Russell Blair, Record Journal
February 27, 2012

Harry Olav Haakonsen dedicated his life to fish restoration along Connecticut’s many rivers and streams, so former students and colleagues say it’s only fitting that the Wallace Dam Fishway be named in honor of the late environmentalist.

“He died before it happened, but this was always his goal,” said Mary Mushinsky, executive director of the Quinnipiac River Watershed Association. Haakonsen died in 1995 at the age of 53 after a long battle with cancer. Mushinsky was a student of Haakonsen’s when he was a professor of chemistry and director of the Center for the Environment at Southern Connecticut State University, where he taught for 26 years. “He was a very positive guy. He had a very upbeat personality,” she said. “Whenever there was an obstacle, he always had a way around it.”

The fishway, or fish ladder, consists of several steps that fish can swim and leap up to get past a barrier, in this case the Wallace Dam, on the Quinnipiac River off Quinnipiac Street. For years, volunteers lifted the struggling fish over the dam with nets and buckets so they could go upstream and spawn.

Haakonsen was heavily involved with environmental issues on a local level. He worked with the QRWA during its early years and was a member of the Conservation Commission and the Wallingford Land Trust. “He was very committed to Wallingford,” said Steve Gephard, supervising fisheries biologist at the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Gephard worked with Haakonsen in a professional capacity and said he and Haakonsen had collaborated on studies of Atlantic salmon. “I appreciated his assistance to the department,” Gephard said. Gephard also praised Haakonsen’s ability as a teacher. “There are a number of people who are working for DEEP who are students of his,” he said. “There’s an unusual success rate among his students in the environmental field.” Mushinsky called Haakonsen a “town environmental leader.”

“Naming the fishway comes from his long interest in restoring fish,” she said. “Unfortunately his illness did not allow him to see his dream come true, but now it’s coming true.”

Construction of the fishway, which began last October at a cost of about $400,000, is being paid for through grant money. The project should be completed by April.

The Wallace Dam has obstructed diadromous fish passage on the Quinnipiac River for well over 100 years. A fishway has recently been constructed there allowing river herring, shad and other types of fish to pass freely over the dam and reach their native spawning grounds. This video shows the beginnings of the final stage – removing the coffer dam and allowing water to pass through the fishway.
Wallace Dam Fishway partners include Save the Sound, Quinnipiac River Watershed Association, Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection, National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, NOAA Restoration Center, Restore America’s Estuaries, the Town of Wallingford, Milone & MacBroom, and Schumack Engineered Construction.