Current & Historical Fisheries of Nemasket & Ahquannissowamsoo
The first people who stumbled across Nemasket must have been in for quite a surprise some 10,000 years ago. Picture the scene. April in the year 8,000 BP a small band of families tattered after enduring a long bitter post glacial winter make their way through the woods and bogs of what is now Middleboro. Game has been hard to come by this winter. They have been surviving on bits of the winters dry venison and whatever small game they can kill themselves or steal from wolves. Black flies swarm out of the swamps and bogs pestering and biting the travelers unmercifully. Young children, eyes’ red and swollen from the biting flies whimper and cry for relief from the onslaught. A young mother does her best to shield her infant from the flies, although young in years, she has seen her own and many other infants die in this unforgiving wilderness.
Somewhere beyond the buzzing of flies and whimpers, she hears what sounds like the swosh of rushing water. Motioning to the others, she makes her way down a gentle slope to the source of the sound. Moments later she pushes through dense underbrush and gasps in amazement at the scene before her. The others gather around her looking on, awestruck by the sight.
With a swosh, masses of foot long silver fish burst from the water at their feet, they fill the stream from bank to bank. Through knee-deep water they move like a single entity, like a great wave of flashing silver against the current. Mixed throughout the living wave large silver striped forms can be seen thrashing at the masses of smaller fish. Seeking shelter from marauding striped bass, the silver herring cast themselves onto the stream bank at the feet of the weary travelers.
Instinctively they wade into the masses. Scooping feverishly into the water with their hands they throw the silver herring upon the bank, while the children, ignoring the biting flies seize the shore bound fish before they can flop back into the water. Instinct tells them they must catch as many as possible before opportunity is lost. Later as the April sun begins to settle into the tops of the tall pines, they fall exhausted on the stream bank amongst piles of freshly caught fish.
As evening hastens mothers, dab clumps of dried sphagnum into the tea colored river water. Gently they place it into the hands of their children pressing it down upon their weary swollen eyes. One by one the little ones doze off to the soft sound of flowing water and crackling fire. Their parents look on through the flicker of the fire to the stream before them. Dappled in moonlight beneath the stars they listen in silence to the sound of fish slapping the water. Wandering thoughts mingled with distant wolf howls and the cry of a night heron send them into a deep undisturbed slumber.
Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, a young boy wakes to the throaty cackle of great blue birds passing low overhead. Crawling from his bedding he makes his way stream side and quietly kneels on the gravel. He pulls his skins tight around his neck shivering slightly in the damp foggy false dawn. In his hand he holds a spear point made long ago. The point is much bigger than those of his fathers. It reaches from the base of his palm to his finger tips, shaped like a leaf, with a long grove running up its center on either side. The point was a gift from his grandfather who died the previous winter in his 48th season.
Often while camped around the fire grandfather had told stories about the origin of the point, how it was made long ago to kill great animals in ancient times, before the time of the forests, when this land was water, stone and ice. He told stories of the ancient hunters long journeys, how they followed herds of huge shaggy beasts across the grasslands for days on end. Until, the time was right, when the hunters would single out, attack and kill one of the great beasts with the cunning and courage of the wolves which drag down the giant moose. Like the wolves, the hunters would often suffer the wrath of their prey, trampled and ground into the frozen earth by the great tusks of the shaggy monsters.
He misses his grandfather dearly, and wonders what grandfather would think about their new found fortune of silver fish? Had grandfather ever seen anything like this? Fish leaping out of the water into their waiting hands. Would it continue, or was it a fleeting moment of good fortune? A gentle touch on his shoulder stirs him from his thoughts as father kneels beside him in the damp gravel. Together they look to the water, at the silver herring which dart upstream within arms reach. The boy turns his gaze to father, whose hard weather beaten face appears softened, childlike and curious staring at the passing fish. Feeling the weight of his sons stare, father turns his eyes to his son and smiles softly. The cackle of an infant draws their attention away from each other. Turning back toward camp mother sits with baby sister in arms, the two of them a glow in the first warming rays of the rising sun. Together they look upon one another, knowing without words that they will stay at this strange place of fish, Nemasket.
The first settlers of Nemasket arrived here about 10 thousand years ago. Their culture would rely and thrive on Nemaskets abundant sea run fishes for ten thousand years. Ten thousand years is along time. Ten thousand years of human history in our own backyards, human history which is inextricably tied to rivers and the sea run fish which coursed through their waters. What are and were the fishes of Nemasket?
American Shad (Alosa sapidissima)
Historically American Shad were quite abundant in Nemasket, they were the preferred food of the Nemasket people, relished for their row and flesh. Later they were equally valued by English colonists. Unlike alewives, American shad are river spawning fish which migrate upstream a bit later than alewives. Shad are considerably larger than the alewife and can be as large as ten pounds. However, they more typically run between two and eight pounds. Shad spawn at night on the surface in areas of moderate current. Where shad are abundant you can often hear their splashing spawning dance in the twilight along the river bank. Shad are broadcast spawners, meaning they lay their eggs in current in the water column rather than digging a nest on the bottom. After the eggs hatch juveniles remain in the river until late summer and fall, when they like the alewives move back down to the sea to complete their life cycles. Very few shad seem to spawn in Nemasket today. From time to time one is scooped up by folks netting alewives at Wareham St. However, Nemaskets shad population today is at best a remnant population.
The cause of the shads extirpation from Nemasket is no mystery. Like most streams in this region Nemasket and its native species suffered while industry prospered through the industrialization of this region. The reason for their scarcity today is unclear. Shad still migrate up the Palmer River to our south and the North River to our north. Efforts by the Massachusetts Division of Marine fisheries to restore shad to Nemasket in the 1970's and again in the 1980's failed. However, during this period Nemasket still suffered fairly significant water quality problems, especially in the 1970's. Even as late as 1990 low dissolved oxygen levels in the water of Nemasket were problematic.
