Tag Archives: river herring

Of Herring and Humans

(Credit: Chesapeake Bay Program)

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Update 4/19/18: For the first time in 200 years, a river herring has made it to Lake Sabbatia.

A river herring is captured by a remote camera at the Lake Sabbatia fish ladder in April 2018. Credit: MA Division of Marine Fisheries

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.

42-TNC Dam Removal Tauton_MG_5872

Construction workers excavate the site at West Britannia. (Credit: Lauren Owens Lambert)

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.

Read the whole story here.


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.

Yield of Streams: If you remove it, they will come

Little feet tread through slushy April snow and approach the railing, peering over the edge of the bridge into the cold, flowing water of the Shawsheen River in eastern Massachusetts.

“I see one!”

They counted them 1,2,3.

The Joshi family children shouted out numbers as silver blue blurs glided through the dark water.

“We counted 95,” recalled Andover resident Jon Honea. He explained that this meant that as many as 425 passed by when volunteers weren’t watching.

They were counting river herring­­ – alewives and blueback herring, two closely related species of migratory fish that hadn’t been seen in the river for nearly two centuries.

And while river herring are no Shoeless Joe Jackson, their homecoming to the Shawsheen points to the success of the recent removal of the Balmoral and Marland Place Dams.

“All you have to do is make space,” said Honea, member of the Andover Conservation Commission and an environmental science professor at Emerson College.

Tracking the herring’s return to the Shawsheen River was a community affair, drawing over 250 volunteers. Residents from the Atria assisted living facility – whose residence was threatened by increased flood risk from the dam – joined the fun, alongside Andover high school students and dedicated families like the Joshi family, who counted multiple times every week.

“The removal of these two dams not only increases the resiliency of the Town of Andover, but reconnects the community to the river by restoring lost recreational opportunities and natural ecological processes upon which we all rely,” explained Bill Bennett, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist.

Not only were these dams a public safety hazard – heightening flood risk and threatening paddlers – they also blocked the travels of migratory fish throughout the river.

Dams prevent rivers from flowing naturally, impairing water quality and interrupting natural stream processes that both people and wildlife populations rely on.

Partners and volunteers have already documented a steady reappearance of river herring in the Shawsheen, but other wildlife such as American shad and American eel are also expected to arrive.

These removals opened up 4.1 miles of the river and restored 16 acres of wildlife habitat, allowing these fish to reach spawning grounds that are critical for their survival.

Though these smaller fish aren’t coveted by anglers, they are eaten by other wildlife such as larger game fish – like striped bass – shorebirds, raptors and river otters.

Snapping turtles and great blue heron have also been observed enjoying the free-flowing state of the lower Shawsheen River, below the remaining Ballardvale Dam.

Jane Cairns of the Andover Historical Society explained the rich history of the Shawsheen River, mentioning that the Marland Place Dam supported mill operations in the town, even powering a site that at one point supplied gunpowder to George Washington’s Continental Army.

She, like Honea, is also a member of the Shawsheen Greenway, an organization focused on making the Shawsheen River corridor a vital recreational, cultural, transportation, and educational resource for the entire community and region.

“We’ve been reminded, as many other communities have before us, that a clean and healthy, free-flowing river is a significant asset for the town, and can provide a boost to both our recreational and business resources,” Cairns said.

Nick Wildman, a restoration specialist from the Massachusetts Department Fish & Game, has been involved with these removals since 2009. He called the projects a “public investment for public benefit,” adding that the dam removals along the Shawsheen River represent a resurgence of the place that rivers have in our lives.

It doesn’t end there. Though public safety and stewardship of the river and fisheries were paramount to community leaders, fewer dams are a home run for experienced paddlers, who no longer have to transport their boats around the dams on land.

“The newly opened stretches of the river are quite beautiful and exciting,” Honea said. “There are long stretches with just forest on either side and several newly accessible drops, including a couple very exciting rapids.”

“These projects are not possible without strong partnerships between the federal, state, and local communities,” Bennett said.

