Environment Erie

Fishing: It appears as if the state's first fish ladders will be on Four Mile Creek

Jan 25, 2011 | Posted in Restoration Success Stories

Sunday, January 21, 2007
By Deborah Weisberg

Fish and fishermen will have more room to move on Erie's Four Mile Creek once plans to construct Pennsylvania's first salmonid ladders take shape.

Removing obstructions on the small stream on the east side of Erie will open badly needed access for steelhead fishing, which now is limited to the mouth of Four Mile by dams and other impediments, including waterfalls and an out-of-use sewer line.
"The fish passages have been kicked around for years," said Chuck Murray, a biologist with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, one of several agencies joining in the project. "It looks like it's finally gone beyond the talking stage and onto the drawing boards."

Some red tape still needs to be untangled, Murray said, including U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permitting, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approval for passages that will impede sea lamprey migration while allowing steelhead to move.

Lampreys, which prey on lake trout and steelhead, go up streams to spawn, depositing eggs that hatch and eventually produce fish that develop in the streambeds for up to seven years before moving to the lake in their most predatory stage. The federal government has been trying to control lampreys for more than 50 years, treating creeks, including Crooked and Conneaut, with annual applications of a chemical lampricide.

"Lampreys cause about five wounds per 100 fish," Murray said. "So, they're still a significant problem."

Funding for Four Mile still awaits approval, although the $105,000 needed for ladder construction is expected. Half would come this spring from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the remainder in the fall, from the federal Coastal Zone Management. If all goes well, design could begin in October and construction in 2008, said Dave Skellie of Erie's Sea Grant program, which is helping spearhead the project.

The plan calls for installing fish ladders -- essentially underwater concrete steps that fish can scale -- at a dammed up area near the mouth of Four Mile that now serves as an irrigation impoundment for the Lawrence Park Golf Club, and at a waterfall that is a natural impediment north of Route 5.

According to Dave Kristine, a biologist who works in the Fish Commission's dam removal division, the ladders will be patterned after those seen in the Pacific Northwest and will be a first for Pennsylvania. Plans also include removing an old sewer pipe within a concrete dam near a trailer park and "daylighting" a waterfall that is covered with a concrete cap. Both are near the Penn State Behrend campus on the upper part of the creek.

"The stream is only eight miles long, but we expect fish would travel to the upper reaches, as far as the campus," Skellie said of a wilderness area with steep slopes known as Wintergreen Gorge. "There are parks along the way, one owned by Lawrence Park Township and the other by Wesleyville Borough."

Although public access was an incentive in developing the project -- considering how rare it has become -- Four Mile is not without some off-limits areas that Skellie and others hope eventually will change. The Wesleyville Conservation Club posted its property on the lower end of the stream following incidents of vandalism, while General Electric, a nearby property owner, appears reluctant to allow fishermen on its section of the stream, Skellie said.

On the other hand, the better quality water is on the upper reaches, near Wintergreen Gorge, and that is open to the public. Skellie said a number of conservation groups plan to partner in a bank stabilization project on the upper end, and to address water quality issues on the urbanized lower end, where runoff from non-point source pollution is a problem.

"We're hoping that, eventually, the conservation club will consider opening up its property," said Murray, who is actively involved in the Fish Commission's efforts to acquire stream access on all Erie steelhead tributaries.

So far, the commission has raised more than $950,000 from the Lake Erie stamp, which will generate revenue exclusively for Erie area acquisitions until the 2009 license year. After that, stamp proceeds can be used to improve public access anywhere in the state.

The commission has indicated it plans to hire at least one person this year to work on securing access statewide, and also may hire consultants.

"We don't have a bottomless pit of money, so we have to be really selective when it comes to purchasing easements," Murray said. "We're going to the most desirable properties, ones that are already fished or where there are good holding areas for fish. We try to foster partnerships with municipalities, where we can match every dollar."

With approval expected at tomorrow's Fish Commission meeting for a property purchase on Walnut Creek south of Route 5 and north of Route 20, the commission has acquired six easements or stream sections on Erie tributaries, alone or jointly with municipalities.

"There are lots of incentives for landowners, including monetary compensation," said Murray. "They also get prioritized law enforcement, meaning if there's a problem they can call our WCOs on their cell phones 24/7 and they'll respond immediately."
Property owners also receive liability protection for allowing anglers to fish their land, and they are eligible for help with bank and in-stream improvements.

Pittsburgh Post Gazette