Town Brook Restoration Program: History in the Making
On the East Coast of Massachusetts, resides not only a state of historical significance but a town that has been founded for nearly 400 years. The town of Plymouth, Massachusetts often referred to as America's Hometown was founded in 1620 by European settlers who made their way across the treacherous conditions of the Atlantic Ocean. Settlers, in search of ample land for agricultural uses, as well as, miles of oceanfront property allowing for the subsistence of fish, ventured out on an exploratory mission across the sea. Upon arrival, settlers noticed a brook outflowing into Plymouth Harbor which could provide power for dams and mills, later developed during the industrial revolution. Within the next 400 years following the founding of America’s Hometown, history would unfold.
Each Spring, fishermen come out of hibernation from their man caves to find the first dandelions blooming in their front yard. The sound of song birds chirping, a strong moon tide and the vibrant dandelions littered in the yard, mean one thing: the herring are here. Fishermen flock to local brooks and streams in search of these football shaped baitfish that bring along with them, the first striped bass of the season. Although fishermen are much more focused on our seven striped friends, there is a lot to know about river herring especially, their significance in one local brook located in America’s Hometown.
Town Brook is a 1.5-mile long stream that stems from Billington Sea and flows out into Plymouth Harbor. This brook is one of the strongest river herring runs in the state of Massachusetts and attracts tourists from all over the world due to its historic value. Prior to 2013, many of the dams which were used to provide power to mills processing shipping containers and corn were still present. Although these sites were useful during the industrial revolution, they are no longer needed in our vastly developed nation. Currently, dams cause high levels of pollutants and low dissolved oxygen levels resulting in harmful algae bloom, not to mention impediment to fish passage.
Beginning in April, the blooming of dandy lions along with the warming temperatures marks the beginning of Spring. For the fishing fanatic, these signs often spark the arrival of rivering herring in our local streams and rivers. River Herring refers to two species of fishes, alewife and blueback herring. These 10 to 12-inch specimens are a diadromous fish species which is a broad term describing fish that spend their lives in both saltwater and freshwater environments. More specifically, river herring are known to be anadromous; referring to fish that spend their lives in saltwater and return to freshwater tributaries in order to spawn. Unfortunately, due to the blocked fish passage from dams, fish have had a difficult time reaching their full spawning potential. In 2006, the National Marine Fisheries Council listed river herring as a species of concern.
Yearly studies conducted by the Town of Plymouth, Cape Cod Cooperative Extension, and Division of Marine Fisheries, have found that half of the fish do not successfully migrate through the fish ladder, at the Plimoth Grist Mill. This study utilizes a Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tag which is placed in the fish. This tag is then detected at several sensors placed along Town Brook. Think of this tag as being similar to that of an EZ Pass when we travel in our vehicles through tolls. The PIT tag enables researchers to determine how long it takes for river herring to make it up a fish ladder, where they are successfully migrating to in the river and where they might be spawning. Thankfully, due to continued conservation efforts like the one conducted by the Town of Plymouth, river herring have seen a rise in population numbers, shedding light into the continued research and conservation of this vital marine species.
Since the 1920s, over 400 dam removals have taken place in the United States in efforts to revitalize fish passage and ecosystem alike. In 2001, the Town of Plymouth embarked on what would turn out to be an 18-year journey in restoring Town Brook. Fish passage, habitat, and water quality would begin to improve, in hopes of allowing for the Town Brook herring run to sustain over 1,000,000 fish as it was said to experience during colonial times.
Prior to 2008, little was known in regard to river herring populations within Town Brook. The Plymouth, Massachusetts Division of Natural Resources partnered with graduate students from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in order to obtain baseline population numbers. The project utilized three different counting methods over a study period of 70 days (the approximate length of the run). Methods included the use of a camera monitoring system which recorded 24 hours a day, 3 daily 10 minute counts, and an electronic fish counter. The preliminary results yielded numbers of just over 168,000 fish. Impressive numbers for the first year of recording, however, approximately only 1/10 of the potential numbers Town Brook could withstand, post-restoration. For the next 10 years, continued monitoring of river herring populations in Town Brook would yield similar numbers anywhere from 107,000 fish to 199,000 fish. These numbers would continue to rise in the future as more restoration is completed within Town Brook.
