By RONNI GORDON
When Alani Iannoli started working as a data collector at the Robert E. Barrett Fishway in 2013, she only knew the basic fish in the Connecticut River.
"Now I know every fish in the river," the Belchertown resident says.
That means 32 different species that she and other Holyoke Community College students and alumni count at the fish lift through the partnership that began six years ago with Holyoke Gas & Electric, which operates the hydroelectric dam that spans the river between Holyoke and South Hadley and the lift that carries anadromous -- or migrating -- fish over it as they swim from the ocean upstream to spawn.
The fish counters, 26 this year, are paid through the HCC Foundation with a grant from Holyoke Gas and Electric.
"It makes sense for students from the local college to do it," says Richard Fr. Murray Jr., compliance engineer for HG&E.
The lift consists of two elevators that bring fish over the dam starting in late April when they migrate upriver to spawn. The counters keep daily and yearly totals of American shad, blueback herring, sea lamprey, gizzard shad, shortnose sturgeon, striped bass and Atlantic salmon while also counting resident fish such as American eel, trout, carp and catfish.
They sit at two murky windows, one for counting the more populous American shad and another for counting all the others. During the busiest day, May 12, some 54,000 shad came through, necessitating the use of a clicker that counted by 10s.
But they are doing more than just counting.
HCC student John McLaurin, 39, of Easthampton, who has completed two semesters in environmental studies and is in his first year at the fish lift, says, "In class you just talk about fish, but, here, it's so much more life experience. Looking at a book I don't retain as much."
Formerly a mechanic, he says he went to HCC because he wanted to do something more environmental. After graduating, he hopes to transfer to the University of Washington to study aquatic fisheries science, opening up a range of career possibilities.
As of earlier this month, nearing the end of their season, the total shad for the year was about 380,000, and the total number of fish, 423,000. The largest was a 30-pound sturgeon.
The more experienced counters sit at the window on the right, using color-coded clickers to count all the fish that are not shad. The most coveted fish had been the Atlantic salmon, but those numbers decreased after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gave up on restocking the river with salmon in 2012; only three have come through this year.
On the top level, they net fish from a tank, measure them, determine their sex and then collect a scale sample that they send to the Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Research Labratory in Sunderland to get a rough estimate of age.
They also check the lifts as they haul up the catch and funnel the fish toward the public viewing areas and the counting windows.
Iannoli, 23, who still takes courses at HCC in environmental studies and biology, started working as a data collector in 2013. A biologist and field technician from Normandeau Associates, the company that does environmental consulting for the fish lift operation, trained her. Now she is a field technician herself, teaching incoming workers.
Nicholas Yvon, 21, '15, of West Springfield, is also a team leader. An HCC environmental science graduate entering his senior year at UMass in the same field, he says he has fished for most of his life.
"Now I've learned about the life of fish and become more interested in the biological side of fish and the quality of water and how it affects everything around it," he says. "I'm able to handle an endangered species like sturgeon and threatened species like salmon."
A small crew will run the lift until November for any salmon and shortnose sturgeon that might come through. Then it closes and reopens in April. Interested students find out about the opportunity through HCC's biology and environmental sciences departments.
PHOTOS by CHRIS YURKO: (Left) HCC environmental science major John McLaurin of Easthampton counts American shad at the Robert Barrett Fishway at the Holyoke dam. (Right) HCC student Alani Iannoli of Belchertown, left, and alum Nicholas Yvon, '15, of West Springfield, atop the Robert Barrett Fishway in Holyoke, ready to collect American shad for measuring and weighing.