The tranquil millpond at North Kingstown’s Gilbert Stuart Birthplace and Museum not only powers water wheels, but also serves as the lobby of a watery singles bar – the entrance to Carr Pond, where tens of thousands of alewife and Blueback herring gather to spawn every spring.
Since the 1960s, the fish – also known as “buckies” – have received a boost in their annual quest to create a new generation by a fish ladder along the smaller of two dams that hold back the waters of Gilbert Stuart Stream. The fish ladder allows the buckies to splash their way upstream past the dam gates and back to their ancestral spawning grounds.
“I can remember seeing so many waiting to go up the ladder that there was not enough water to contain them,” recalls Harriet Powell, a neighbor and longtime supporter of the museum. “You could see their fins sticking out of the water.”
The fish ladder dam survived the awful spring flood of 2010, but it’s showing signs of wear. “It is going to fail,” reports Phillip Edwards, who works in the Freshwater Fisheries program of the Fish and Wildlife Division of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.
As a result the museum, now celebrating its 80th birthday, has embarked on a fundraising campaign to repair the dam and reposition the fish ladder, a $22,500 project. Powell reports the museum won a grant of $1,500 from the Coast Resources Management Council to help, but the rest will have to come from donations.
Problems with the fishladder dam represent just the latest threat to the survival of buckies.
They are anadromous, meaning they breed in freshwater, but hatchlings head for saltwater, where they live for three or four years until it’s time to breed again.
According to a report from the University of Rhode Island, fishing enthusiasts once gathered along Gilbert Stuart Stream and the Annaquatuckett River every spring to catch the teeming fish when they were running.
Edwards says the state has data on fish counts at the Gilbert Stuart site back to 1981. As recently as 2000-2002, he says, 250,000 to 300,0000 buckies ascended the ladder each year.
Since then the fish counts have plunged. By 2005, only 8,000 buckies appeared at the museum site for the annual migration, and the state banned fishing for them.
Edwards says closing the fishery appears to have helped revive the species, though no clear trend has yet emerged. In 2010, 110,000 fish were counted, but this year, that dropped to 64,000. Still, says Edwards, “That’s better than 8,000.”
At this time of year, visitors who look closely can see tiny fingerling buckies in the millpond waiting for a chance to wash over the dam and head back to sea.
To help repair the fish ladder dam and keep the fish healthy, the Gilbert Stuart Museum’s upcoming Moonlight Magic event on the evening of Aug. 12 will feature a light supper and dessert, wine, artwork by Artist-in-Residence David Schock, music by the Elderly Brothers, a silent auction and a raffle featuring a hand-crafted quilt.
Tickets are $45, and the reservation deadline is Aug. 5. To register, contact Peg O'Connor, executive director of the museum, (401) 294-3001, or visit the museum web site