Today, water quality in Nemasket does not appear to be a limiting factor for the restoration of American Shad. It would be worthwhile at this time to revisit and reinvigorate efforts to restore Nemaskets American Shad to their ancestral home in Nemasket and all of the upper Taunton River.
The following is the account of a trip down Nemasket to the Taunton River in 1621 by Edward Winslow and Stephen Hopkins. They were sent by then Governor Bradford to meet with Massasoit at Mount Hope Bay.
"On the way, we found some ten or twelve men women and children, which had pestered [annoyed] us till we were weary of them: perceiving that, as the manner of them all is, where victual is easiliest to be got, there they live, especially in the summer; by reason whereof, our Bay affording many lobsters, they resort every spring-tide thither; and now returned with us to Namaschet.
Thither we came about three a clock after noon, the inhabitants entertaining us with joy in the best manner they could: giving us a kind of bread, called by them maizium, and the spawn of shads which then they got in abundance, insomuch as they gave us spoons to eat them with. With these, they boiled musty acorns: but of the shads, we ate heartily."
Striped Bass (Morone saxatilis)
The striped bass is an anadromous species which migrates upstream into freshwater each spring to spawn. Like the shad stripers are broadcast spawners, laying their eggs in the current to drift in the water column. While most striped bass spawning today is limited to the Hudson River and Chesapeake Bay area, their historic spawning range was much larger, extending all the way into Atlantic Canada. Large mainstream dams on our big New England rivers are largely responsible for the stripers demise in terms of spawning populations north of the Hudson. Pollution has also contributed to the stripers decline throughout its range. One bright spot for striper spawning north of the Hudson is the Kennebec River in Maine. Since the removal of Edwards Dam on the Kennebec stripers have begun spawning there once again.
Information regarding the stripers historical abundance and spawning populations in Nemasket and the Taunton River is virtually nonexistent. Striped bass are abundant in the lower tidal portion of the Taunton River and along the coast. Today they appear to be occasional visitors to Nemasket and the upper Taunton river. Their presence here has been confirmed by fish surveys performed by Steve Hurley the regional biologist for Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. From time to time they are also caught by fisherman near the mouth of Nemasket.
Whether or not striped bass spawned in Nemasket is unclear, however given the fact that Nemasket has in the past and continues today to support the largest herring run in this area it is fair to assume that striped bass would have been common here.
In regards to their historic abundance, about all we have been able to find is the following excerpt from Edward Winslows journey down the Taunton in 1621.
"Being willing to hasten our journey, we went ; and came thither at sunsetting ; where we found many of the Namascheucks, they so calling the men of Namaschet, fishing upon a ware [wear]*, which they had made on a river which belonged to them ; where they caught abundance of bass".
This weir was located in the Titicut section of the river on the Middleboro Bridgewater town lines. In 1621 there would have been no Large or Smallmouth Bass in these parts. They were introduced at a later date. Therefore they must be referring to Striped Bass. The date of this account is sometime between June 10, and July 2, this would be close to the time of year when Striped Bass would be spawning in the fresh water rivers of this latitude. The fact that the Namacchet's were able to catch the striped bass in abundance by hand (nets or spears we assume) indicates that the river had a significant population of striped bass at and before the time of European contact.
American Eel (Anguilla rostrata)
The American Eel is a catadromous fish, meaning it spends most of its life in freshwater and spawns in the sea. It’s life history is truly one of the most remarkable in all of nature. Adult eels spawn in the Sargasso Sea near Bermuda. Juvenile eels then drift with the ocean currents to the coast of North America where they migrate into estuaries, streams and ponds where they grow to adults. American eels have the ability to migrate incredible distances inland and stay they’re for an extremely long time before migrating back to the sea to spawn. Some eels will spend 50 or more years in freshwater before returning to the sea, after spawning the adult eel’s die. Consider for a moment where people have caught eels fishing, and then consider that eels have arrived there by migrating up rivers and streams, it’s truly amazing. Throughout the most upper reaches of the watershed, past multiple dams and seemingly impassable barriers eel’s can be found in most every pond and stream.
Eels seem to be fairly abundant in Nemasket. Unfortunately, like the striped bass hints to their historical abundance are rare. Given the size of Assawompsett and its companion ponds we can assume that Nemasket has supported significant numbers of these remarkable fish in the past. Their current population status is unclear. It would be a worthwhile project to find out what their historic numbers may have been compared to their numbers today.
Sea Lamprey (Petromyzon marinus)
Sea lampreys are one of our most remarkable anadromous fishes. Lampreys are also one of our most primitive fish, they swam in the shadows of the dinosaurs, and tasted the melt water of glaciers. Like shad and herring lampreys are an anadromous fish. Unlike "bony" fishes such as herring or shad, lampreys lack scales and gill covers. Instead, they breathe through a distinctive row of "pencil hole" like openings behind their mouths and eyes. The Lampreys spawning run begins shortly after the arrival of the alewives. Once lampreys enter freshwater to spawn they stop feeding. When a pair of lampreys find a suitable spawning site, shallow riffles with fist sized stones, they begin building their spawning nest. The lamprey’s Latin name Petromyzon Marinus (stone sucker) is derived from the lamprey’s nest building method. Because of their large size (up to three feet long) the lamprey is capable of attaching to and moving softball size stones. They take these stones from the river bottom and pile them in the shape of a horseshoe downstream of their nest. By doing so they create a depression in the river bottom of well-aerated gravel, which is vital to the survival of their eggs. Unlike our other anadromous fish, lampreys die after spawning.
