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River Herring: Restoring Massachusetts’ Iconic Fish

In 1920, a fisheries biologist called the reestablishment of a river herring fishery to the Mill River “an impossibility.” Manufacturing waste and dams so obstructed the river that a fish run which once likely numbered in the hundreds of thousands disappeared for centuries.

Now, those fish are coming back.

Coastal Massachusetts is home to two species of river herring: the alewife and blueback herring. Like other anadromous fish, their lives start in freshwater rivers and streams. They spend most of their lives in the ocean, then return to their original rivers to spawn in the spring. In Massachusetts, alewives spawn in late March to mid-May. Blueback herring typically spawn from April through June.

River herring are also important for the health of the groundfish population in the Gulf of Maine. These commercially fished species, like cod, feed on river herring at sea, and the decline in forage fish like these is among the many factors affecting New England’s struggling commercial fisheries.

Throughout Massachusetts, there are 100 separate herring river runs, many of which have declined in recent years. River herring face many challenges throughout their complex life cycle, including low river levels, over-harvest, predation by striped bass and other animals, dams, poorly designed culverts, pollution and degraded habitat.

The Taunton River in southeastern Massachusetts supports the largest river herring run in the state, and one of the largest in New England. The Taunton is one of the only free-flowing rivers in New England. With partners, The Nature Conservancy has been working to restore fish passage to the Mill River – a major tributary to the Taunton River.

With support from donors like you, we’ve been working with the Mill River Restoration Partnership to remove barriers. Since 2012, the partnership has removed two dams from the Mill River, and river herring have already responded by returning to these stretches. The Conservancy's goals for the Taunton River basin call for removing eight to 10 dams by 2017 to help restore free-flowing waters for herring and other species.

We’ve also been working to keep the Mill and Taunton rivers healthy and clean, by limiting pollution from water runoff from parking lots. We’ve helped partners complete demonstration projects to show that green infrastructure can keep our waters clean. We're also helping fishermen avoid catching river herring at sea.

“Restoring river herring is really important to the health of our rivers and coastal ecosystems, and at the same time brings back an important part of New England’s culture," says Alison Bowden, freshwater program director for The Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts.



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