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Herring Recovery at Plymouth Rock: A Thanksgiving Story

Roughly 150,000 herring will be swimming up Town Brook in Massachusetts to get to Billington Sea this spring.

The herring runs of Town Brook, which empties into Plymouth Harbor just 300 feet from Plymouth Rock, were an important resource for the first Americans. Both Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Tribe used them for food, and the Wampanoag also taught the Pilgrims to fertilize their crops using herring. Those crops were part of the festivities at what has become known as the first Thanksgiving.

Six dams built along Town Brook to power mills during the Industrial Era blocked the spawning migration of herring and contributed to their significant decline.  We don’t know for certain how many herring once swam Town Brook, but we do know that herring populations throughout the Eastern seaboard have fallen dramatically. In fact, alewives and blueback herring (together known as “river herring”) are under consideration for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

NOAA has been working with the Massachusetts Division of Ecological Restoration and several non-profits to remove barriers and restore the herring that once thrived in Town Brook. The Billington Street Dam was the first to come down in 2002, and since then other dams have been modified or removed.

Next spring, NOAA will be working with partners to remove two more dams—the Off-Billington Street and Plymco Dams—which will cost a little more than $1million.

If the restoration of Town Brook works as expected to help rebuild the herring population, species up the food chain will also benefit.  Herring have traditionally been an important food source for cod, haddock, and other commercially valuable groundfish species.  By supporting herring runs, we hope to improve the catch of these fish as well.

Posted November 19, 2012

1)	The Billington Street Dam on Town Brook before removal.

The Billington Street Dam on Town Brook before removal.

The Billington Street Dam on Town Brook during removal.

The Billington Street Dam on Town Brook after removal.