Some of these partners embarked on a celebratory paddling trip in May to explore the newly free-flowing Shawsheen River.

Three canoes set out on the river. Eric Hutchins of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Bill Bennett of the Service in one, Nick Nelson of Interfluve – a national firm focused on river restoration – and his son in another, and Andover’s Conservation Commissioners, Jon Honea and Floyd Greenwood, in the third boat.

While paddling, Hutchins and Nelson noticed a gizzard shad also exploring the newly restored river.

“Rivers are the lifeblood of our nation and their stewardship is of the utmost importance,” Bennett said.

The town sees it the same way.

“The Town of Andover is very excited about the removal of the dams – many people see this as the start of a real renaissance of the Shawsheen,” said Bob Douglas, conservation director for the Town of Andover. “Our residents are looking forward to being able to paddle the unbridled Shawsheen from the Ballardvale mill district, through the center of town, all the way to the mighty Merrimack.”

Improvements of culvert designs can increase the safety of surrounding communities and commuters. Credit: Steve Droter

People Behind a Stronger Coast: Julie Devers

Just outside of Centreville, Maryland, you can find Julie Devers waist deep in water on the side of the road. With measuring tape in hand, she is assessing one of more than 30,000 road-stream crossings in the state.  The particular culverts she is examining are known to be a severe barrier to fish passage. Safety for people and connectivity for fish and wildlife can be enhanced by simply repairing and redesigning these crossings.

Devers is a fish biologist with the Maryland Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office. By partnering with the Maryland State Highway Administration, NOAA Fisheries and Maryland Department of Natural Resources, they have been assessing road-stream crossings to develop recommendations of which culverts and crossings should be prioritized for repair. “Highways have a maintenance schedule,” says Devers, and through their recommendations, “the SHA could replace [the culverts] when they redo the highway.”

Entire roads can be wiped out if they are undersized or poorly designed.  “What we saw in the Northeast during Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee is that undersized culverts really caused a lot of damage,” says Devers. Flooding from storm surges are not able to pass through these barriers and can cause thousands of dollars of damage to roads and property. As we mark the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Sandy’s devastation of the Atlantic Coast, it is important to keep in mind the impact that these climate events can have on our communities.

For species of river herrings like alewife, blueback herring and American shad the difference between a fish-friendly passageway and a severe barrier is more than a safety concern; it’s about life or death. These species are vital to the food web. Alewife have been known to be eaten by nearly anything throughout their transition in habitat; ranging from cod, halibut, fox, and eagles.

These migratory species travel from saltwater to freshwater to lay their eggs. If there are blockages along the way, they won’t be able to complete their journey. Even for nonmigratory species, such as brook trout, the inability to travel upstream could leave entire populations separated causing a genetic bottleneck. The brook trout stream near her home, one of the last in Anne Arundel County, says Devers, is considered a “relic” to the locals.

Across the whole Northeast, there are an estimated 210,000 bridges, culverts, and dams spanning 280,000 miles of river. Many of them, you are passing on your morning commute and are throughout your community. While many of these dams and bridges serve important purposes, old and inadequate designs make them a risk.

After Hurricane Sandy, funding through the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013 has supported dozens of projects to restore rivers and streams and remove barriers to connectivity. With this funding, projects throughout Maryland have been able to better protect their communities and coastline through increases resiliency. Groups like the North Atlantic Aquatic Connectivity Collaborative were able to utilize this funding to create a map and database for biologists like Devers and for the public to use. These tools provide information about the assessed barriers in a region and rates how bad they are for fish passage or safety.

Through the work of biologists like Devers, we are able to make our communities more resilient. By working to identify the features in our communities that could pose a risk to people and wildlife, she is giving stakeholders the tools to create the change needed to make us #StrongerAfterSandy.

This is the second in a five part series of photo slideshows highlighting the people who have been working to defend their coastal ecosystems against storms in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Last week, we looked at Matt Whitbeck and Miles Simmons in Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. You can view the continuation of this series and other news regarding our restoration and recovery projects on our website.