During his career as a conservation biologist for the state Department of Environmental Protection, Byron Young focused on the health of the Peconic Bay estuary system.
Specifically, he studied anadromous fish — saltwater fish that return to freshwater each spring to spawn, such as alewives. For more than a century, a dam held back their migration on what is now Peconic Avenue in downtown Riverhead, and the women had to go upriver on the Peconic River.
“I’ve been working at DEC since 1973 and we started looking at alewives on that dam in 1995, with Grangebel Park above it,” Mr Young said. “We receive a small grant and every spring when the female bees come back we net as many as we can and lift them over the dam so they can go up the river and lay their eggs.”
The dam is not the only one on the river or its tributaries. They were built in the 19th century when the Riverhead and the river were the site of a water mill. Later, the pond formed by the dam became part of a once thriving cranberry industry. During that time, the dam prevented the upstream migration of moray eels and the American eel, a protected species.
In 2010 a permanent fishway was installed at the Grangebel Park location so the wives could push the river to higher ground. Earlier this month, Mr. Young was among others celebrating the opening of a fishway on Little River, a tributary of the Peconic River that cuts through woods east of the county center across from downtown Riverhead. The creek connects the river to Wildwood Lake in the town of Southampton.
Fittingly, this fishway is named after Mr. Yang. A sign on the top of the dam reads “byron juvenile channela graphic next to it illustrates how important the new shipping lanes are to the life of the estuary.
“That passage opened up 95 acres of spawning habitat,” said Joyce Novak, executive director of the Peconic Estuary Partnership.
There is also a dam on the main tributary of the Peconic River, across the street from the Snowflake Ice Cream Shoppe on West Main Street, she said. Ms Novak said when it was retrofitted with fish passages, about 300 acres of habitat would be opened up for migratory species.
County Legislator Alkrupski (D-Peconic), who attended the naming ceremony with Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellon, said the parties are currently working to one day install a passage there.
“Mr. Young’s dedication to his wife and the Peconic Estuary has been wonderful,” Ms. Novak said. “He would go to the Little River in the spring with his grandson to net gulls and lift them over the dam that sits above the county’s Cranberry Bog Preserve. It’s an absolute gem.
“We will continue,” she added. “The target is the last cistern opposite Snowflake.”
“The real beauty of the fish passages is that they contribute to the entire bay system,” Mr. Krupski said in an interview. “It improves the health of the upper Peconic River system.”
The beauty of the new channel on the creek is that it allows fish to migrate all the way to Wildwood Lake, a pothole lake formed at the end of the last ice age, Mr. Yang said in an interview. A creek emerges from its northeast corner and descends through the Cranberry Bog Reserve to join the river at Grangebel Park in downtown Riverhead.
“Once the last dam across from Snowflake [is bypassed], the wives will be able to take the on-ramp to the freeway all the way to Edwards Avenue,” Mr Young said. “It’s even more than that. In 150 years, no fish has spawned that far.
“These pathways have enormous benefits for the habitat,” he continued. “Eels and eels are food for egrets, herons, otters, ospreys, bald eagles and other animals. When they return to bays and oceans, they become food for many species, including whales.”
Mr. Young retired from DEC in 2006. While working as a biologist, he also studied striped bass, tagging some and studying their habitat in the Hudson River.
He said he was honored to have his name on the article, but said he was just one of many people who helped make it happen.
“Yes, it’s a great honor,” he said. “But we needed a bigger logo to honor all the people who helped over the years. I’ve been a part of it since the beginning, so yeah, it’s a real honor.”