So far this spring, nearly 450,000 American shad have passed through the lifts at the Robert E. Barrett Fishway, the most in 20 years and on the way to a new record. Every single one of them was counted by a student or recent graduate from Holyoke Community College.
Since April 1, 18 of them have worked in shifts inside a little room at the top of the fishway, pulling levers, opening gates, and watching as multitudes of fish pass through a huge tank filled with murky river water and then clicking color-coded buttons to note the different species.
"I've learned a lot," said Sean Peyman, 19, of Monson, who is studying natural resources at HCC. "Before, if I had seen all these fish, I couldn't tell you what they were."
As a "counter" at the first window in this dimly lit room, it's Peyman's job is to note the passage of anything that is not a shad, such as Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, striped bass, and the ugly, eel-like sea lamprey.
"They look like aliens," said Peyman.
These are the anadromous fish for which the fish lift was designed, those that swim from the ocean upstream to spawn but are blocked by the hydroelectric dam that spans the Connecticut River between Holyoke and South Hadley. Peyman and the other counters are also charged with noting the passage of year-round native species such as bluegill sunfish, trout, pike, perch and walleye.
The top prize, though, is the Atlantic salmon. They can be up to three-feet long and weigh more than ten pounds. These receive special treatment. The salmon is isolated, and the water level in the tank lowered, and then one of the student-workers puts on waders and enters the tank to remove the fish for transport to the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in Sunderland as part of an ongoing salmon restoration project. So far this spring, only two dozen Atlantic salmon have passed through the fish lift.
"It's a big deal when we get a salmon, said Brittney Laflamme, 28, of Chicopee, who is studying environmental science at HCC. "Last year we had 17 salmon in one day. It made for an adventurous day."
This is Laflamme's second year at the fish lift. Like most of the other students who work here, she learned about the job through Joseph Bruseo, HCC professor of biology."Last year we had three sturgeon," said Laflamme. "That's like the best thing I've seen here."
Emerson Paton, 20, of Springfield, who just graduated from HCC with an associate degree in sustainability studies, said he jumped at the chance to work at the fish lift when he hear about the job.
"This is exactly what I wanted to do," said Paton, who was counting shad at the second window in the counting room. Paton will be attending Clemson University in September to study conservation biology. "This is more than just counting fish, it's conservation studies."
Besides counting, the students also collect tissue samples from some of the shad, and measure, weigh and sex the fish. They also check the lifts as they haul up the catch and funnel the fish toward the public viewing areas and the counting windows.
This is the second year that HCC has provided all the counters for the fish lift. The students are paid through the HCC Foundation by a grant from Holyoke Gas & Electric, which operates the dam and the fish lift.
"The feedback from the students last year was phenomenal," said Paul Ducheney, superintendent of electrical production for HG&E. "It is really a great educational experience for them."
Most of the students will work until July 15, when the shad run ends and the fish lift stops operating until fall. Some will stay on for the summer and build ramps to collect American eels for another project. The fish lift starts up again in September for the fall salmon run.
Photos: (Left) Sean Peyman examines a catfish as it passes by the counting window at the Robert E. Barrett Fishway in Holyoke. (Right) HCC students Brittany Laflamme, of Chicopee, Jack Bonafini, of Belchertown, and Sean Peyman, of Monson, stand on the top of the fish lift at the Robert E. Barrett Fishway in Holyoke.