Fish & Fisheries

10 Fish Conservation Success Stories to Celebrate

December 16, 2013

Follow Matthew
In the Bristol Bay watershed, the impact of salmon is everywhere, in literally every living thing. Photo: Chris DeNatale

It’s true: around the globe, many rivers and lakes aren’t what they used to be. We’ve lost spectacular migratory fish runs that once fed people and shaped ecosystems. Dams, pollution, climate change and invasive species have altered once-spectacular waters.

But freshwater conservation isn’t always gloomy. Using the best scientific research, conservationists are making substantial headway in restoring native fish to their habitats.

Everyone loves a good fish story, and indeed, these stories are always one of the most popular features on this blog. As 2013 winds to a close, we celebrate by looking back at some of the most inspiring fish conservation success stories we’ve covered this year.

It’s a reason to celebrate, and we look forward to sharing other stories of success in the year ahead.

  1. Research efforts in Florida and elsewhere is aimed at helping shad negotiate dams. Matt Miller/TNC

    When I talked to him in 2012, the Conservancy’s Steve Herrington estimated Alabama shad returns on the Apalachicola River to be some 65,000 fish, thanks to a low-cost technique that involves moving shad through shipping locks.

    The actual result in 2013? It far exceeded Herrington’s hope, with as many as 280,000 total migratory shad now in the river system! And this spectacular result is thanks to technology so simple that can be purchased at Home Depot.

  2. University of Wisconsin researcher Dan Oele with a big northern pike from a small spawning stream.

    Do pike return to spawn in the streams where they were born, a la salmon? Not necessarily, according to research in the Green Bay, Wisconsin watershed. If there’s suitable habitat, pike will find it and spawn.

    The Nature Conservancy and other conservation groups are focused on restoring streams for pike and other fish, but if pike returned to their natal streams to spawn, they may never find a restored stream even if it contained suitable habitat. That’s not the case, so a restored stream should draw pike, even if they’ve been absent for decades.

  3. Alligator gar have long been persecuted for crimes they didn't commit.

    Shot, killed, poisoned and even electrocuted for crimes it didn’t commit, the alligator gar has declined dramatically across its range. And in some places, like Illinois, it disappeared. This giant fish – which could reach 10 feet or longer, and has swum in North American waters for millions of years – had not been seen there since 1994.

    A new effort is bringing them back. The gar have been introduced to wetlands along the Illinois River – and initial results indicate they’re thriving.

  4. Dolly Varden Char (Salvelinus malma) caught during fish surveys on streams at Keat's Inlet on Prince of Wales Island. Members of the Haida tribe are conducting these fish surveys to help get their streams protected under Alaska state law. Photo: © Erika Nortemann/TNC

    For the Haida, an indigenous tribe on Prince of Wales Island, salmon aren’t just food – they’re central to every aspect of culture. How can the Haida best defend the salmon streams that they rely on? They’re working with The Nature Conservancy to combine Western science with traditional knowledge, and putting people to work in the process. It’s a win-win for fish and culture.

    It’s part of a larger restoration effort aimed at rivers and forests on Prince of Wales Island. To accomplish this means utilizing the latest conservation techniques, of course, but also working closely with and listening to loggers and indigenous people.

  5. For millennia, people at Bristol Bay have experienced one of the greatest food deliveries on the planet: salmon brought literally to their door. Photo: Clark James Mishler/TNC

    This is a story still being written, as the highly contentious Pebble Mine debate continues. But behind the controversy is an extraordinarily complex fishery, one that has not been studied as a whole. Until now. The Conservancy developed solid baseline data for the watershed, and developed recommendations.

    My three-part blog series covers the incredible diversity of Bristol Bay’s salmon runs and what the science tells us about the debate.

  6. Small fish like these -- for sale in a market -- provide important protein for communities living along Lake Tanganyika. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

    Chimpanzees don’t eat fish. They don’t even swim. But at Lake Tanganyika in western Tanzania, scientists have found that to save chimps, they must look underwater. That’s because here, everything—people, fish, water, forest, and chimps—is interconnected.

    Attempting to conserve the apes without accounting for the health of the fishery that provides food and income for local people would doom these efforts. Today, fish supplies are dwindling, villages are growing fast and chimps are getting squeezed into smaller and smaller forests.

    The reason for hope: using technology to demarcate the protected areas, so that local fishers clearly know where they can fish and where they can’t.

  7. Atlantic salmon.

    Dam removal on Maine’s Penobscot River means a brighter future for Atlantic salmon and other migratory fish. But an even greater value of the Penobscot may in fact lie in its meaning for countries that are just now beginning to plan and build dams.

    The Penobscot story illustrates a basic principle: within a river basin, there may be multiple ways to achieve a given energy target, and these alternatives can have dramatically different environmental impacts. Conservancy senior freshwater scientist Jeff Opperman explains what this means for other rivers around the world.

  8. A diversity of fish species has recovered following dam removal, as this electro-fishing survey reveals. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

    In the southeastern United States, small streams are often packed with diversity: madtoms and sunfish, lampreys and American eels, endemic salamanders and alligator snapping turtles. But, just as with larger rivers, a simple dam can eliminate these fishes.

    A project on a small Florida Panhandle stream – one you can jump across in a single bound – demonstrates just what can be accomplished. An earthen dam, no longer serving any purpose, was removed. And the fish? Oh, they’re back, in all their colorful, dramatic variety.

  9. California Salmon Dreaming

    The Conservancy's Shasta Big Springs Ranch, California. © Erika Nortemann/TNC

    Welcome home, salmon. Just a few years ago on California’s Shasta River, only the occasional salmon spawned. A restoration project on the Conservancy’s Shasta Big Springs Ranch aimed to reverse that.

    This year, thousands of people around the world watched the results via a live web cam, as 35,000 Chinook salmon made their way to the Shasta River. These large numbers were only possible due to a unique collaboration between ranchers, water districts, agencies and conservation organizations.

  10. The brook trout is the jewel of streams in the eastern United States. Photo: Lisa Godfrey

    Road culverts may not be sexy. But in the Adirondacks, simple fixes in culvert design could reconnect miles of habitat for brook trout, one of the most iconic fishes of eastern streams, and prevent flooding during severe storms.

    That’s why the Conservancy is working with the New York State Department of Transportation and local highway departments to provide better fish access through culverts – a step that may help tangibly address that most daunting of conservation challenges, climate change.

Join the Discussion

Please note that all comments are moderated and may take some time to appear.


  1. Great Top 10 list, Matt. Thanks for sharing all the great fish stories.