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Celebrating a NOAA Champion for Migratory Fish

May 21, 2024

NOAA Marine Habitat Resource Specialist Eric Hutchins stands out for his nearly 40 years of service and tireless efforts to restore migratory fish populations in New England.

Eric catches an American eel for an educational event about migratory fish. (Photo: Samuel Coulbourn) Eric catches an American eel for an educational event about migratory fish. (Photo: Samuel Coulbourn)

This World Fish Migration Day, NOAA’s Office of Habitat Conservation is celebrating our staff and partners who have dedicated their careers to ensuring the long-term survival of migratory fish. Their efforts have removed dams and other fish passage barriers, restored degraded stream habitat, and cleaned up polluted sites. They have helped salmon, sturgeon, herring, and other sea-run fish to reach the habitat at all stages of their life. Their work supports commercial and traditional fisheries and the health of the whole marine ecosystem.

Marine Habitat Restoration Specialist Eric Hutchins stands out for his nearly 40 years of service. His tireless efforts have restored migratory fish populations in New England. His work ethic, sense of humor, and enthusiasm for educating others has won over both supporters and opponents of fish passage projects. The American Fisheries Society, New England Division, awarded him the 2023 Dwight A. Webster Memorial Award of Merit for his contributions to fisheries science. 

Eric grew up in Rockport and Gloucester, Massachusetts, a fishing port, and spent his younger years working on the waterfront in the seafood industry. He was turned on to marine science during his undergraduate studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “I was at college, probably partying too much, when my mother saw an advertisement for a student sail program in the newspaper,” says Hutchins. “She grabbed me by the ear and took me to apply. Sailing this 144-foot square rig ship built in 1908, we went 300 miles above the Arctic Circle in Greenland. It was a life-changing summer of studying whales, fish, and plankton. That's what set everything off for me.”

Eric points to the site of the Merrimack Village Dam removal in Merrimack, NH (Photo: NOAA)
Eric points to the site of the Merrimack Village Dam removal in Merrimack, NH (Photo: NOAA)

Champion for Dam Removal and River Restoration

Eric began working for NOAA as a fisheries observer in 1986, and eventually joined the Office of Habitat Conservation, working out of Gloucester. As a marine habitat resource specialist he championed the idea of removing dams to restore migratory fish populations. In the 1990s, the concept of dam removal seemed revolutionary, or even impossible, to many. At the time, thousands of dams—some nearly 400 years old—blocked nearly every river in New England. Almost none had been removed (and many still remain). 

Dams blocked sea-run fish such as river herring and Atlantic salmon from reaching their historic spawning and rearing grounds in freshwater rivers and ponds. Over the centuries, rivers that once swelled with millions of migratory fish saw their populations dwindle to almost nothing or disappear entirely. People built fish ladders over some dams, but many provided inadequate fish passage; all would eventually fail unless rigorously maintained. To Eric, getting rid of defunct dams was the most logical solution.

Eric with a bucket of baby eels (Photo: Samuel Coulbourn)
Eric with a bucket of baby eels (Photo: Samuel Coulbourn)

“Eric is one of the first people who discussed the concept of dam removal as a means to improve fish passage with me,” says Bradford Chase, diadromous fish project leader for the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. “This was in 1993. I remember this because it was truly a novel concept that seemed very challenging to actually implement. Eric has been steadfast ever since in promoting, developing, and providing technical and fundraising assistance to the field of dam removal. I believe there are very few individuals in New England who bought into the concept of dam removal as early as Eric.”  

Eric’s dam removal campaign began with the 200-year-old Billington Street Dam on Town Brook in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 2002. “That project catalyzed a 20-year effort to remove all five dams on Town Brook in Plymouth,” says John Catena, Northeast and Great Lakes Regional Supervisor for the Restoration Center. “This allowed for free and open passage for river herring for the first time since the colonial era when Pilgrims constructed the first dam in the new settlement.” This was also the first coastal dam proactively removed in Massachusetts.

Since then, Eric has been involved with more than 50 dam removals. In the course of his career he contributed to 136 projects, resulting in the restoration of 7,746 acres of degraded coastal habitat and the opening of 523 miles of rivers and streams.

Winning Over the Dam Owners and the Public

“One notable part of Eric’s success has been his ability to develop coalitions of organizations and build local support for restoration projects,” says Catena. “Eric’s skill in working with private property owners and local governments who have little to no experience with habitat restoration has been crucial to our success. He accomplished this by demonstrating win-win circumstances where the local landowner and the community can benefit by relieving them of the liability of expensive, poorly designed infrastructure.”

“We can get the projects done, but in the end we need the public to want this, to love it, and to nurture it in years to come,” says Hutchins. “The most important part is actually being close with some of the constituents and engaging them.” 

To gain support, Eric often attends town meetings to answer questions and helps local officials to create public advisory committees. He also favors more creative approaches. Sometimes he brings a Ziploc bag full of live juvenile American eels to events to stimulate conversations about restoring migratory fish.

Eric teaches children about migratory fish (Photo: Abigail Bliss/Gloucester Daily Times)
Eric teaches children about migratory fish (Photo: Abigail Bliss/Gloucester Daily Times)

“I was asked to do a sermon last spring for Earth Day at a Unitarian church,” says Eric. “I don't go to church. But I came in and talked about fish restoration and I brought in live eels to display to a bunch of parishioners. They loved it.”

He also brings eels to local festivals to educate children and adults and leads fish-counting exercises in coastal towns. Eric brought his love of fish counting to the world by securing NOAA funding to live-stream the annual herring run in Plymouth. “We had 17,000 different people from all 50 states and 58 countries around the world count fish using our camera system,” says Hutchins. 

“Over the past 22 years I have been afforded the opportunity to work with hundreds of dedicated people,” says David Gould, director, marine and environmental affairs for the Town of Plymouth. “Among all those, Eric Hutchins is the single most passionate person I have ever encountered when it comes to restoring habitat for diadromous fish.”

Eric led a crew of NOAA staff and partners to restore a salt marsh in Essex, MA (Photo: NOAA)
Eric led a crew of NOAA staff and partners to restore a salt marsh in Essex, MA (Photo: NOAA)

Mentoring Future Restoration Specialists

Over the years, Eric has formally and informally mentored dozens of students and early career scientists. “I've never turned down anyone who wanted an informational interview,” says Hutchins. “Any college student, any high school student, any group, any level. I just try to embrace people to feel that they're on the same level as me, any of them.” 

“Eric consistently communicated his belief in my abilities during a time when I was transitioning away from assisting others to leading field projects,” says Abigail Archer, fisheries and aquaculture specialist for Barnstable County Cape Cod Cooperative and Woods Hole Oceanographic Sea Grant. “His comments such as, ‘You’re the perfect person to do this work’ and, ‘You’ve done this before,’ helped boost my confidence and feel that I belonged in the role I was about to start.”

“By the end of my undergraduate internship with NOAA Fisheries, thanks to Eric's passion and tutelage, I was certain I wanted to pursue a career in fisheries science and riverine restoration," says Michael Cahill, natural resources specialist for the Town of Plymouth. "When Eric transitioned from teacher to colleague, he continued to bestow his years of knowledge and expertise upon me."

Eric has been contemplating retirement, but he isn’t ready to step away from his work with NOAA just yet. He is currently supporting multiple dam removal projects in New England, including the removal of the Armstrong Dam in Braintree, Massachusetts, and the Talbot Mills Dam in Billerica, Massachusetts.