From April until June, the coastal streams of Massachusetts will teem with millions of river herring.
Alewives and blueback herring, collectively known as river herring, spend the majority of their lives in the ocean and only return to their freshwater birthplaces to spawn. River herring can be found along the Atlantic coast of North America, but the phenomenal Massachusetts run is one of the largest in New England, despite the herring’s shrinking population.
Pollution, climate change, predation and dams have contributed to habitat and population loss in many areas, and in fact, the region’s river herring are currently under consideration for federal endangered species protection.
“Alewives and blueback herring are really important to the health of our rivers,” said Alison Bowden, director of freshwater conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts. “They’re the connection between land and sea that keeps our ecosystems vibrant here in coastal New England.”
Last summer, the Conservancy joined with partners to remove the Hopewell Mills Dam in Taunton, and researchers are already seeing fish return to reaches of the river which they have been unable to access since 1818. An underwater camera recently photographed the first alewife to pass the site this spring. This “pioneer” fish was soon followed by the early waves of the spring herring run, according to a research effort being jointly funded by the Conservancy and the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries.
The Division also installed video-monitoring that will be used to document the recovery of river herring to the river over the next several years.
“We are excited to reopen one of the largest spawning grounds in the state,” said Paul Diodati, Director of the Division of Marine Fisheries. “This project has the potential to add hundreds of thousands of river herring to the coastal population.”
Famed fisheries scientist David Belding wrote nearly a century ago of Mill River, “Since it is badly polluted by manufacturing wastes and obstructed by dams, the re-establishment of the old fishery is an impossibility.” This week, conservationists celebrated the impossible.
“There’s a long way to go to re-establish a population, nevermind a fishery, but I’d like to think Dr. Belding would be pleased. Impossible in his lifetime, but perhaps not in ours!” Bowden said.
The Hopewell Mills dam removal was completed in December 2012, and the partners intend to remove two more dams on the Mill River in the next year; including the Whittenton Dam, which infamously failed in 2005, resulting in a mass evacuation of part of downtown Taunton.
“We have dams all over New England that were built to power mills in the 19th century, and they’re no longer necessary,” Bowden said. “They’re just sitting there, deteriorating and causing problems for both migratory fish and for the people who live nearby.”
However, Massachusetts has been a leader in protecting river herring, and thanks to strict regulations, populations are rebounding. Several opportunities to see the herring migration exist, including fish ladders in Weymouth and Middleboro.
NOTE: Bowden is available for interviews, either by phone or on-site in Taunton.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.
Senior Media Relations Manager
The Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts