Below the Armstrong Dam in Braintree, Massachusetts, a desperate scene has played out for decades. “Currently, thousands of river herring are massed below the dam trying to come upriver to spawn,” says Eric Hutchins, a NOAA Fisheries restoration biologist. “But, after beating their heads against the dam for weeks, most females will just drop their eggs or reabsorb them.” Exhausted from this effort, they are unlikely to reproduce elsewhere.
But change is finally coming, with the injection of $2 million in funding from NOAA under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act. The Town of Braintree began moving equipment to remove the obsolete Armstrong and Ames Pond Dams (PDF, 111 pages) in July. Soon, river herring and other migratory fish will have access to 36 miles of high-quality spawning habitat along Monatiquot River for the first time in nearly 200 years.
Connecting rivers and streams to the sea is critical for the survival of both river herring and coastal species popular on dinner menus. “River herring are the potato chips of the ocean,” says Hutchins, "everything eats them." Commercially and recreationally important fish like bluefish, cod, and striped bass rely on river herring as a key food source. “It is especially important to build the river herring population now as other forage species like Atlantic herring and mackerels are crashing,” Hutchins adds. Birds such as herons and osprey and mammals like otters and whales also eat river herring.
A Big Dam Problem
More than 3,000 dams block nearly every river in Massachusetts. Most serve no purpose. Remnants of the Industrial Revolution, the Bay State’s decrepit dams block migratory fish from reaching upstream habitat. They also collect layers of contaminated sludge in stagnant ponds, pose flood risks, and prevent local people from enjoying the river.
That’s certainly the case for the 12-foot-high, 92-foot-long Armstrong Dam. The surrounding area is densely populated, with a significant number of minority residents. In the event of a major storm, the Armstrong Dam contributes to upstream flooding; if the dam fails, the community would experience serious damage. Spray-painted and crumbling, the ugly industrial site sprawls across both sides of the river. “For at least the past 100 years, the public has been unable to access the Monatiquot River,” says Hutchins. “It’s all fenced off.”
Restoring the Monatiquot River for Fish and People
Taking down dams and restoring rivers to conditions where fish—and people—can thrive is a high priority for NOAA. But it isn’t easy. NOAA, the Town of Braintree, and its partners have been working on plans to eliminate the Armstrong and Ames Pond Dams for the last 15 years. In 2017, NOAA provided an initial investment of $100,000 to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Restoration. It supported design and permitting work that was crucial for early project planning. This followed many years of feasibility studies and field work that were led by the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. Hutchins, who has worked on more than 50 dam removals, lends his experience to partners like the Town of Braintree to ensure success. “Most local proponents of a project may only work on one dam removal in their careers,” says Hutchins. “So, I help them through the entire complicated process including project design, community engagement, permitting, and implementation.”
This summer and fall, construction crews will demolish both dams, remove 6,800 cubic yards of contaminated sediment, and restore the river channel. River herring will once again be able to reach the calm inland ponds where juveniles have a better shot at survival. American eel, which are born in the ocean but spend most of their lives in freshwater, will also be able to return.
“I love seeing dams come down,” says Hutchins. “The most exciting part is standing in the water and watching the reformation of the river. I’ve been standing in the water right after a dam comes down and witnessed American eel swim past my feet.” Despite the passage of centuries, the instinct to return remains.
The community will also be invited back to the river. The Town of Braintree will restore wetlands around the dam site and build a boardwalk trail with wildlife viewing points and interpretive signs. “There is strong community support for this project,” says Kelly Phelan, Braintree’s Conservation Planner. “People are excited to see the fish return and to reconnect with the river.”
- Fore River Watershed Association
- Hollingsworth Pond, LLC
- Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries
- Massachusetts Division of Ecological Restoration
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service