After hatching the
juvenile lamprey spends its first years of life (8 years or longer) as small,
tan to gray eel-like fish called an ammocete in freshwater rivers and streams.
At this stage, the lamprey has yet to develop eyes and stays buried a few inches
below the streambed in fine sand and silt, where it feeds by filtering very
small bits of organic material from the stream bed.
Lampreys have been a
much maligned fish since their introduction into the Great Lakes through man
made shipping canals. In the mid-20th century, a large shipping canal was built
between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie to bypass the impassable navigation barrier
at Niagara Falls. This canal, the Welland Canal, allowed barges and freight
ships -- and sea lamprey -- to easily travel into the Great Lakes by avoiding
the precipice of Niagara Falls. Sea lamprey were never found in the Great Lakes
above Lake Ontario prior to the construction of the Welland Canal nor had the
native fish of the Great Lakes, primarily lake trout, ever seen a sea lamprey
Today lampreys are present in Nemasket, from time to time one is found in the herring run or scooped up along with a net full of herring. Three years ago a young lamprey about 8 inches long was scooped from the Wareham St fishway during a fish transfer. It was identified by the Ma Division of Marine Fisheries as a sea lamprey. Like the eel their historic population numbers and current population status is unclear. Again, it would be a worthwhile project to determine what their historic numbers may have been compared to their numbers today. They are a remarkable fish and native of Nemasket.
Atlantic Sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrhynchus)
Because of Nemaskets small size it is unlikely that sturgeon would have spawned here. However the Taunton River did historically support runs of sturgeon and it is likely they would have foraged in and around Nemasket from time to time.
The Atlantic Sturgeon is the largest of our anadromous fish species, females being the largest of the genders. One female from the St. John River in New Brunswick measured fourteen feet long and weighed more than eight hundred pounds. They are extremely long lived, sometimes reaching sixty years of age. Like the lamprey the sturgeon has changed little since the time of the dinosaurs. Their historic range included most major river systems along the Atlantic coast between Florida and Atlantic Canada. Like many other anadromous fish species the building of dams and pollution decimated the sturgeon’s populations, commercial fishing also contributed to their decline. How abundant Atlantic Sturgeons were in the Taunton River is not clear. From time to time people fishing, and boaters see them in the river. The Atlantic Sturgeon is listed as a endangered species in Massachusetts.
Rainbow Smelt (Osmerus mordax)
Information regarding the rainbow smelts historical abundance and spawning populations in Nemasket and the Taunton River are difficult to find. Historical records show there was a commercial fishery for smelt in the lower part of the Taunton River in the 1800's. There are no records of them in Nemasket, however if they were present in the lower Taunton it is likely that they would have been further up throughout the Taunton and its tributaries.
Smelt are an anadromous fish and along with tom cod are the first to make their spawning runs. They begin their upstream migrations in February and March and will move upstream and seek out suitable spawning habitat until stopped by upstream barriers. Because smelt are weaker swimmers than other anadromous fish, they often time their runs to coincide with the highest tides to get through rapids which would otherwise stop them. The smelts preferred spawning habitat is in streams with good flow over hard bottoms. Here they lay adhesive egg’s witch cling to the bottom substrates until hatching. Shortly after hatching the juvenile smelt begin heading back downstream to the estuary where they grow to adults.
Because the primary limiting factor to smelt migration and distribution throughout a watershed is impassable barriers like waterfalls and other steep drops it is likely they were fairly widespread throughout the Taunton and its tributaries at one time. Here again it would be a worthwhile project to determine their historical abundance and potential for the future. Their population status in the upper river and Nemasket is presently unknown.
Two types of herring visit Nemasket each spring. Often referred to collectively as river herring they are the alewife and blueback herring. The most distinctive difference between the two is alewives prefer to spawn in ponds while blue backs prefer to spawn in the river itself. Timing of their runs is also different. Alewives begin their run earlier, normally around the beginning of April. The Blue back run begins at the end of April and early May. Physically the two look almost exactly alike, blue backs tending to be somewhat smaller and slighter.
Blueback Herring (Alosa aestivalis)
Often confused with the alewife the blueback herring is a distinct species and an important component of Nemaskets anadromous fish assemblage. "The blue back is the "unknown" river herring, since it is often mistaken for alewife and is usually listed in fisheries statistics as "River Herring", combined with the alewife (Dadswell 1985; Rulifson 1994). It is, however, a "real" species which is separable and distinct from alewife based on morphological characteristics, protein and DNA analysis and behavior" (Dadswell 1996). As stated above blueback herring differ from the alewife in the timing of their spawning and preferred spawning habitat. Bluebacks run about three or four weeks after the alewives and prefer to spawn in the mainstem of the river, rather than in ponds. Nemasket, today maintains a run of blueback herring, although how many is not clear.
Because the blueback herring’s spawning and nursery habitat is in the rivers rather than ponds, their populations were decimated by pollution in the late 1800's. The alewife on the other hand fared better through this time because they only had only to swim through the river to get to the ponds above which were cleaner. Because blueback herring have been lumped together with the alewife their historic population numbers in Nemasket and the Taunton River is unknown.
Alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus)
The alewife is and probably always has been the backbone of Nemaskets sea run or anadromous fish population. If it were not for the persistence of the alewives, Nemasket would have lost its living link to the sea a century ago. The fact alewives persist here to this day is a truly remarkable story, and a testament to the alewives persistence and adaptability. Unlike shad which were extirpated from our river by the dams and pollution of industry, alewives have persisted. It is perhaps impossible to overemphasize how remarkable and vital this small silver fish is to our rivers and their living communities both in and out of the water.
