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Farewell, West Britannia Dam! Final Mill River Dam Removal Is Victory for Migratory Fishes

In its heyday, the West Britannia Dam on the Mill River in Taunton, Massachusetts, provided power for the Reed & Barton silversmith factory. But after 175 years in business, the once prominent company that produced sterling silver, silverplate flatware, and the official medals for the 1996 summer Olympics in Atlanta, declared bankruptcy and closed its Taunton operations in May 2015.

The company left behind an earthen berm and masonry dam, one of four barriers on the Mill River, a tributary of the Taunton River, that has blocked more than 30 miles of riverine habitat and approximately 560 acres of freshwater pond habitat for alewife, blueback herring, and American eel. A dam has existed at this site since at least 1824, when Reed & Barton took over the site from a previous mill business. The dam removal now opens up habitat that hasn’t been accessible to migratory fishes for nearly 200 years!

As part of the Mill River Restoration Project, the Hopewell Mill Dam was removed in 2012, the Whitteton Pond Dam was removed in 2013, and also in 2013, the failing Morey’s Bridge Dam that forms Lake Sabbatia was replaced and includes a new fish ladder and eel ramp. In addition to opening up important habitat for sea-run fish, the dam removals also reduce the threats of flooding, restore water quality, and eliminate the potential for catastrophic dam failures posed by these obsolete dams. In October 2005, downtown Taunton was temporarily evacuated due to the threat of the failure of the Whitteton Pond Dam during high flood flows. The Mill River Restoration Project complements other dam removal projects in the Taunton River watershed including passage barriers on Rattlesnake Brook, the Canoe River, and the Cotley River.

Now, the removal of the West Britannia dam, the final step of the Mill River Restoration Project,  is underway. Acuity, Inc., the latest  owner of the mill and dam complex, fully supports the Britannia Dam removal and has been a much-appreciated pro-active project partner.

Read the press release.

The Fish That Feeds Them All

Known as “the fish that feeds all,” river herring (alewife and blueback herring) are important prey species for a variety of animals, such as cod, haddock, and striped bass, as well as seabirds, marine mammals, mink, and river otter. When adult river herring migrate from marine to freshwater, they also contribute important marine-derived nutrients, which help promote healthy freshwater ecosystems.

Spring runs of river herring were once a critically important food source for Native Americans and European settlers, providing a rich fat and protein source after long winters. As the region developed, more than 14,000 dams were constructed (some estimates are as high as 27,000) in New England, primarily for water-powered industries, like cotton and other manufacturing mills. Most of these dams are now more than a century old, and many have fallen into disrepair. Only ten percent of Massachusetts’ 3,000 dams still provide energy, drinking water, or flood control.

With dams blocking their access to spawning and rearing habitat, river herring populations declined dramatically. River herring are currently designated  as “species of concern” in the Greater Atlantic Region, which means that we have concerns about their status and threats but we don’t have adequate information to make the decision to list them as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act. In 2013, NOAA Fisheries established a technical working group to develop a long-term conservation plan for river herring from Canada to Florida. We are currently doing a new status review for alewife and blueback to determine whether listing either species as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act is warranted. 

The Taunton River Watershed supports one of the largest populations of river herring in southern New England. Herring migrate up the Taunton River from Narragansett and Mt. Hope Bays and enter tributaries with spawning and rearing habitats. With many high quality tributaries to the Taunton River blocked by dams, including the Mill and Cotley Rivers, river herring and American eel populations have suffered.

Un-Build It and They Will Come

“The amazing thing is that, if you remove the dams, the fish runs recover quickly,” says Jim Turek, restoration ecologist with NOAA’s Restoration Center. The spring after the Hopewell Mill Dam removal, he says, “More than 400 river herring showed up at an underwater monitoring  camera near the base of the West Britannia Dam, along with passing trout, sea lamprey, American eel and snapping turtle. We expect these herring populations to increase quickly now that we’ve restored access to spawning habitat.”

Based on these results, and the results of dozens of other dam removals in the region, we anticipate that fish will begin migrating into the upper Mill River watershed soon after the removal of West Britannia Dam. We also expect that a hearty run river herring will eventually re-establish in the Mill River watershed in the long-term, helping restore the aquatic ecosystem and benefit other fish and animal populations, as well.

Continuing Restoration Work

NOAA Fisheries’ Restoration Center staff has been involved in the Mill River Restoration since 2004 (13 years and counting!), providing Congress-appropriated and grant award funding and technical assistance such as wetland assessment, design plan review and development, passage monitoring planning, and public meeting participation. In 2017, the Restoration Center also helped remove four other dams in the New England/Mid-Atlantic region and provided technical assistance and/or funding on another 18 dam removal projects, a number of which will be completed in 2018.

The West Britannia Dam removal began in late December 2017, and will be completed by March 2018.

Thank you to all the Mill River Restoration Project partners: