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Celebrating Herring at Historic Town Brook, Plymouth MA

Nearly 400 years ago, the Mayflower touched down near Plymouth Rock, tucked deep into western shore of Cape Cod Bay. No doubt the protection offered by this harbor was attractive to the Pilgrims in mid-December of 1620. Graced with the “sweet water” of Town Brook, the Pilgrims chose this site in what is now Plymouth to establish the first European colony in Massachusetts. What followed was a brutal winter, and the death of more than half of the original Pilgrims.

Silver Fish Were Key to Survival

The silver flowing up the little brook as river herring returned to spawn in the spring must have seemed a blessing to the surviving colonists. With the help of local knowledge shared by a native interpreter, the herring provided a rich source of fat and protein for the colonists. They also learned to use the herring as fertilizer for crops of corn and other produce. Months later, in a meal of thanksgiving for the harvest, eels migrating to the sea supplemented the crops and wild game on the first Thanksgiving table, and likely supplied the Pilgrims with dried and smoked fish for the winter. Without Town Brook, and its runs of diadromous fish, Plymouth Colony might not have succeeded.

Herring Take the Highway

Fast forward a few centuries to the early 2000s, and the 1.5 mile stream of Town Brook blocked by six dams and barriers, reducing herring runs from an estimated capacity of nearly one million fish to just 150,000 river herring. Further declines would have occurred without the aid of Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries staff. Carefully scooping thousands of herring out of the river, DMF trucked fish around multiple Town Brook dams to get herring to productive spawning habitat.

Cause to Celebrate – Restoration Continues!
 

Come help us celebrate the latest milestone in the restoration of the Town Brook river herring run! The Plimoth Plantation is sponsoring the third annual Town Brook River Herring Festival on April 23. Town Brook will be filled with migrating herring swimming upstream to spawn, relatively unimpeded. Over this past few years, Town Brook’s Plymco Dam and the Off-Billington Street Dam were removed and the stream bed was restored. Thousands of these anadromous river herring (both alewife and blueback herring) are taking advantage of the new access to habitat. River herring on this restored run can now swim unassisted to an additional 269 acres of newly available spawning habitat in the Town Brook watershed. NOAA Fisheries restoration biologist Eric Hutchins will be leading tours of the restoration sites. You can help us count the migrating herring and take part in activities for children of all ages.

Restoration Project Continues

With the removal of the two dams, experts estimate this run could support more than 500,000 river herring. Restoration efforts in Town Brook began more than a decade ago when, in 2002, the Town of Plymouth worked with NOAA and other state and federal partners to remove the Off-Billington Street Dam. This was the first Massachusetts dam to be removed for the restoration of diadromous fish populations. Dams at Newfield Street and the Jenney Grist Mill were improved with improved fish ladders. An additional dam at Water Street was lowered by 12 inches in 2013, and that same year the Off-Billington Street Dam was removed.

Now that the Plymco Dam is gone, the Holmes Dam is the only remaining significant barrier within the Town Brook watershed. NOAA is currently supporting the design and permitting for the removal of the Holmes Dam in 2017. The town has set the goal of completing the restoration of Town Brook in time for the 400th anniversary of the1620 landing of the Pilgrims.

River herring populations have declined throughout their range from Florida to the Canadian Maritime Provinces due in part to lack of access to quality spawning habitat. Herring that hatch in the river in spring head out into marine waters during the summer and early fall. They will spend between three and four years feeding and growing in coastal marine waters before returning to spawn. Unlike many West Coast salmon, adult river herring are repeat spawners and will return future years to spawn again.

For more information about the Town Brook River Herring Festival or about  NOAA Fisheries’ efforts to help restore Town Brook, call or email Eric Hutchins at the NOAA Restoration Center at 978-281-9313 / eric.hutchins@noaa.gov.

Why restore herring runs?

An ecologically valuable species, river herring are a historically, culturally, recreationally, and commercially important fish. They are a critical species in the Gulf of Maine food chain. River herring provide important forage for bluefish, striped bass, bluefin tuna and other species of commercial and recreational importance. Herring of all kinds are also a favorite prey for whales, seals and other marine mammals.

Who has helped restore Town Brook?

Over the years, we’ve collaborated with many partners on these projects and events, including: Town of Plymouth, Plimoth Plantation, Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, National Resource Conservation Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Inland Fisheries Committee, Town Brook Alliance, Massachusetts Coastal Zone Management, Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, Massachusetts Division of Ecological Restoration, Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, American Rivers, Massachusetts Watershed Initiative, Massachusetts River Restore Program, The Nature Conservancy, Battelle Marine Science Laboratory, Coastal America, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment, Conservation Law Foundation, Restore America’s Estuaries, U.S. Army Reserves, Milone and Macbroom, SumCo Eco Contracting and FishAmerica Foundation. This list illustrates the broad interest in restoring New England’s herring runs.