A couple of days after my trip to the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association headquarters and my conversation with Denise Poyer I met with my friend Gordon. He wanted to know how the meeting went and whether I had learned anything interesting.
I told him it went great and that the reason the river was running north at Potter Hill instead of south toward Westerly is because the glacier that created the Pawcatuck River ten thousand years ago also dumped the material that made the Charlestown Moraine which blocked the river’s course to the south. I told him we discussed the Wild and Scenic River Study.
“Does Denise think we’ll be able to get the Pawcatuck River designated as a Wild and Scenic River?” Gordon asked.
I said: “Yes and not only the Pawcatuck but many of the Pawcatuck’s major tributaries. To be considered a Wild & Scenic river it must be free-flowing and have at least one or more outstanding natural, cultural, or recreational value. The Pawcatuck River meets all the requirements.”
I told him that the reason it’s important is a Wild & Scenic designation will qualify the river for federal funding and technical support for actions and projects that help achieve the goals of the locally created river management plan enhancing and protecting the river’s outstanding values.
“I found out something else. Remember we were talking about whether the river is making a comeback?” I asked.
Gordon nodded that he did.
“Well I sat down with Chris Cox the WPWA Executive Director and he told me about the effort to restore the migratory path for fish up the Pawcatuck River to Worden Pond,” I said.
I told Gordon that Chris had explained the project saying that the upper Pawcatuck projects at Lower Shannock Falls, Horseshoe Falls and the Kenyon Mill Dam has allowed fish to come all the way up the river and get back to Worden Pond. He said the key to restoring migratory access is to ensure that juvenile fish are hatched in the actual water source.
“So DEM moved some fish years in advance of the last project because it takes three to four years for fish, specifically river herring, to reach sexual maturity in the ocean and actually come back,” I said to Gordon. “Three years later the offspring that were imprinted with the smell of the water in Worden Pond came back. They passed Chapman Pond and continued upstream to Worden Pond and that’s the first time in over two hundred years.”
“Wow, I think that’s a great success story,” Gordon replied.
“I agree. Speaking of fish, do you know what kind of fish are on the Westerly Town seal?”
“Sure, everybody knows that. They’re Atlantic salmon,” answered Gordon.
“And you know that this whole area was called Misquamicut by Native Americans which meant redfish in their language and everyone assumed that meant salmon?”
Again Gordon nodded.
“Well the only problem is that there probably never were any salmon in the Pawcatuck River according to the late Dr. Saul Saila who was a scientist and fisheries expert. They’re actually sea-run brook trout also called salters.”
“How’d he come to that conclusion?” Gordon asked.
I explained that the DEM tried for 25 years to put juvenile salmon in this watershed but out of 100,000 fish only 10 actually returned. I told him that Dr. Saila thought that brook trout were actually the red-fleshed fish that Westerly is known for. He noted that brook trout, under the right conditions, can migrate out into an estuary because there’s more food there and they could grow up to 15 pounds. The other evidence that salmon were never in the Pawcatuck River is that in Native American middens in this area they’ve never found any salmon bones, they’ve only found trout bones.
“So you see it would have been fairly easy for the colonists to mistake these large brook trout for salmon,” I said. “They swam up and down the rivers like migrating salmon and they had the red flesh like a salmon.”
“I’m not sure,” I laughed. “Maybe because the beach is so popular they should change it to seagulls.”
Check out the WPWA newsletter for a story by Dr. Saila on salmon in the Pawcatuck River.