Historically and currently alewives make up the vast majority of Nemaskets herring population. This is because the alewife’s population in the river is directly determined by the available pond spawning habitat in the upstream watershed. Big clean headwater ponds mean big runs of alewives. Nemaskets headwater ponds, Assawompsett, Great Quittacus, Little Quittacus, Pocksha and Apponaquet (Long Pond) contain about 5,000 acres of ideal alewife spawning habitat, more than any other river in Massachusetts. In 2002 about two million adult alewives migrated up Nemasket to the ponds above. The success of Nemaskets run today can be summed up in one word persistence, persistence of both the fish and the people of Middleboro and Lakeville who have fought for more than 300 years to preserve them.
The following is an excerpt from a document signed by William Briggs Jr. of Taunton sometime in the late 1600's. In it he laments over the destruction of the alewife runs of Taunton’s Mill River by dams and points to Middleboro’s stance on the issue of alewives.
"The first English planters in Taunton found great relief from this sort of fish, both for food & raysing of corne and prized them so highly that they took care that when Goodman Linkon first craved leave to set up a grist mill at that place, a town vote should be passed that fish should not be stopped. It is well known how much other Towns are advantaged by this sort of fish. Middleboro will not permit any dam for any sort of mills to be made across their river to stop the course of fish nor would they part with the privilege of the fish if any would give them a thousand pounds and wonder at ye neighboring town of Taunton, that suffer themselves to be deprived of so great a privilege."
Although, in due time dams would be built at various spots along Nemasket, the people of Middleboro remained steadfast in their protection of their alewives. The following is from the History of Middleboro by Thomas Weston.
"At town meeting in 1742 it was voted and ordered that the slitting mill dam, so called, over Nemasket River in said town be opened the ninth day of March so that alewives and other fish shall have a clear and sufficient passage through the dam to pass up said river in the natural ponds to cast their spawn, and that said dam be kept open for 60 days thereafter for the passage of fish, which provision seems to have been observed ever since that time."
Later in 1749 and 1750 the following act was passed regarding the alewives of Nemasket.
"Whereas there are great quantities of the fish called alewives, which pass up the rivers and brooks in the town of Middleboro to cast their spawn; and not withstanding the penalties annexed to the many good and wholesome laws of this province already made to prevent the destruction of alewives, yet many ill-minded and disorderly persons are not deterred therefrom."
Be it therefore enacted by the Lieutenant Governor, Council and House of Representatives.
"Sec.1 Provides that whoever shall presume to take any of the said fish in the aforesaid rivers or brooks, or any part thereof, by any means whatever at any other place than the old Stone Ware, so called, in Nemasket River, and may refuse to discover their names, places of abode and occupation, by which means the prosecution of such offenders may be prevented, and the good design of this act defeated; and their being some passages of said rivers and brooks that are narrower than others and by reason thereof the course of the said fish may be more easily stopped by canoes and other obstructions."
"Sec 4 Provides that when any children or servants shall offend against this act, they shall be punished by whipping, not exceeding 5 stripes, or by being put in the stocks, not exceeding 24 hours, or imprisonment, not exceeding 24 hours, unless the offenders by themselves or parents or masters or others in their behalf shall forthwith pay the forfeits."
Laws and regulations such as these were common during this time period. Most every river which had sea run fish had numerous laws passed to protect them and allow them to reach their respective spawning sites. However, on many rivers these laws became ineffective and were not enforced. Others were repealed to the benefit of mill owners who did not want to maintain fish ladders or shut down their mills to allow fish upstream. Nemasket and the people of Middleboro were an exception to this rule. Through the 1800's while many Rivers’ anadromous fish runs were disappearing Nemaskets alewife run stayed strong. This was because Middleboro residents would not allow their alewives to be stopped. It wasn’t until the late 1800's that Nemaskets run began to feel the strain of competing river uses, some of which were out of their hands.
About the turn of the century the Nemaskets alewife run was declining. Thomas Weston in his book The History of Middleboro published in 1906 said the following in closing his chapter about Nemaskets alewives. "Undoubtedly, in years gone by, the manufacturing interests of the town suffered in the endeavor to protect these fish, but the last few years would indicate that the time is not far distant when the herring of Nemasket River may become so far extinct as to cease to provoke much attention and action on the part of the town."
Through the early 1900's pollution in the form of sewage and industrial waste took its toll in both the Nemasket and perhaps more so in the Taunton River itself. By this time Nemasket was the only remaining run of any significance in the whole of the Taunton River Watershed. The following are excerpts from Biologist David Beldings 1920 reports on the Alewife Fishery of Taunton River.
"If it were not for the vast amount of pollution in its waters, the Taunton River with its many branches and ponds would support extensive alewife and shad fisheries, The tributary streams will here be treated as individual units, and the fishery in each considered separately, beginning with the headwaters."
Satucket River and Monponset Brook
"At present time there is no fishery in the Satucket River, as until 1920 the alewives were unable to get to Robbins and Monponset ponds for spawning. Formerly numbers of alewives passed up this river, and a shad weir was once located on the Matfield river."
"There is no fishery in the Town River, since there have been no fishways since 1888, when the old ones at Pratt’s Dam and at the Stanley Iron Works were carried away by a freshet."
"Mill River, formed by the union of Canoe River and Mulberry Brook, passes through Winneconet Pond and Sabatia Lake to empty into the Taunton River. Since it is badly polluted by manufacturing wastes, and obstructed by dams, the re-establishment of the old fishery is an impossibility".
Three Mile River
"Three Mile River, formed by the union of Wading and Rumford Rivers, enters the Taunton River near Dighton. It is used chiefly for power, is obstructed by several dams, and is badly polluted with trade wastes, which render the re-establishment of a fishery extremely remote."
