Of Herring and Humans
Update 4/19/18: For the first time in 200 years, a river herring has made it to Lake Sabbatia.
If you’d been following the national news in October 2005, you might have heard about the Whittenton Dam crisis. After days of rain, the obsolete dam on the Mill River threatened to fail and flood homes and businesses in downtown Taunton, Mass.
Eventually, the rain stopped and the danger passed, but the crisis cost more than $1.5 million. The event highlighted the dangers of aging, unmaintained dams, and it spurred change.
“The near-failure of Whittenton Dam in 2005 really brought home the risk of aging dams for New Englanders,” notes Cathy Bozek, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s fish passage coordinator for the Northeast. “The event led to improved dam safety regulations in Massachusetts and, eventually, a funding source for removing or repairing dams in the state.”
In Taunton, the crisis energized a nascent effort to restore the Mill River by removing unsafe and obsolete dams, thus opening 30 miles of stream and 400 acres of lakes and ponds to migratory fish, including river herring.
Once so abundant their spring migrations turned rivers silver, herring populations had plummeted due to overfishing and dams that blocked the way to their spawning grounds. The decline affected myriad marine animals that prey on the species and prompted a statewide ban on harvesting river herring.
In January 2018, the Service and its partners, including the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and The Nature Conservancy, removed the West Britannia Dam. The work was supported by funding for Hurricane Sandy recovery and resilience.
With the dam gone, river herring can now swim from Narragansett Bay all the way to their historical spawning grounds above Lake Sabbatia, and Taunton residents can breathe easy knowing that events like the Whittenton Dam crisis are in the past.
It’s a new day for humans and herring.
Since 2009, the Service and partners have removed or replaced more than 507 barriers to fish passage from Maine to West Virginia, reconnecting more than 4,020 miles of rivers and streams and 19,300 acres of wetlands. While some of this work has been supported by federal funding for Hurricane Sandy recovery, partners across the Northeast have matched the Service’s contribution at nearly 5 to 1, contributing $56.1 million to the Service’s $12.5 million to restore aquatic connectivity for wildlife and protect communities.