On April 22, Earth Day, we will celebrate the hard work of many dedicated people that were involved with the restoration of Town Brook in Plymouth, Massachusetts. With the herring run re-opened, the potential exists for up to a half million fish to make that annual migration in the near future.
"These fish are important not only to Town Brook and the Town of Plymouth, but to the much broader marine ecosystem of the Northwest Atlantic," says Michael Pentony, regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Region. "River herring are forage for sea birds, marine mammals, and fish such as cod, tuna, and striped bass. These small silver fish are part of the backbone of the recreational and commercial fisheries of this region, and they support a robust ecotourism industry as well."
This past September, the final major step in the nearly 16-year project to restore Plymouth’s historic Town Brook began: the removal of the Holmes Dam. The project started in 2002, with the removal of the Billington Street Dam. Since then, new improved fishways were added to the Jenney Grist Mill and Newfield Street dams, the Water Street Dam was lowered by 12 inches (2004) and rock ramp constructed (2013), the Off-Billington Street Dam was removed (2013), and the Plymco Dam was removed (2014-15).
And now, the Holmes Dam is coming down, in time to complete just about the entire habitat restoration project by 2020, the 400th anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims in Plymouth.
How It All Began
The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, also known as the People of the First Light, have inhabited present day Massachusetts and Eastern Rhode Island for more than 12,000 years. They farmed and fished this area, relying on the stream of silver fish returning in the spring to mark the start of the new year.
Then, nearly 400 years ago, the Mayflower came ashore near Plymouth Rock, a large boulder tucked deep into western shore of Cape Cod Bay. The protection offered by this harbor must have been attractive to the Pilgrims in mid-December of 1620. Graced with the “sweet water” of Town Brook, the Pilgrims chose this site to establish the first European colony in Massachusetts. What followed was a brutal winter, and the death of more than half of the original Pilgrims.
Silver Fish Were Key to Survival
The silver fish flowing up the little brook as river herring returned to spawn in the spring must have seemed a blessing to the surviving colonists. With the help of local knowledge shared by a native interpreter, the herring provided a rich source of fat and protein for the colonists. They also learned to use the herring as fertilizer for crops of corn and other produce. Months later, in a meal of thanksgiving for the harvest, eels migrating to the sea supplemented the crops and wild game on the first Thanksgiving table, and likely supplied the Pilgrims with dried and smoked fish for the winter. Without Town Brook, and its runs of diadromous fish, Plymouth Colony might not have succeeded.