Nemasket River and Assawompsett Brook.
"Nemasket River takes its origin in Assawompsett Pond, and flows through Middleboro to empty into the Taunton River. It receives waste from several factories, sewage from the town of Middleboro, and, in addition to the dams at the outlet of Assawompsett Pond, is blocked by two main dams, which are provided with more or less adequate fishways.
At Starr Mills, north of the village of Middleboro, the fishway is in the form of a natural stream of a gradual rise, equipped with stone projections to enable the alewives to pass up against the current. At the Wareham Street dam, where water is used for power by the Middleboro Electric Light Company, there are three outlets,– one a sluiceway to the Electric Light Company, the second the main overflow, and the third the present cement and stone fishway which has a good flow of water, and in most respects is satisfactory. Unfortunately, owing to an inadequate screen, the fish are attracted by the greater volume of water, and pass by the fishway entrance to eventually find themselves in a blind pocket under the dam. If the stream were properly screened, and the fishway properly cared for by the town, there is no reason why it would not be entirely satisfactory for the passage of alewives. Since the water does not pass over the spillway at this dam in the fall there is no provision for the young alewives to pass down stream, except through the turbine wheel.
A public fishery was established in 1792, and alewives are now taken at the fishway at Starr Mill. The custom of the town is to sell the privilege for periods of one year, but in 1913 it was sold for three years for $235. In recent years the production has markedly diminished, the catch for the past few years having hardly averaged 150 barrels.
The alewife fishery of Nemasket river has always been intimately connected with town affairs, having been a most important factor in its early development. Neglect in keeping fishways in proper shape, permitting pollution such as sewage and manufacturing wastes to enter the stream, and the illogical method of leasing the fishery for a one year period, have all been contributing factors in its decline. However, it might still be made a extremely valuable asset to the town of Middleboro, if more attention were given to its regulation."
Fish kills due to pollution were not uncommon throughout the mid 1900's. This coupled with the town leasing fishing rights to commercial interests up until the mid 1960's took a heavy toll on Nemaskets run. How these small silver fish managed to survive and maintain a viable spawning run through all of this is a true miracle of nature.
While alewives continued to run, improvements came slowly, whether we wore Nemasket down or Nemasket and its alewives wore us down is open to question. Either way Nemasket and its fish, which had been viewed and managed as industrial and commercial assets for 300 years were now being recognized as something all together different. Changes were made at the Wareham St dam and fishway in 1965. During the 1970's and 80's a new vision for Nemasket and its alewives began to take shape. In 1994 citizens from Middleboro and Lakeville organized to become the Middleboro Lakeville Herring Fisheries Commission. The commission is a volunteer group which took control of Nemasket and its alewives destiny. Unlike groups of the past, the focus of this group was to put Nemasket and its alewives first.
In 1996 the Commission with the assistance of the Ma Division of Marine Fisheries redesigned and rebuilt the fishway at Wareham St. This gave the alewives improved access to the stream above the dam. The commission also set up a permitting and oversight system which would prevent overfishing of the adult alewives during their upstream and downstream migrations. The success of the Middleboro Lakeville Herring Fisheries Commission can best be appreciated by visiting the Wareham St. Park and Fishway in early May. Close to two million adult alewives pass through this fishway each spring, more than any other in New England. The success of Nemaskets run has been so great as to allow the taking of fish to rebuild other runs throughout Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Another aspect of the commissions work that should not be overlooked is the design of the Wareham St. Park itself. Unlike other fishways and their surrounding areas which are often fenced in to prevent access to the fish, the Wareham St. run is wide open and accessible to everyone. The pool and weir fishway allows the fish to be viewed as they scramble up from pool to pool. Below the entrance of the fishway in the river itself, permit holders are allowed to catch their own fish under the supervision of voluntary observers. Children are allowed and encouraged to catch the fish with both their bare hands and small nets, observe the fish and then release them. Folks coming here from other locales not only marvel at the abundance of fish, but at the sense of pride and community spirit generated by the park and its fishway. This spirit is infectious and provides great motivation for folks to restore anadromous fish runs in the rivers in their communities. In the future the design of the park and fishway may have a greater influence on anadromous fish restoration in New England than fish transfers from Nemasket to other rivers.
Here in our own watershed of the Taunton River there are valuable lessons to be learned from the success of Nemasket and its alewives. Why does Nemasket work so well? It is born in the pristine waters of Assawompsett Pond, waters which are vigorously protected as public water supplies. Most of its course runs through natural flood plains and riparian zones which buffer the effects of non-point source pollutants. Although it has dams, they are provided with efficient fish passage which are well maintained. While the Town of Middleboro has a sewer plant which discharges to Nemasket, it appears to be a modern well-run facility. Perhaps more importantly its discharge volume is low enough to allow for the assimilation of effluent into river water rather than vice versa.
One other aspect and important component of Nemasket which is often overshadowed by the spectacle of the spring adult herring run is the down stream migration of juvenile herring in late summer and fall. What contribution do these young fish make to the ecosystem of Nemasket? It’s an interesting question. An often repeated observation by people traveling the Nemasket is its abundance of life. From its headwaters to the Taunton River paddler’s delight in the Eagles, ospreys, great blue herons, green herons, bitterns, night herons and kingfishers to name but a few. River otters, minks, muskrats, raccoons and foxes also surprise the quiet river traveler, both by their tracks in the mud and in person. Fishermen tell stories of the game fish of Assawompsett and Nemasket, how they are bigger than those of other rivers and ponds. This abundance is no accident, consider juvenile alewives for a moment.
