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River Herring Better Able to Reach Historic Spawning Grounds

US Army Reserve, 368th Engineer Combat Battalion (Heavy), helps with Billington Street Dam removal in 2002.  Photo credit: NOAA

Restored Town Brook after Billington Street Dam removed. Shot taken around 2005. Photo credit: NOAA

Demolition of the Off Billington Street Dam, November 2013.  Credit: MA Division of Ecological Restoration

The new fish and wildlife-friendly bridge at Off Billington Street, March 2014.  Credit: MA Division of Ecological Restoration.

The historic Town Brook, in Plymouth Massachusetts, is a 1.5-mile stream that runs from the Billington Sea, a 269-acre freshwater pond, to Plymouth Harbor. This stream once teemed with river herring (alewife and blueback herring), rainbow smelt and American eels during their annual migrations. The Wampanoag Nation and early European settlers, Pilgrims, ate river herring and used them for fertilizer.  

Blueback herring and alewives have historically been an important component of sport and commercial fisheries in New England. However, overfishing, habitat degradation and development have impacted migratory fish populations. Beginning in the 1790s, settlers built six dams on Town Brook. The barriers further contributed to fish decline. Due to the work to date, the stream currently supports an annual run of approximately 150,000 river herring, still below the stream’s estimated capacity of nearly 1 million. However, as partners complete the final phases of this restoration effort, there is the potential to once again see increased river herring runs on the brook.  

On April 25, various organizations that have been working for more than a decade on this collaborative effort will celebrate the annual return of river herring to the brook.  Work is now complete on four of the six dams on the brook.  Earlier this year, the Off Billington Street dam was removed and in July the Plymco dam, will be removed. And the town is working on evaluating the removal of Holmes Dam in the future. Once the Plymco dam is removed, for the first time in centuries, river herring will have significantly increased access to the Billington Sea to spawn.  Alewives, blueback herring, eels, resident fish and birds will all benefit from restored fish passage on the brook. Restoring river herring and the natural ecosystem will also benefit commercial and recreational fisheries, and the local economy and help to preserve a part of the Wampanoag Nation’s cultural heritage.

The dedication event kicks off the first annual River Herring Run Festival (April 25-26), which is being organized by the Plimoth Plantation in collaboration with the Town of Plymouth, MA. 

Click here to view the media advisory for the April 25 Dedication Event

Click here to view the invitation to the April 25 Dedication Event

Click here for directions to the April 25 Dedication Event

Click here to view the press release for the April 25 Dedication Event

Click here to view April 25 Agenda

Plimoth Plantation’s River Herring Festival

               Click here for information on the Film Festival on April 25 at Plimoth Plantation

                Click here for information on planned activities on April 26 in Plymouth, MA

First Dam to be removed in Commonwealth to Help Restore Sea-Run Fish

Over the years many Federal, state and local partners and environmental organizations have been working closely with the Town of Plymouth, MA to improve fish passage on this historic waterway. In efforts to save the dwindling fish run, for 15 years the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries captured and trucked the fish around the dams and released them at their spawning grounds upstream. 

Restoration work involved the replacement of fish ladders at two dams. At Newfield Street, the lower 30 feet of the notched fishway had deteriorated.  It was replaced in 2001 with an aluminum fishway. The Jenney Grist Mill fish ladder was replaced in 2006.

However, precedent setting work on the brook involved the removal of the 200-year-old Billington Street dam in 2002. This dam, constructed in 1790s, served as a foundation for the Holmes and Packard Anchor Forge Mill. After the dam was removed, the stream and riparian habitat were restored to natural conditions. The Billington Street Dam was the first dam removal in Massachusetts for migratory fish passage.   It paved the way for future dam removals across the Commonwealth.  

Watch this video on Town Brook.

More on Project Partners

Native Plymouth Tours

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Town of Plymouth, Massachusetts/Department of Marine and Environmental Affairs

Plimoth Plantation River Run Herring Festival

     Plimoth Grist Mill River Herring Festival

Division of Ecological Restoration, Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game

The Massachusetts Chapter of the Corporate Wetlands Restoration Partnership