the fish move out of the elevator and into a channel that takes them to the upper portion of the river. Many species of fish can be spotted during each lift, and glass viewing windows allow visitors to get up-close-and-personal with the fish as they swim by. (If you’re lucky, you might even get to see a lamprey attach its sucker-like mouth to the window!)

Similarly, viewing windows at the Turners Falls Fish Ladder offer visitors a close look at the aquatic species that use the ladder. However, the fish ladder is different from a fish lift in that there isn’t any machinery to mechanically move fish from one part of the river to another. At the ladder, fish swim around the dam by jumping up a stair-like horizontal ladder as water from the river flows against their movement. It’s exhausting to say the least, but it’s well worth it for the fish that make it that far from the ocean – anadromous fish that move up the ladder in Turners Falls must have already visited the lift in Holyoke, and they’ll have had quite a journey by the time they’re done!

A visit to a fishlift or fish ladder can be both exciting and saddening, depending on the way that you examine the situation. For young children, a day spent watching fish move upstream can serve as a valuable experience that helps them to better understand fish species and the concept of migration. However, older students who understand the negative impact that humans can have upon the environment may see a visit to the lift or ladder as not only an investigation into aquatic life, but also an examination of the success and failure of fish-moving system as a whole.

Depending on their age, older students may be interested in engaging in a conversation about the consequences of continuing to operate dams – both for fish species and for humans. Of course, the dams pose quite a challenge for fish, and have caused many populations to decline (the Atlantic salmon, famously, and many others) since they were built. However, dams provide electricity, prevent flooding of neighborhoods near the river’s banks, and have played an important role in powering manufacturing machinery throughout the Pioneer Valley’s history. What consequences would we experience if the dams were removed? And what sacrifices must creatures make in order for us to keep them? Weighing the ethical environmental dilemmas of the human impact upon the Connecticut River can help older children to develop an educated opinion on the subject, and may help them to feel a deeper connection to the river and the species for whom it is home.

The Turners Falls Fishway is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9am-5pm until June 15th, and will also be open on Monday, May 26th for Memorial Day. In Holyoke, the Fish Lift operates from 9am-5pm Wednesday through Sunday, and will also be open until June 15th. Occasionally, the lift may not run due to river and/or weather conditions – call ahead to be sure you’ll see some fish moving! Admission to both the lift and the ladder is free to all, and both locations offer guided tours to groups, though you must schedule in advance. Adventurous families can see fish and learn about the river at other locations in western New England, including the Rainbow Dam in Windsor, Connecticut and the Vernon Dam Fish Ladder in Vernon, Vermont.

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