About two million adult alewives spawned in the Assawompsett Pond complex in 2002. Assuming half were female, there were approximately one million egg-laying females casting eggs in the ponds. A single adult female alewife lays about one hundred thousand eggs, therefore approximately one hundred billion alewife (100,000,000,000,000.) eggs were cast in the Assawompsett Pond complex in 2002. That’s a lot of fish eggs. Of the one hundred thousand eggs cast by each female perhaps 1,000 will grow large enough to migrate out of the ponds. Therefore through late summer and fall in the year 2002 approximately five hundred million two inch long alewives migrated down Nemasket with hopes of reaching the Taunton River and Mount Hope Bay. Three years later in the spring of 2005 only one adult alewife will return to Assawompsett for each one hundred thousand eggs cast. For every one thousand juveniles that set out for Mount Hope Bay from Assawompsett only one adult will return to spawn. What does this mean? It means that Assawompsett is the grocery store and Nemasket is the conveyor belt which delivers this incredible bounty to all the critters that abound in Nemasket and beyond. The impacts of such numbers are just too big to be ignored.
For me this and all of the above leads back to the ever nagging question of what would the Taunton River and its other tributaries be like if their anadromous fish runs were restored back to something of their former abundance and diversity?
Tom Mahlstedt, an archeologist familiar with this region was asked the following question at the Upper Taunton River Wild & Scenic Study Archeology Experts Meeting 5-14 -03.
"In your opinion, is the archeology an outstandingly remarkable value in the Upper Taunton?"
The following is Tom’s answer and explanation.
"There is an unusually high site density of archeology findings. Something was going on here in the mainstem basin and in the tributary streams. There was obviously an enormous natural resource base here. Even though flora and fauna changed over time, instead of leaving, Native Americans adapted their tool kits and stayed. The food sources must have been excellent. They didn’t have to travel for food. Something was special here. The Native Americans stayed from 9000 B.C. to historic times."
Many changes have taken place since Nemasket’s first people settled along its shore ten thousand years ago. Many changes have also taken place since David Belding submitted his 1920 report on the Alewife Fishery of Taunton River. However, as in1920 Nemasket remains the primary source of alewives in the Taunton River. While this is something worth celebrating, it is also a shame that a watershed with such anadromous fish potential both in diversity of species and numbers relies on a single stream and a single species, the alewife for 95% of its fish runs.
I believe Nemasket gives us a glimpse of what that special something was that Tom spoke of. What drew and kept folks living along the banks of the Taunton River and its tributaries for those many thousands of years is in part what we see in Nemasket today, millions of fish migrating back and forth to the sea.
Nemasket is not an anomaly, it is a living example of a living river a healthy river, clean flowing and connected to the sea as all our rivers once were. Sturgeon, American shad, American eels, sea lamprey, rainbow smelt, blueback herring and the alewife, all essential elements of a living river. Whether we saved Nemasket and its alewives, or Nemasket and its alewives are saving us is open to debate, however, this much is clear. Nemasket, Assawompsett and the alewives provide us with a very clear road map for success regarding both river restoration and preservation, we need only to follow it.
(formerly known as Matfield River)
The Matfield River once supported a thriving and diverse population of anadromous and freshwater fish, both in its mainstem and in its tributaries. Because the Matfield had no significant headwater ponds above Satucket River it would have likely harbored a somewhat different assemblage of fish than the Satucket, Nemasket or Town River, all of which have large headwater ponds. The following account of fish in the upper Matfield is from the book History of North Bridgewater (Brockton) written in 1866 by B. Kingman. "Among the different kinds of fish that abound in our streams may be found the trout, pickerel, sucker, shiner, minnow, hornpout, eels, perch. Herrings, in early days, used to run up the rivers, but of late, are seldom found". The following is another historical account of fisheries in the Matfield from the book History of East Bridgewater by William Allen. "Formerly the number of alewives, or herring that passed up Satucket River and spawned in Robins Pond was very large. Shad seemed to prefer the Matfield River, and a shad weir was located on that stream, not far from the bridge of the Bridgewater Branch Railroad." David Belding also made note of Matfields shad run and weir in his fisheries report of the Taunton River 1920.
As strange as it may sound the Matfield and its upper tributaries, Beaver Brook and Salisbury Plain River, were once homes to the native brook trout. Even today the Salisbury Plain River above the Brockton Sewer Plant along with its two major tributaries, Trout and Salisbury Brook, maintain water temperatures cold enough for wild brook trout throughout the dog days of summer. The name Trout Brook hints at what once was here.
Their steep gradients and long rocky riffle runs, unique for streams in these parts are reminiscent of trout streams in more northern latitudes. Unfortunately, due to ongoing water quality problems and extensive development along Salisbury Plain, habitat conditions for wild brook trout are not favorable at present. If a concerted effort were made to stop water pollution and habitat degradation in the cold water tributaries of the Matfield River, numerous reaches of these streams will once again support these colorful and cherished native fish of southeastern Massachusetts.
American Shad and blueback herring are another story altogether, with them we find a ray of hope. Historical documents and the physical and hydrological characteristics of the Matfield suggest this was a shad and blueback herring river. Both these fish are river spawning anadromous species. Unlike alewives which use ponds for spawning and juvenile rearing habitat, shad and blueback herring do the same in the rivers.
