Rock ramp fish passage planned for Swan River in East Patchogue

Large numbers of bait fish and eels will be returning back up East Patchogue’s Swan River tributary for the first time in some 200 years.

This is thanks to the efforts of Brookhaven Town, which is undertaking several fish passage projects along the South Shore estuary, including the Carmans River, as well the Peconic River.

Photo: The rock ramp fish passage in Riverhead’s Grangebel Park last month. (Michael White)

The town was recently awarded a $345,000 grant to build a natural passage through the dam — in the form of a natural ramp — which is located on the north side of East Main Street.

The current spillway has a straight vertical drop of 6 feet that is too high for the fish to overcome, town officials said. 

“This is important, because this fish passage will allow migratory fish such as alewives, blueback herring, native brook trout and American eels access to their spawning habitats in Swan Lake and the upstream areas of Swan River,” said Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine.

The town had received an earlier grant that was used to design and acquire state Department of Environmental Conservation permits for the project. This latest award through New York State Water Quality Improvement Grant Funding, will fund the construction, town officials said.

The fish species mentioned by the supervisor serve as prey for larger fish likes bluefish and striped bass, as well as predatory birds, such as bald eagles and osprey.

Whales and dolphins also feed on the bait fish.

Work on the fish passage is expected to start later this year.

The passage is modeled after the one built in early 2011 in Riverhead (pictured above), which later received a national award Coastal America, which is a a nationwide partnership of federal agencies, state and local governments, and private organizations.

That passage was over a decade in the making and was the brainchild of the late Bob Conklin, a biologist and environmental advocate, according to the Riverhead News-Review.

Conklin would often explain that the dam’s existence for a couple centuries never prevented alewives from trying to make their way up Peconic River each spring to spawn, as they had for tens of thousands of years before.

Before the ramp was built, and with the help of biology students, Conklin would manually install an aluminum fish ladder each spring to help.

“Dams were an important in the early history of this country, because they helped turn mills that were used for energy,” Romaine said. “But they also broke up natural rivers and streams and these spawning areas. So we’re looking to go back to nature.”