Fish Ladders, Councils, and Eels, Oh My!

Ben Cote and Keith Goncalves were a pleasure to interview. These two presidents of the Ten Mile River Watershed Council (current and past, respectively – or, as Ben would say, current and co-president) were knowledgeable, entertaining, and lively. They knew their stuff, loved that they knew their stuff, and knew that they knew their stuff. All of it made for a great interview on a beautiful day at the Hunts Mills house in East Providence.

But I, being new to podcasting and interviewing, do not know my stuff. I love my stuff, but sometimes I don’t even know the stuff that I don’t know. For example: I didn’t know that wind noise is the hardest sound to remove from an audio recording. I didn’t know that you’d be better off trying to win the lottery than to catch every piece of wind distortion in a clip. And I certainly didn’t know at the time that my entire interview with Ben and Keith would be unusable.

So, in lieu of a podcast in their own words being released on Friday, here’s how I would tell Ben and Keith’s story.

Fish Ladders, Councils, and Eels, Oh My!

The Ten Mile River wanders its way through Massachusetts and parts of Rhode Island as it flows out into the Narragansett Bay. It’s the birthplace of many mills, a source of trade, travel, and commerce, and home to a plethora of indigenous species. As much a part of the human ecosystem as it is the natural ecosystem, the Ten Mile River cuts through almost as many parts of life as it does towns on its way back to the ocean.

The opportunities that the river presented were sometimes at odds with one another. Pollution, a problem common to nearly every body of water, did not spare the Ten Mile River and its natural beauty. As with any locale, new developments threatened the wilderness of the river and encroached on its banks. Peculiar to the Ten Mile River, however, were the dams that posed challenges to the life cycles of its indigenous fish species.

Ben and Keith explained it to me this way: almost 100 years ago, herring were abundant in the Ten Mile River. The fish would swim up the river as adults, spawn (lay their eggs) in the river, and remain in the fresh waters of New England for the rest of their lives. When the eggs hatched, they reversed course and headed back to the ocean to mature and anticipate their own journey back to the rivers and streams of Rhode Island.

Drawing of Herring

What’s the Dam Problem?

But this hadn’t happened for a long time. A variety of dams blocked the path of the herring on their way up the river, preventing them from reaching their spawning points. The river needed a solution, one that could ensure that the fish could continue up the river while preventing huge demolition projects or conflicts with established dams and mills.

So, in 1974, an idea was put forward: to install fish ladders. Fish ladders, Ben and Keith explained, are just like stairs in a house – a part that goes up, then a landing, then another part that goes up – and if the fish follow the ladder, they’ll have made it past the dam. In theory, it sounds like a simple idea.

Fish Ladder
Example of a fish ladder.

In reality, the idea required expensive and time-consuming hard work. The initial budget proposal for the project was $3 million. But, if this could be pulled off, Save the Bay estimated that upwards of 100,000 fish could return to the river and surrounding bodies of water. (When he told me this, Keith said that he “hopes the fish are reading the same book the people at Save the Bay did and are getting the same numbers”.)

The Council

Work went slowly on the fish ladder project until 2006, when the Ten Mile River Watershed Council was formed. Headed by Keith Goncalves, who described himself as a “recovering soccer dad”, the Council quickly assembled volunteers – many of whom were friends and family of Keith and Ben. But over time, news of the work that was going on spread to surrounding communities and both attracted and engaged the public.

Until finally, in 2014, the fish ladders were complete. Herring could once again spawn up the Ten Mile River. Now, the Council “starts its year with the fish”, amassing volunteers to help count the herring as they make their way upstream. What started as a faint idea in 1974 is now a project that draws hundreds of Rhode Island residents (and thousands of fish) to the banks of the Ten Mile River each season. In addition to building the fish ladders, people like Ben and Keith built community along the way – lasting relationships to others and to the environment among otherwise uninvolved people that they hope will last for years to come.

Around the Next Bend

Towards the end of our interview, Ben admitted: “we’re never really truly satisfied. There’s always something new to do.” A number of dams still block the Ten Mile River, and the Watershed Council would love to find ways around them. But this was an optimistic dissatisfaction, evidenced best by another returning species – the eel. Every year, Keith said, the Watershed Council goes “electro-fishing” in Larsen Woods. Electrofishing uses electricity to stun fish so that they can be recorded, allowing researchers a much more efficient and much less invasive way of determining exactly which species are thriving where.

But an eel was a particularly exciting find for Ben and Keith for two reasons. First, eels have an opposite lifecycle as herring. They hatch in Bermuda, then travel across the Atlantic to the waters of New England. There, they will mature until they return to Bermuda to lay their eggs. Finding two species with opposite lifecycles in the same environment is a sign of a healthy ecosystem – a happy find for the Watershed Council.

Glass Eels
Glass eels, the species found in Larsen Woods.

The second reason that Ben and Keith were excited was because the eel was found waaay up-river from where the fish ladder project had been completed. This 8” eel had made it past several dams to make it to where it was recorded. And, as Keith said: “if this little, tiny eel could make it all the way from Bermuda to little Rhode Island? Oh, I think there’s something we can do. I think there’s more we can do.”

Want to know more about the Ten Mile River Watershed Council? Follow this link: