Improving Fish Migration at Hydropower Dams

Fishway at the John Day dam

Many migratory fish, such as shad and river herring, are food for commercial and recreational species, including striped bass and cod. Pacific and Atlantic salmon and other migrating fish, such as American shad, river herring, American eel, and Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon need access to both the ocean and freshwater habitat to complete their life cycles. By accessing both ocean and freshwater habitats during their life, migrating fish also serve an important role by connecting terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.

When barriers such as hydropower dams block their migration, these populations decline. Through its authorities under the Federal Power Act, NOAA Fisheries improves habitat by addressing fish passage at hydropower dams. These efforts help recover threatened and endangered migratory fish and support the sustainability of economically important commercial and recreational fisheries.

The NOAA Fisheries Hydropower Program works with partners including other federal agencies, industry, states, non-governmental organizations, and Tribes to identify and implement solutions to reopen rivers to migratory fish while preserving hydropower generation. With more than 1,000 hydropower dams licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), NOAA Fisheries is busy keeping up with the demand to upgrade the nation’s hydropower infrastructure to meet today’s environmental standards.

Federal Power Act

The Federal Power Act requires non-federal hydropower facility owners to obtain a license from FERC before operating their project. The act authorizes NOAA Fisheries to issue mandatory conditions for fish passage and to recommend other protection, mitigation, and enhancement measures for fish and their habitat.

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Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

We work with FERC and the dam licensee during the hydropower licensing process and throughout dam operation to protect fish. We also provide design and operation guidance for fish passage structures. A hydropower dam must renew its license every 30 to 50 years. This once-in-a-generation process offers an opportunity to implement new measures to safeguard valuable fish and their habitat. After FERC issues a license, NOAA Fisheries ensures that the licensees meet the performance standards of the fisheries-related license conditions.

NOAA Fisheries biologists and engineers continue to improve and implement best practices. We help dam owners design safe, timely, and effective fish passage solutions based on the unique conditions of each project. Our goal is to provide stable fisheries populations while the hydropower industry continues to supply renewable energy production.


Barriers to Fish Migration

One reason fish populations struggle is that barriers prevent them from reaching the upstream habitat where they breed and grow.

fish jumping over dam