Can fish get a lift from a ladder? Sweeten gets grant to test approach

Manchester University biology Professor Jerry Sweeten believes in not only saving the environment but making sure students have the chance to engage in hands-on experiences that allow the world to become their classroom.

Sweeten has received a federal grant for about $100,000 from the Ohio River Basin Fish Habitat Partnership through the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

His current project, “New Approach to Fish Passage Over Low-Head Dams,” takes place in the Eel River at the Stockdale Mill near Roann, Ind. He explained that the mill is privately owned and restored to work as it originally had, so it is not feasible to remove the dam. He and the mill’s board of directors came to an agreement that calls for a “fish ladder” to be installed that is designed to allow fish to move upstream.

A fish ladder, which works sort like a fish elevator, is meant to assist the fish as they go from one level to the next until they are over the dam completely. Fish would move through the ladder by jumping into each opening.

“We do not know how well this project will work, but that is what we as scientists do. We continually look for new ideas and approaches to resource issues. If we fail, we learn from it,” Sweeten explained.

“As a measure of success for the fish ladder, 100 fish will have surgically implanted transmitters for monitoring how well the fish ladder works,” he said. The fish will carry the transmitters for the rest of their lives but the batteries are active for only two or three years. The receivers will anchor under water and collect data every 15 to 30 seconds from a different tracker and then send the data to a computer. Each tracker uses a unique sound to help identify which fish went through the ladder.

Sweeten said this project should last two years and that he hopes to start this summer. Most research through the Environmental Studies Program occurs in the summer, allowing for student involvement. Those experiences, he said, help prepare them for the job market or graduate school.  A student who works with him is paid for the summer, receives research experience and works with professionals in the field.

Sweeten and his students have already taken out two dams that had been around since the mid-1800s on the Eel River, one in North Manchester near the El Mezquite restaurant and the other in Liberty Mills. He said they are the first such dams removed in Indiana.

“Dams that we are looking at were built when the Europeans first settled in this part of the country,” Sweeten said. The dams were once used to operate mills to grind grain and cut wood, but most are now “old and in disrepair. In Indiana alone, there are over 1,100 of these dams, and they are dangerous structures to humans and have a significant ecological effect on the river.”

Sweeten’s overall goal is to make the Eel River as clean as possible with the help of Manchester students and the many conservation partners in the watershed.

Prepared with assistance by Heather Elson, media relations student assistant.

February 6, 2015

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