American shad are anadromous river spawning fish which migrate up from the sea about three weeks later than alewives. Shad are considerably larger than the alewife and can be as large as ten pounds. However, they more typically run between two and eight pounds. Shad often spawn at night near the surface. They prefer to spawn in medium depth river reaches with strong currents. Where shad are abundant you can often hear their splashing spawning dance in the twilight along the river bank. Shad are broadcast spawners, meaning they lay their eggs in current in the water column rather than digging a nest on the bottom. After the eggs hatch juveniles remain in the river until late summer and fall, when they like the alewives move back down to the sea to complete their life cycles. Juvenile shad are peculiar, for some reason, known only to the shad, they like to jump out of the water. In rivers where shad are abundant these tiny juveniles school together in long back eddy’s, leaping straight into the air, flashing like tiny chrome slivers falling from the sky.
The blueback herring although often confused with the alewife is a distinct species. Blueback herring differ from the alewife in the timing of their spawning run and preferred spawning habitat. They also tend to be somewhat smaller and slighter than the alewife. Bluebacks run about three or four weeks after the alewives and prefer to spawn in rivers, rather than in ponds. Their preferred spawning habitat is in fast water, flowing over hard bottoms in the areas of riffles and rapids. Given the fact their were no headwater ponds feeding the Upper Matfield and Salisbury Plain Rivers it is likely the "herrings", B. Kingman was referring to were blueback herring. The long rocky riffles of the upper Matfield and Salisbury Plain would have suited the bluebacks well.
Unlike brook trout which are limited to cold water streams, shad and blueback’s are not. However, both blueback herring and shad require clean, well-oxygenated water which is free of excessive chlorine and other pollutants. An important and sometime overlooked difference between alewives, shad and bluebacks are the latter two species must spawn and complete their juvenile life cycles in the river. Alewives only have to migrate through the streams to the ponds above where they spawn. After the alewife eggs hatch they complete their juvenile life cycles in ponds which are today and have historically been much cleaner than our rivers. This may be in part why our American shad runs disappeared while our alewife runs were able to survive.
The following is an excerpt from David Beldings 1920 Report on the Alewife Fishery of Taunton River. "The shad, once present in numbers, is now commercially extinct. In 1906, 2,100 shad were caught in one place by Mr. Gof, whereas in 1913 only 500 were taken at both seining places." The above mentioned seining places were on the lower Taunton River, where a commercial shad fishery had been carried on for 200 years or more. For thousands of years before European settlement, the first settlers of this region, Native Americans built weirs to harvest the abundant runs of American shad, blueback herring and other fishes of the Taunton River and its tributaries. From the end of the last ice age up until about 1900 American Shad and blueback herring were an integral part of the aquatic ecosystem of both the Matfield and Upper Taunton River. Despite restoration efforts by the Ma Division of Marine Fisheries in the 1970's and again in the 1980's the shad unlike the alewife have not come back to the mainstem of these rivers.
Why are there so few American shad in these rivers today? Why are American shad important?
Before getting into why shad are so few, it is worth noting that American Shad are not a rare or endangered species. Although their populations along the Atlantic coast today are well below their historic populations, there are healthy, stable and increasing runs in many rivers. Both the North River to our north and the Palmer River to our south have shad runs. In 2003 close to three hundred thousand American shad passed through the fish lift at Holyoke Dam on the Connecticut River, compared to sixteen thousand in 1967. Up and down the Atlantic coast from the Kennebec and Penobscot Rivers in Maine, south to the Potomac River, Chesapeake Bay and beyond, federal and state agencies along with nonprofit groups are spending millions and working hard to restore American shad, and it’s working. The American shad is also a Federal trust fish, meaning that the federal government has some responsibility for its recovery.
Why are there few if any American shad in the Matfield and Taunton Rivers today? To find out why we must first understand what the American shads environmental requirements are when they are in the river. The following information on the shads environmental requirements is from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Biological Report # 82(11.37) April 1985.
"The American shad require well oxygenated waters either in rivers or in the sea. Dissolved oxygen levels must be at least 4 to 5 mg/l in headponds through which shad pass in their migration (Jessop 1975). In the laboratory, equilibrium is lost at dissolved oxygen levels below 3 mg/l; heavy mortality occurs at levels below 2 mg/l; and all fish die at concentrations less than 0.6 mg/l (Chittenden 1969). Shad eggs were absent where the concentration of dissolved oxygen was lower than 5mg/l (Marcy 1976). The oxygen LC 50 for Connecticut River shad eggs is 2.0 to 2.5 mg/l (Carlson 1968)."
The table below is water quality sampling data gathered by the ESS Group as part of the Matfield River non point source pollution study conducted during the summer of 2002. MR1 is the sampling site at High St. Bridgewater on the Matfield, MR2 is Rt. 18 East Bridgewater on the Matfield, MR3 is W. Union St. East Bridgewater on the Matfield. The Massachusetts minimum standard for dissolved oxygen is 5.0 mg/l and 60% saturation.
The following is an excerpt from a Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries survey of the Taunton River for shad restoration in 1967 through 1970.
"The Massachusetts Water Resources Commission has given this section of the river an SB classification. Under this classification water quality must be improved to the point that dissolved oxygen is not less than 5.0 mg/l and ammonia-nitrogen does not exceed an average of 0.2 mg/l during any month. It is anticipated that water quality will be improved to eventually meet these standards and will no longer be a detriment to anadromous fishes."
The following ammonia nitrogen figures are from water samples taken at Titicut St. On the Taunton River by the United States Geological Survey, 2001-12-11 .85 mg/l ---- 2002-04-24 .66 mg/l ---- 2002-06-11 .23 mg/l ----- 2002-08-07 .04 mg/l.
It’s important to realize that these water quality criteria numbers are not abstract numbers. They mark a threshold point. When these limits are exceeded aquatic ecosystems begin breaking down. Pollution intolerant species begin dying or are unable to reproduce. The overall abundance and natural diversity of the aquatic ecosystem lessens. This is why fish species such as shad and blueback herring along with other less pollution tolerant species are so important. We must use these various species to put a face to the numbers, so that people can easily identify with these limits or thresholds 5.0 MG/L dissolved oxygen, 0.2 MG/L ammonia nitrogen, 0.02 MG/L phosphorus. When these thresholds are exceeded, we begin losing these river species.
