It’s one of those raw days you get along the New England coast in April. A light rain and gusty winds are making the weather seem much worse than suggested by the 50 degrees on the thermometer. Despite the nastiness, Bob Weber stands on a concrete slab at the edge of the Jones River in Kingston staring at the rushing water. Bob is one of many South Shore residents who take time out of their daily routines in the spring to count the herring swimming up the Jones River. On a day like this it can be a tough task to apply your complete focus for a full ten minutes. Especially when the fish haven’t really started running yet and it’s a safe bet you won’t see anything. Yet Bob and the others still take part because they understand the importance of this data collection and of the fish themselves.
Volunteer, community efforts like this are going on at fish runs all over the South Shore and throughout the state. Watershed organizations recruit and train volunteers to monitor the river herring runs in order to help estimate the population returning to the rivers to spawn, a critical tool in understanding the health of the species. Monitoring the fish runs is a wonderful experience for the volunteers—getting them more attuned to this great natural phenomenon.
Life Cycle and Status
“River herring” is the general term used to refer to two species of migratory fish: alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus) and blueback herring (Alosa aestivalis). While the two species are lumped together, they do have some differences in their spawning preferences. Alewife migrate as far up river as possible, seeking out headwater lakes and ponds. Bluebacks, on the other hand, prefer the mainstem of the river and will not ascend into ponds and lakes. Alewife spawning occurs when water temperatures come up to 50 degrees F, while bluebacks spawn slightly later when it’s a few degrees warmer. (It is interesting to see how herring respond to temperature cues. One day the fish will be stacked up at the bottom of the fish ladders–waiting, then on the next warm day, when the water temperature reaches that magic point, they will all start running up the ladder.)
So why all the time and effort to count these particular fish? In New England, we are blessed with Striped bass, cod, tuna, bluefish. All of these predatory fish (plus dolphin, whales, and seals) love to eat herring. Herring are a foundation of the marine food chain and are critical to sustaining the species we humans love to eat. But recently, population declines in river herring have occurred all along the Atlantic coast. The declines have been significant enough that the National Marine Fisheries Service has listed both alewife and bluebacks as “species of concern.”
How the Herring Lost its Way
How did we get to this point? This region we call New England was populated thousands of years before there was even an “Old England.” Archaeological digs at sites like Bay Farm on the Kingston-Duxbury line have identified the remains of native communities that existed nearly 10,000 years ago. These places were used by Native American tribes as summer fishing villages. Tribes took advantage of plentiful fish in the rivers and ocean to make up a substantial portion of their diets.
When Europeans first settled the area they were quick to understand the importance of this resource. Colonial records are full of references to streams overflowing with fish and their importance to the local diet and economy. They understood the seasonal changes in the rivers and how that translated into the return of fish. Even as they started to harness the rivers for industrial purposes, the fish took priority. Wooden and earthen dams that were built to turn mill wheels or flood pasture land were taken down in the spring to allow the fish to pass. Although they took their share from the river, early settlers were careful to allow enough fish to pass upstream for spawning. But as the economic benefits of industry on the river began to outweigh the benefit of harvesting fish, these dams remained in place for longer time periods. The final blow began at the end of the 19th century when durable concrete dams became the norm. These dams have mostly outlived their original industries; remnant dams now block the passage of fish on rivers across the South Shore.
Fortunately, people are becoming aware of the need to reestablish natural stream flows on our local rivers. Recently several dams have been removed on the South Shore, allowing herring and native fish such as brook trout access to habitat that has been unavailable in some cases for over 100 years!
- In Plymouth, the brook that sustained the Pilgrims, Town Brook, has had a fish ladder repaired and two dams removed to allow herring to reach spawning grounds.
- On the Jones River, the Wapping Road dam was removed, opening up over three miles of river for herring to spawn in.
- In Pembroke, a fish ladder on Herring Brook, which still has one of the best populations of herring, was recently completely rebuilt, eliminating the need for volunteers to physically move fish above the dam so they could spawn in the river and in Furnace and Oldham Ponds.
- And the Jones River Watershed Association and the town of Kingston are currently working on removing the Elm Street Dam.
- NSRWA has removed 2 dams on the Third Herring Brook, opening up 8.5 miles of stream habitat for spawning. This spring we hope to document the return of spawning river herring to this habitat that has been blocked for over 340 years!
The Future of Herring
In addition to benefiting the herring, these efforts are helping to restore community connections to our local rivers. For many of us on the South Shore, one of our last remaining connections to rivers is annual fish fries. Pembroke’s “Grande Old Fish Fry” is a 35-year tradition on Herring Brook that puts the local community in touch with the ecology and history of the place the Native Americans called Mattakeeset, or “place of many fish.” Unfortunately, now they serve cod cakes during the annual festival due to the depletion of herring stocks.
The future of herring, and all the things that depend on them, is uncertain right now. But proactive management, restoration efforts, and community interest may be saving these species in the nick of time. On a raw April afternoon in the not too distant future, the challenge for volunteer fish counters may be to count fast enough rather than struggling to maintain focus. Local fish fries may return and recreational fisherman may once again be able to use herring to catch that “keeper.” And we’ll have some great herring recipes to share when we get there.
Sign up now: www.nsrwa.org/count-river-herring/
By Alex Mansfield, the Ecology Program Director for the Jones River Watershed Association. Lately, he’s been knocking down dams to help rivers flow and herring swim.
and Samantha Woods, the Executive Director for the North and South Rivers Watershed Association. She likes to eat the fish that eat river herring!