Plight of a New England River


Plymouth County, Massachusetts

Long before the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620, the natives of Massachusetts had depended on the great quantities of anadromous fish that traveled from the sea to breed in streams and ponds throughout the region. At the end of each long New England winter, Wompanoag Indians gathered on the riverbanks as countless herring, shad, rainbow smelt, and Atlantic salmon performed their springtime spawning rituals. After feasting and smoking quantites of fish for future use, the local tradition was to place a herring on every mound where corn was planted as a sacrifice to the agricultural spirits and a source of nutrients for a bountiful harvest. Then as industrious Europeans began to take over the landscape by clear-cutting forests for pasture, converting wetlands into agriculture, and damming the waterways for various purposes, the anadromous fish runs began to dwindle. In 1644 a resident of Scituate, part of the Plimoth Colony, built one of the first recorded semi-permanent dams in the colony (Briggs 1889). Many more soon followed, and thus began a long downward trend in the quality and quantity of life in the rivers of Massachusetts.

In a short amount of time, many large tracts of land along rivers and their tributaries were "purchased" from the natives (who never really claimed to "own" it) by hungry colonists, who proceeded to alter it at a rapid pace. As early as 1660, official complaints were filed against a dam owner in Hanover for cutting off the herring runs in the upper North River, once part of the Wompanoag Canoe Passage that served as a public highway for the Indians. Disputes over rights to fish and waterpower caused many heated debates among the colonists, and between the colonists and the natives. In 1676 several groups of Indians banded together and tried to oust the Europeans from this bountiful territory, starting the infamous King Phillip's War. Ultimately, the area known to the natives for many generations as Namassakeeset, or "place of much fish", fell into the hands of the new arrivals (Briggs quote). Within the North River system, up to 70% of nearly 100 miles of previously accessible streams were rendered inaccessible to anadromous fish by 1700 (Map 1). Despite the importance of this food resource to the colonists, mills and dams were erected on virtually every river and stream in Massachusetts over the next two centuries, cutting off access to hundreds of miles of breeding grounds from migrating fish.


Whether exploited as food or ignored by industry, New England's anadromous fish populations suffered extensive declines. As testimony to this, between 1790 and 1860 regulations were placed on alewife fisheries for nearly every river in Massachusetts (Belding 1922) to ensure the survival of this important resource. In 1792 a fishery was established for the Indian Head River, the upper reach of the main stem of the North River, and restrictions were placed on the taking of alewives. Also in 1792 a Herring Committee was established for this waterway, and a fish passage facility was built. Historically alewives, shad, and rainbow smelt were known to travel up all of the main tributaries to the North River to breed in the upper reaches and ponds (Map 2), but by the 1830's it was obvious that the alewife fishery in this river system represented a small fraction of what it had once been (Map 3). A law was passed in 1854 to allow towns abutting the river to use a limited number of seine nets to harvest fish, and by 1881 the fish runs were so devastated that state laws required artificial stocking of ponds and streams. Nonetheless, fish privileges were still sold into the 20th century by towns for the taking of alewives. The average annual income from the sale of fish rights for the town of Marshfield was about $70 in the 1870s, declining to around $4 by 1920. In 1912 the production in barrels was 250, with a predicted possible production of 2500 barrels. In 1922 the estimated potential production of herring in the North River was reduced to 1000 barrels (Belding 1922), a 60% reduction in only ten years.

Two and a half centuries after the construction of the first dam (Map 4), it became apparent that the quantity of fish spawning in the North River tributaries had diminished significantly. Rivers from Maine to Maryland were depleted of what was once an abundant resource, and the majority of the native runs had been extirpated and replaced with hatchery-raised fish. In 1885 an attempt was made to stock the Indian Head River, the main stem of the upper North River, with salmon from Oregon (Briggs 1889), but was unsuccessful. Fish passage was still obstructed in many waterways by a variety of constructions, river channels were altered, and spawning grounds destroyed and polluted. By the 1900's trade wastes from the manufacture of paper, rubber, nails and fireworks had taken their toll on fish populations. Atlantic salmon and short-nosed sturgeon had all but completely disappeared from the streams and rivers of Massachusetts by this time. Household chemicals and sewage effluent became a significant problem in the mid 20th century, and by 1960 it was determined that the anadromous fish populations in New England were in serious decline (Moring 1997). Finally in 1965 the U.S. Congress passed the Anadromous Fish Act in an effort to address the growing concerns over salmon and herring populations throughout the country.


Since the 1960's several rehabilitation efforts have been aimed at the major barriers to anadromous fish reproduction. Fish ladders were improved, ponds and rivers were stocked, and slowly over three decades the numbers increased significantly. More attempts were made to stock the North River with Atlantic salmon and Pacific salmon during this time, but still without success. Then for two years during the mid 90's the herring populations began another decline which is thought to be due to some unknown phenomenon out at sea. Between 1992 and 1995, reports from the Merrimack and Connecticut Rivers show declines in shad populations of 75 to 90% (Moring 1997). Furthermore populations of cormorants and striped bass increased due to heavy protection measures, and may have contributed to the demise of the smaller anadromous fish species. From this it is clear that a large scale approach is necessary for effective management and conservation strategies; we must look at the whole system, not just individual components.


This page created by Fred SaintOurs Jr. on May 1, 1998
Last updated 5/9/98