Native Fish in Massachusetts Return After 200 Years

For the first time in at least 183 years, native alewife and blueback herring are swimming upstream beyond the former Tack Factory dam. Removing this dam in Norwell, Massachusetts, restored several miles of their ideal spawning habitat. These forage fish supported the once-abundant commercial and recreational Atlantic fisheries. River herring populations reached historical lows due to habitat degradation, overfishing, and severely reduced access to spawning habitat.

Times and priorities change

The first known dam on this site was built in 1677 and provided power for grinding grain and sawing lumber in a thriving ship-building town. In 1834, the dam was rebuilt by two brothers who founded a tack factory to serve the shoe industry. That business continued operations until the mid-20th century. The excavations revealed several major rebuilds and improvements during that time.

The tack factory dam before removal

The tack factory dam before removal

Today because electricity is readily available, we no longer need local hydropower to run our businesses. Removing these old dams restores rivers to their original free-flowing state, opening up much-needed spawning habitat. Next steps for Third Herring Brook are the removal of the upstream Peterson Dam, and construction of fish passage to allowing the migrating fish access to the 59-acre Jacob’s Pond. Negotiations and project planning are underway.

Small fish, big impact

In 1834, few could have imaged the collapse of the Northeast’s thriving cod fishing industry— driven to the brink of extinction by overfishing and degradation of forage fish habitat. Removing older dams like the Tack Factory helps support the recovery of our once-bountiful Atlantic fisheries. It also improves a coastal community’s resilience to floods and storms by increasing wetland habitat that helps buffer storms and floods.

While we no longer rely on the mill wheel to power local business, we do need a community that works together. With a common goal of returning fish migration to the Third Herring Brook, NOAA Restoration Center partnered with Massachusetts Division of Ecological Restoration, the North and South River Watershed Association, Conservation Law Foundation, Trout Unlimited, YMCA, and dam owners Cardinal Cushing Center. These partners brought know-how, funding, and volunteers together to make a difference not just for fish, but for the entire community. The local economy and residents all gain from healthy natural resources that encourage outdoor recreation and attract business and tourism.

    • Robert miczke

      I agree i used to watch the herring in hanson pembroke that is great the dam on the neponser at bakers chocalate should go to nice white perch there

  1. BobSprague

    Commercial Over-Fishing for them will open next year, once they find there is a lucrative pet food market for them.

    • Telmo hernandez all about the money.humans they wanted to live the moment involved this system.the money sistem instead to preserve and enjoy the interaction with nature.

  2. Putty

    Went by to check this out over the weekend- looks like quite an undertaking was performed in an attempt to bring this run back to life. I observed the water for a long 10 minutes and unfortunately saw no signs of life, which coincides with the observations noted in the herring counters log book over the last few weeks. I suspect it will take a couple of seasons for the herring to return to this run en masse.

  3. Paul Guidetti

    So happy that this work is going on!

    Something similar was done in Plymouth on the town brook. When I was a kid, it seemed like you could walk across the river on the backs of the herring! Since then, like most places, the run decreased and the river degraded (which came first?).

    Seems to me though, a lot of work needs to go in to dredging the two larger ponds on the brook (Jenney Pond and the pond just above the dam on Summer St.). These ponds are weed-choked and full up on silt that has settled there over the last 100 years or so.

  4. Joe McQuaid

    Its great to see all this happening. I remember when we could take herring for bait and use to get them out of the Charles river as far up as Waltham where I grew up. I just hope that when the ladders or fish passages are built that they are done correctly so that the fish can actually use them,unlike the fiasco that was built at the Moody St damn in Waltham many years ago. I spent countless hours there not just fishing but atching and waiting to see how well it worked but alas….no countable fish to be had! Glad to see the small fee we pay to fish and enjoy our resources go back into it! Good work!

  5. Al Brandle

    I remember as a young boy in the late 50’s and early 60’s fish like stripers were so plentiful we froze dozens of them to feed the family during the winter when my dad’s work in construction was slow. I applaud any and all river and estuary restoration.

  6. TOM

    There are still many useless dams to come down in Mass. For example, the Weir River in Hingham once had a significant herring and smelt run but the poorly executed “repair” of the fish ladder and careless “repair” of the dam in the 90s killed both runs. The town of Hingham started the process of righting their wrongs on the Weir then seems to have dropped the ball. To add to the problem for Herring, Aquarian, the local water company pumps so much groundwater in the headwaters of the Weir that it has been drying up during the Summer. The smelt apparently spawned below the dam until the debris from the dam “repair” destroyed the spawning habitat. Shame on Hingham!


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