Years of work pay off with new fish passage

During his career as a conservation biologist with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, Byron Young focused on the health of the Peconic Bay estuary system.

Specifically, he studied anadromous species — saltwater fish that return to fresh water each spring to spawn, such as alewives. For more than a century, alewives could go no farther upstream in the Peconic River than a dam that blocked their migrations at what is today Peconic Avenue in downtown Riverhead.

“I started with the DEC in 1973, and in 1995 we began looking at the alewives right at that dam, above which is Grangebel Park,” Mr. Young said. “We received a small grant and each spring when the alewives returned, we’d net as many as we could and lifted them up over the dam so they could reach the upper stem of the river and spawn.”

This dam was not the only one on the river or its tributaries. They were built in the 19th century when Riverhead and the river were home to water-powered mills. Later, the ponds created by the dams became part of a once flourishing cranberry industry. For all that time, the dams denied the alewives, and American eels, a protected species, from migrating far up the river.

The new fish passage on Little River in Riverside across from downtown’s Grangebel Park has been named in honor of longtime proponent and conservationist Byron Young. (Credit: Steve Wick)

In 2010, a permanent fish passage was installed at the Grangebel Park location so that alewives could scale the river higher. And earlier this month, Mr. Young joined others to celebrate the opening of a fish passage on Little River, a tributary of the Peconic River that passes through woods east of the County Center in Riverside across from downtown Riverhead. Little River connects the river to Wildwood Lake in Southampton Town.

Fittingly, the fish passage has been named after Mr. Young. A sign atop the dam reads “Byron Young Fish Passage,” and a drawing next to it illustrating how critical the new passage is to the life of the estuary.

“That one passage opened up 95 acres of spawning habitat,” said Peconic Estuary Partnership executive director Joyce Novak. 

She said there is one remaining dam on the main branch of the Peconic River, just across the street from Snowflake Ice Cream Shoppe on West Main Street. When that is reworked with a fish passage, some 300 acres of habitat will be opened up for migrating species, Ms. Novak said. 

County Legislator Al Krupski (D-Peconic), who attended the naming ceremony along with Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, said efforts are now underway between different parties to one day get a passage installed there. 

“Mr. Young’s dedication to alewives and the Peconic estuary is wonderful,” Ms. Novak said. “He would go to Little River in the spring with his grandson to net alewives and lift them over the dam, above which is the county’s Cranberry Bog Preserve. It’s an absolute jewel.

“And we will continue,” she added. “The goal is that last impoundment across from Snowflake.”

“The really wonderful aspect of the fish passages is they help the entire bay system,” Mr. Krupski said in an interview. “It improves the health of the system all the way up the Peconic River.”

In an interview, Mr. Young said the beauty of the new passage on Little River is that it allows fish migration all the way to Wildwood Lake, a kettle hole lake created at the end of the last ice age. A stream comes off its northeastern corner and runs downhill through Cranberry Bog Preserve, entering the river at Grangebel Park in downtown Riverhead.

“Once the last dam across from Snowflake [is bypassed], alewives will be able to get all the way to Edwards Avenue by the on-ramp to the Expressway,” Mr. Young said. “And even well beyond that. No fish has spawned up that far in 150 years.

“There are huge benefits to the habitat with the passages,” he continued. “The alewives and eels are food for egrets and herons, otters, osprey, bald eagles and others. When they return to the bay and the ocean, they are food for many species, including whales.”

Mr. Young retired from the DEC in 2006. While he worked as a biologist, he also studied striped bass, tagging some and researching their habitat in the Hudson River.

He said he is honored the passage has his name on it, but says he was only one of many who helped make it happen.

“Yes, it’s a great honor,” he said. “But we need a bigger sign for all the people who helped out over the years. I was involved from the beginning, so, yes, it’s a real honor.”