The goal of this 18-year restoration project was to restore anadromous fish runs, restore in-stream habitat, provide ecological connectivity, and improve water quality and safety. With all of these objectives in mind, the project was underway in 2001, with the removal of the Billington Street Dam, as well as, the repair of the Newfield Street fish ladder. The Billington Street Dam removal was a stepping stone in regards to river herring restoration, as it was the first coastal dam removal in Massachusetts. Funded almost entirely by grants, the results were tremendous, yielding a 96 percent success rate in fish passage through the newly unobstructed section of river. Simultaneously completed with this dam removal was the renovation of the Newfield Street fish ladder. With the installment of an Alaskan Steeppass fish ladder, river herring would be able to migrate further upstream resulting in greater spawning productivity. Although this project was a step in the right direction towards reviving herring migration routes, there was a long way to go before achieving fully unobstructed fish passage.
Beginning in 2013, over the next 6 years, three more dam removals would occur along Town Brook. Off Billington was completed in 2014 and with its removal, resulted in improvements in water quality, as well as, fish passage. Unfortunately, although these sections of the river were unobstructed, there were still dams intact downstream which prohibited river herring in expanding their spawning grounds. Work did not slow down by the Natural Resource Division, however, as the Plymco Dam and MIll site were removed in 2015. This large site not only further improved fish passage, but it also increased water quality and provided habitat for wildlife, resulting in ecological connectivity.
The most recent river restoration project on track to be completed in late 2019, was the removal of the Holmes Dam. This is one of the larger projects performed by the town and has been ongoing since the fall of 2018. The Holmes Dam is classified as a high hazard dam, which means if it were to fail, it would cause significant loss of life and/or property. Due to this fact, it was vital for the Natural Resources Division to begin this comprehensive dam removal and become one step closer to restoring Town Brook to its natural state. When completed, river herring will be able to migrate up Town Brook unobstructed to their spawning habitat in Billington Sea. Post-restoration, these fish have access to an additional 269 acres of spawning habitat. Interestingly enough, this project will not only benefit river herring, but it will also assist in American Eel migration and Northern Red-Bellied Cooter habitat.
My senior year of college, I had the opportunity to assist in installing a live-stream camera system that would essentially record the 2019 Town Brook herring run from the first fish that arrived to the last fish that arrived. This would change the game in population estimates of river herring, giving scientists a much more accurate count of river herring population numbers in the Town Brook. Along with the installment of the camera, I developed a website that would enable anyone in the world to count 10 to 60-second clips of the run. As fish swim by the live stream camera, clips are recorded and then uploaded to a database, which is then directly submitted to the website. A project that went from in-person visual counts to world wide web counting ability, has changed the name in diadromous fish conservation. I urge you to assist in these efforts and become a citizen scientist today by counting river herring from 2020 atplymouthriverherring.org.
Although this restoration is complete, it is important to realize that conservation-restoration efforts are not an overnight process. Not only do they take months to complete, they often can take decades. In the near future, we will begin to see the benefits of just one important aspect of ecosystem restoration. In the words of Jeremy Wade, “Originally, our disruption of their lives was through ignorance, but we no longer have that excuse. For the sake of our fish, and our rivers, and ourselves, it’s time to help the fish swim free”.
I sit here writing this because over the past 10 years while fishing for striped bass, I have found myself not looking to fish as a leisurely activity, I find myself fishing in order to learn. To learn every aspect possible about the striped bass, their prey, their habitat, and their history. I have sacrificed sleep, friendships, and family time, in order to pursue one of the most intriguing fish swimming along the East Coast. I now find myself wondering when I will catch my last striped bass, as populations continue to dwindle. I find myself handling these fish with the utmost care and helping others in any way possible. Although we may disagree with the current regulations, the commercial fishery, and the vast amount of poaching that occurs, it is out of our control at this time. What is, in our control, is our individual responsibility. Our responsibility as recreational anglers to practice and promote catch and release. To learn not only about the striped bass but the important prey species that are also experiencing hardships.I urge you to learn from the past, to make a change in the present in order to protect our future.
For more information please visit the Town of Plymouth Division of Natural resources website and feel free to follow me on Instagram @stripedsurvival for all your striped bass needs. To further follow along with our journey in protecting the striped bass and to learn helpful tips and tricks visit our website athttps://stripedsurvival.squarespace.com/