This Spring, Fish Will Migrate Up This Massachusetts River for the First Time in 200 Years

The dams on Mill River are gone . . . Run, herring, run!
By removing the West Britannia Dam from Mill River in Taunton, Massachusetts opened up 30 miles of habitat for river herring and American eel.

Lia McLaughlin/USFWS

It might be time for the Mill River in Taunton, Massachusetts, to consider a name change.

In January, the defunct West Britannia Dam—the last of three such structures—was removed, finally closing the book on the waterway’s 200-plus-year history of powering industrial mills. This spring, the river will revert back to its old, familiar role from before the European settlement of New England: being a throughway for migratory fish.

This story is pretty run-of-the-mill for the region (pun intended). New England is packed with dams built between the 1600s and 1800s to generate power for manufacturing. Massachusetts alone is home to more than 3,000 of them, many of which no longer serve any purpose. There these artifacts sit, making rivers act more like ponds and preventing fish from going with the flow.

“When you multiply the effects of a single dam times the 3,000 dams that exist, they have an incredible cumulative impact on the state’s aquatic ecosystems,” says Beth Lambert, director of the Massachusetts Division of Ecological Restoration. “They’ve outlived their design life, outlived their purpose, and they’re causing public safety threats to neighbors and communities.”

Regarding Lambert’s last point: The Mill River’s Whittenton Pond Dam made national headlines in 2005 when it nearly failed after a severe rainstorm. The threat of a dam break closed schools and forced about 2,000 Taunton residents to evacuate their homes. National Guard troops were deployed to the city. “The best-case scenario is nothing happens,” Peter Judge, then spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, told the New York Times. “The worst-case scenario is it goes any minute.” In the end, the dam held. But it was much too close for comfort.

The century-old Whittenton Dam in Taunton, Massachusetts, struggled to hold the rain-swollen Mill River, 2005.

Chitose Suzuki/AP

Jim Turek, a restoration ecologist with NOAA’s Restoration Center in Narragansett, Rhode Island, was on vacation in Montana at the time. He remembers being shocked to see Taunton, a city of about 55,000 situated an hour south of Boston, popping up on TV screens out West. “After that, it really kicked in that the Mill River is a very important system to restore,” he says.

The Mill River is a tributary of the Taunton River, the longest undammed coastal river in New England. Every spring, alewives, blueback herring, and American eels leave their ocean haunts to swim through Narragansett Bay, up the Taunton, and into its tributaries to spawn. River herring like alewives and bluebacks are considered keystone species, meaning they’re crucial to shaping and maintaining the health of their ecosystem. Female alewives, for example, can produce up to 100,000 eggs each year, but few survive; the rest of the nutrients contained in these tiny spheres return to nourish the environment. Alewives can also improve water quality by snacking on phosphorus-laden zooplankton, and in turn, all sorts of fish, birds, and mammals—from bass to bald eagles to mink—gobble the alewives up.

Until now, dams have blocked off many of their historic spawning grounds. But this season’s migrators will find more than 30 miles of newly accessible river habitat and 400 acres of lakes and ponds.

River herring, alewives, swimming upstream to spawn

National Geographic Creative/Alamy

While the 2005 emergency was a catalyst, change didn’t happen overnight. The Mill River Restoration Project was born in 2007, but there were still funds to secure, permits to acquire, town meetings to hold, and remediation plans to consider. It wasn’t until 2012 that the Hopewell Mills Dam was removed thanks to the persistence of a mighty list of federal, state, and local agencies and partners involved with the initiative. (To see the full list of partners, click here.) The Whittenton Pond Dam soon followed, in 2013.

The West Britannia Dam brought up the rear this year. Reed & Barton silversmiths, the company that had owned the dam since 1824, went bankrupt and closed its doors in 2015. Fortunately, Acuity Management, the property’s new owner, was enthusiastic about the removal project. (The Mill River Restoration Project also replaced a fourth dam, the Morey’s Bridge Dam, in 2013, adding a new fish ladder and eel ramp.)

With all of the obstacles to the Mill River now removed, the only work left to do this spring is to stabilize the riverbanks with native plants like silver maple, river birch, spicebush, swamp azalea, and black willow. “We are all thrilled that the construction phase of this project has ended and are eagerly awaiting the fish,” says Sara Burns, a water resource scientist at the Nature Conservancy.

But will the fish come? Almost without a doubt, says Turek. “In a nutshell, if you take out a barrier, that’s all you need to do,” he says. “It’s like opening up a door to allow these fish to gain access to spawning habitat.”

Even before the project was complete, there was evidence that it was working. The spring after the Hopewell dam’s removal, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries installed an underwater camera upstream at the base of the West Britannia structure. More than 400 river herring showed up. Now that the fish actually have somewhere to go, biologists plan to track individuals in order to map their routes and see how many are settling into the new habitat.

“There’s a lot of momentum now on removal of obsolete dams in Massachusetts for safety and ecological benefit,” Burns says. “We hope successful projects will help keep that momentum going in the future.”

For now, Taunton residents can give a warm welcome to the fish making their long-overdue homecoming to the Mill River. As for the name, “Herring Run” has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?

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