Occum otter putting fish ladder to good use at dinnertime

Recent photo of the otter, who only appears at night or very early in the morning, at the Occum dam.
Recent photo of the otter, who only appears at night or very early in the morning, at the Occum dam. Photo courtesy of Norwich Public Utilities

Norwich - "Ollie" might be a good name for the sleek, furry fellow who's been helping himself to sushi lately at the fish ladder at the Occum dam.

While the alliterative harmony of "Ollie the Occum otter" is by itself hard to resist, the first name is doubly suitable since "Ollie" is also a term for a skateboarding trick, and this carnivore's underwater acrobatics are indisputable.

"He curls around and chases the fish," said Wayne McLaughlin, control room operator at the dam and fish ladder, which is equipped with an underwater camera that's caught the otter on film several times since the beginning of May. The dam and fish ladder are part of Norwich Public Utilities' hydroelectric plant at the site.

McLaughlin said an otter also hung around the ladder last spring during the annual run of river herring and shad up the Shetucket River through the ladder to spawning pools upstream. The otter, about 3 feet long, swims in and out through an opening in the ladder at the bottom of the dam, usually showing up between midnight and 2 a.m., McLaughlin said.

"It's part of the food chain," he said Monday.

While rarely seen because of their mainly nocturnal habits, otter populations are healthy and stable in Connecticut, according to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

"They're not a rare animal," said Paul Rego, wildlife biologist with DEEP. "But they mostly spend time in the backwaters, where most people don't spend time."

Growing 3 feet to just over 4 feet long, with small heads, their cute, long-whiskered faces belie their fierce predatory ways. With webbed feet, torpedo-like bodies and sharp, strong claws, they hunt a wide variety of prey, from frogs to crayfish, shellfish, snakes, turtles, salamanders, small birds and other mammals. And, of course, fish, which are probably never more plentiful or easier to catch than when they're migrating by the hundreds upstream.

"This otter is pretty clever," said Steve Gephard, head of the Inland Fisheries Division of DEEP.

Otters have been in evidence helping themselves at other fish ladders, including the one at Moulson Pond in Old Lyme and Bride Brook in East Lyme, he said. And in many of the upstream pools, otters are feasting on the fish coming to spawn - they're just not getting caught on camera.

To Gephard, the otters are a sign of success. Restoring runs of river herring with fish ladders and dam removals means that larger creatures have the food they need to thrive, too.

"I'm a fish guy, and obviously my objective is to bring the fish back," he said. "But it's also about healing and repairing the ecosystem, and this is all part of it. These river herring are meat supporting the otters and the osprey and the black-crowned night herons."

Still, Jeanne Kurasz, programs coordinator for NPU, would rather Ollie the otter find his dinner somewhere other than the Occum dam fish ladder, so that all the fish coming through the ladder can be accounted for on the electronic counters before becoming a meal.

"It's like a fast-food window for him," she said. "He's really cheating."

j.benson@theday.com

Recent photo of the otter, who only appears at night or very early in the morning, at the Occum dam.
Recent photo of the otter, who only appears at night or very early in the morning, at the Occum dam. Photo courtesy of Norwich Public Utilities
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