Yarmouth dams impact fish in the entire Royal River Watershed

|In My Opinion, Carl Wilcox|

Did you know that there are two dams on the Royal River in Yarmouth within a mile of the head of tide that block fish passage to the entire 141-square mile watershed?  Both dams were purchased by the Town of Yarmouth in the 1970s for a dollar each.  One produced a small amount of power until about 2015.  In 2018, the non-working turbines at the Bridge Street dam were removed and the mill owner surrendered his FERC license to operate. The Elm Street dam diverts a portion of the river’s flow into a channel that was last used by a small chicken processing plant in the late 1950s to flush chicken guts into the river.  Neither dam has operable fish passage for sea-run fish.

While the Royal River is not a great river system in size, it can support a fair number of sea-run fish, as its history shows.  With industry beginning to expand in the early 1800s, in 1834 the people of then-North Yarmouth submitted a bill to the legislature requiring fish passage at all dams constructed in town and stated harvesting rights of migratory sea-run fish.  Though the bill passed, due to the influence of growing industries that used the dams, the bill was not enforced.  By the mid-1800s, as noted in the 1887 U.S. Fisheries Commission Census, the migration of sea-run fish, including that of the Atlantic salmon, had ceased.

If the two small Yarmouth dams are removed or fish passage installed, as the town of Yarmouth is now considering, sea-run fish could access 90% of the 141-square mile watershed, reaching as far upstream as the falls on the Sawyer Road across from the New Gloucester Fairgrounds. A recent analysis by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service estimated that the Royal River can support about 30,000 migratory shad and 60,000 river herring.  With a modest reworking of a dam at Runaround Pond, that pond could support 24,000 alewives. The total weight of this number of fish would be about 200,000 pounds.  The fish would migrate upriver in April and May, spawn, and return to the ocean within a week or two.  The spawn that manage not to be consumed by other fish, would grow to fingerlings that at a few months old would swim to the ocean.  While in the river, the adult shad, 16 to 30-inches long and weighing 4 to 7 pounds, are strong to a fly, with reports of more than 20 being caught in two hours on the Kennebec.  It is reported that shad helped feed the Continental Army at Valley Forge.

In the next few weeks, the Yarmouth Town Council will be debating the removal of these two dams or providing fish passage that costs about three times as much. To learn more and to support the Royal River Alliance in returning sea-run fish to the Royal River, visit the website, www.royalriveralliance.org and join to support the effort.

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