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Slip slidin' away: Saugus River eel ramp a success

Creatures are multiplying and contributing to the habitat restoration of Reedy Meadow

When Joan LeBlanc scooped a net-full of year-old eels from the holding tank that's part of the "eel ramp" on the Saugus River in Wakefield, they shook and shimmied like so many hyperactive water worms.

With another scoop, she brought up a crayfish.

"The first time we found eels here, I opened this up and found eight crayfish," said LeBlanc, executive director of the Saugus River Watershed Council. "Then I found an eel."

After that eel, they found another, and another, and the eels kept coming.

Tuesday marked the final day of the initial season for the eel ramp on the Saugus River, a joint restoration program involving the state Division of Marine Fisheries, the Saugus River Watershed Council, and the Lynn Water and Sewer Commission. Since the end of March, the ramp has helped eels make the journey up the Saugus River, and volunteers have counted them to monitor the project's progress.

The number of eels to pass over the dam in three months was 9,082.

The goal of the project is to enhance the eel population and habitat at Reedy Meadow, a 550-acre freshwater marsh just north of the dam, which is owned by the Lynn Water and Sewer Commission. The marsh's varied ecosystem is credited with "cleansing" the water that flows down the Saugus River, and the Massachusetts Audubon Society has designated it as an important area for birders because it provides food sources for many bird species.

It is typical of habitat-restoration projects that -- because of all the variables found in nature -- even well-laid plans don't always yield the desired results. The results for this plan, however, matched the most optimistic projections.

"With a lot of habitat restoration, you spend money but you're not sure that you'll be able to do what you planned," said Bradford Chase, a biologist with the Division of Marine Fisheries. "In this case, we were able to spend just a little money and make a difference right away. And hopefully, we can do it every year."

The eel is similar to anadromous fish species such as alewife, which spawn in fresh water but live most of their lives in the ocean. The eel, however, is a catadromous species, meaning that its trek is somewhat the reverse: It spawns in the ocean but lives most of its life in lakes and streams.

"It's very important as forage food," Chase said. "Everything loves to eat eels. It's a prey item for wildlife, birds, and other fish. It's very important for the food chain. They're fed upon at every life stage."

It is also listed as a "candidate species" under the Endangered Species Act, a step below "threatened" and one above "species of concern."

The eel ramp features a pump that takes water from the deep side of the dam and sends it streaming down an aluminum chute on the low side of the dam. The flow of water is designed to attract eels to the ramp. Once they've made it up the ramp to the top of the dam, they fall into a holding tank where they are counted and then released on the upstream side.

Chase says that there are a couple of these ramps being used in a handful of states. It is the second of its kind in Massachusetts, and the first on a coastal river. (The other is used on the Connecticut River.) Buoyed by the success of the project, Chase hopes to add "a couple every year in different places."

The Saugus River dam is at the Wakefield-Lynnfield line, just off the 15th hole at Colonial Golf Club. The Lynn Water and Sewer Commission allowed the ramp to be set up at the dam, provided the electricity for the pump, and allowed the "counters" to go inside the dam's gatehouse for once-a-week measuring and weighing of the eels, part of the monitoring process.

"We recognize that the Saugus River is a very important resource," said Rick Dawe, water treatment and supply superintendent for the commission. "We like to take part in anything we can do for the health and ecology of the river."

Chase has been conducting a study of eels in the Saugus and Parker rivers for the past few years.

He traps eels to collect baseline data that may someday be used to restore the eel population in the region's coastal rivers.

The Saugus River eel ramp project, which was funded by grants from the Gulf of Maine Council and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, came about in part because of Chase's study, and in part because of another study that yielded a disappointing result.

The council commissioned a study on the feasibility of returning alewife to the river, but was advised that it would first need to address other factors, such as dredging part of the river, enlarging some culverts, and addressing beaver populations that were adversely affecting the river's flow.

Given the need to address those issues, the alewife project was put on hold.

Instead, the council turned to the plan to restore the eel population.

"Historically, this system is huge," Chase said. "Eventually, we want to see greater numbers here. We want tens of thousands."