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Collaborative unites partners to address aquatic connectivity across the Northeast

Launched in June, the North Atlantic Aquatic Connectivity Collaborative is already helping strengthen efforts to restore aquatic connectivity across the region by supporting a network of partners with shared resources.
Collaborative unites partners to address aquatic connectivity across the Northeast

North Atlantic Aquatic Connectivity Collaborative training in Albany, N.Y.

Pop quiz: Which of the following can create severe barriers to the movement of aquatic organisms through road-stream crossings, namely culverts and bridges? Sediment, woody debris, fencing, riprap, increased flow from runoff, metal grating, wire, collapsed abutments, or a vertical drop of greater than four inches.

The answer of course is: "All of the above". And in many cases, it's more than one at a time.  

“Imagine having to swim against high-velocity water and then leap to get through a pipe,” said Dr. Scott Jackson, Extension Associate Professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and one of the organizers of the North Atlantic Aquatic Connectivity Collaborative (NAACC).

Unfortunately, many organisms face this kind of obstacle course on a regular basis, whether in the course of seasonal migration, or just daily comings and goings. According to Jackson, of the 6,030 single- and multiple-culvert crossings cataloged in the River and Stream Continuity Project database, more than half are classified as severe or moderate barriers to aquatic connectivity. Perhaps more alarming: Not a single one affords full aquatic passability, as measured by a combination of height, width, openness, substrate and span.

As long continuous ecosystems, rivers and streams are particularly vulnerable to fragmentation. While culverts and bridges are important for providing passage above water, they can be roadblocks to fish and other aquatic organisms if not properly maintained. For species like Brook trout that need to migrate to cold water to spawn, movement is essential for successful reproduction. For a species like Blandings turtle that doesn't reach sexual maturity until 12 years of age, the risk of having to cross a road can threaten an entire population.

Credit: Brad Compton“Given how numerous these crossings are on the landscape, we realize that if even half of them are barriers to movement, then we’ve got really highly fragmented stream systems,” said Jackson. And the fact that there are so many road-stream crossings - hundreds of thousands in the Northeast alone - can make it difficult to get at the issue. Literally.

“There’s no way we’re going to get to them all at once without a broad collaborative effort,” said Jackson.

That was the impetus behind the North Atlantic Aquatic Connectivity Collaborative. Guided by a core team of members from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Nature Conservancy, Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, U.S. Forest Service and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the NAACC serves as a support mechanism for individuals across the Northeast to align efforts to identify and prioritize repairs, upgrades, and replacements. With a standard assessment protocol, a coding system for crossings, a central database, and a network of coordinators in 13 states, the collaborative provides the capacity and resources to enable diverse partners to work collectively on a shared concern. 

With the field season getting underway, the NAACC will officially announce its launch on June 8, issuing a call to action for individuals across the region to join the network of universities, conservation organizations, and state and federal natural resource and transportation departments  that have come together to address an issue that grows increasingly urgent in the face of climate change. 

The devastating flooding and erosion that Northeast states faced in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and Tropical Storms Irene and Lee brought attention to how extreme storm events impact outdated road-stream crossing infrastructure, and the associated risks to human communities and wildlife.

In response to these events and needs, federal funding for Hurricane Sandy recovery and from the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC) is supporting a pair of projects to help address these threats at the regional scale, including the Restoring Aquatic Connectivity and Increasing Flood Resilience project. The NAACC is one of the outcomes of this effort.

During a recent NAACC training in Albany, N.Y., Jackson and project co-lead Alex Abbott from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Gulf of Maine Program introduced 30 participants to the NAACC’s Stream Crossing Survey Data Form - a common protocol designed to align individual assessment efforts across the region.  

Credit: UMass

Jackson explained that the ultimate goal is to combine data evaluating river and stream crossings, as well as adjacent habitat and landscape, in order to establish priorities and guide action.

The collaboration is already gaining support. Training attendee Erin Rodgers of Trout Unlimited, who coordinates fieldwork for the organization’s New England Culvert Project, explained that she had been working with Jackson on a project in the Deerfield River watershed when she learned about the collaborative. 

“I have enough experience in enough states that it seemed like a good idea to share as much information as I could,” she said, adding that it works in her favor too. “Because I am working across several different states, it’s better for me to know that everybody else is working from the same protocol.”

Participant Tom Hoffman, a restoration biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Lower Great Lakes Fish Conservation Office explained that he became increasingly aware of the threat crossings pose to fish passage through his work in habitat restoration. At the same time, he became increasingly aware of the importance of using a consistent evaluation method.

“We have been doing a lot of culvert assessments, and are planning on doing a lot more, so we have been searching for a standardized protocol that we could use region wide, if not nation wide,” Hoffman said.

The NAACC answers this need. “This is a really good protocol for rapid assessment, and we have already used it on some of our lands," he said. “As the collaborative progresses, we want to keep involved."

For information about participating in the NAACC, please contact Phillip Herzig of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Fisheries Resources: . Or Jessica Levine of The Nature Conservancy: jlevine@tnc.org

 


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