While we have far more questions than answers regarding these species, we will never find answers until we ask the questions. Until now few have asked these questions. We know the Matfield and the Upper Taunton are unique and rare in their physical habitats, both along the shore and beneath the water. There are no dams and little shoreline development, everything is intact, these truly are wild and scenic rivers. However, we also know the quality of their water is that of an urban river, their water does not reflect the character of these rivers. Hopefully our efforts here will begin this process of asking questions and finding answers. Our long term goal must be to restore species like shad and blueback herring to something of their former abundance. To measure our success not solely by numbers, by a healthy, thriving and diverse aquatic community where our most tolerant and intolerant species can live side by side.
We are including a brief fisheries summary of the Satucket River with our report because it is one of the major tributaries of the Matfield, and through Satucket lies an incredible alewife restoration opportunity for the Satucket, Matfield and Taunton River.
The headwaters of the Satucket River are Robbins Pond and above there, Monponsett Pond. Between the two is another pond, locally known as Stump Pond. Together these ponds comprise about 600 acres of pond habitat. Except for Nemasket River and the Assawompsett Pond complex. these 600 acres represent the largest amount of potential alewife spawning habitat in the Taunton River watershed. Historically and relatively recently (1950's) alewives had access to these ponds, through a series of fishways beginning at the first upstream obstruction, the Carver Cotton Gin Mill Dam, which is just down stream of Rt 106 in East Bridgewater. Because this fish passage and other smaller ones have fallen apart over the years alewives can no longer reach these ponds to spawn.
The importance and benefit of alewife restoration to Satucket and its headwater ponds is far reaching. The six hundred acres of alewife spawning habitat in Robbins, Stump and Monponsett Ponds has the potential to support a run of close to one million adult alewives, this is not a small number. Perhaps more importantly these one million adults will ultimately parent two hundred and fifty million juveniles which will migrate down stream each fall. This represents a tremendous increase in the forage base for the Satucket River, Matfield River, Taunton River and Mount Hope Bay. Numbers such as these have basin wide impacts on both the aquatic and land based ecosystems of the Taunton River Watershed.
It is well known that Nemasket River and it’s headwater ponds support the richest and most abundant assemblages of wildlife on the Taunton River. Bald eagles, Osprey, Kingfishers, Blue Herons and River Otter are common sights here. It is also well known that gamefish of Nemasket are both larger and more abundant than those of other streams. This is due in no small part to the abundance of alewives in the Nemasket Watershed. By reconnecting Satucket and its alewives we have an opportunity to recreate the success of Nemasket and reinvigorate with life the ecosystem of the whole Taunton River above Nemasket.
This restoration effort goes beyond alewives. Freshwater mussel species like the alewife floater (anadonta implicata) would be reintroduced into the Satucket. Other indigenous fish species would also have an opportunity to exploit what has been inaccessible habitat for fifty years. White perch, American shad, American Eel, sea Lamprey, rainbow smelt all essential elements of a living river, all important parts of a healthy thriving ecosystem. We know of no other restoration project that would have as far-reaching basin wide benefits, in this watershed, or in any other. Below are two references regarding the historical fisheries of the Matfield and Satucket Rivers.
The following is from the book History of East Bridgewater by William Allen.
"Formerly the number of alewives, or herring that passed up Satucket River and spawned in Robins Pond was very large. Shad seemed to prefer the Matfield River, and a shad weir was located on that stream, not far from the bridge of the Bridgewater Branch Railroad. The herring weir on the Satucket River, built by the aborigines, perhaps hundreds of years ago, still remains much the same as when the last Indian placed his net to catch the nimble fish as they darted through the stony sluice, which might well be called a race-way. For more than two hundred years, since the erection and running of mills, this perhaps only surviving structure here-abouts, built by the dusky owners of the soil, has been out of sight, except as when the water of the stream was drawn down for a short time in the spring of each year to permit the herring to pass up and down the stream, or repairs or building operations might require the water of the pond to be let off. Since 1819 mills have not been stopped on account of the fisheries, and herring have nearly ceased their visits in this vicinity, and the Indians’ dam has seldom been visible".
This is an excerpt from the David Belding report on the restoration of the Alewife fisheries of Massachusetts 1920.
"Satucket River and Monponset Brook.- Satucket River, which takes its origin in Monponset Pond, joins Salisbury Plain River to form the Matfield River, which is a part of the upper Taunton River proper. The first part of its course, between Monponset and Robins Pond, is through a region of cranberry bogs, on the site of the original Stump Pond. The river is used for water power, and receives factory wastes. At the outlet of Robbins Pond is a cobblestone embankment, and at the lower part of the river is situated the Carver Cotton Gin Company, with a high impassable dam, now equipped with a David fishway.
At the present time there is no fishery in the Satucket River, as until 1920 the alewives were unable to get to Robbins and Monponset ponds for spawning. Formerly numbers of alewives passed up this river, and a shad weir was once located on the Matfield River.
By the establishment of fishways and the affording of free passageway to Robbins and Monponset Ponds the available spawning grounds for Taunton River would be increased, a fair fishery in Satucket River would be established, and the freshwater fishing in the ponds would be helped by provision of a source of food in the form of young alewives; also the run of white perch would be permitted. By the establishment of a concrete fishway in 1919 at the Jenkins Company Dam it was made possible for alewives to pass up to the dam of Carver Cotton Gin Company, were a fishway was installed in 1920. Restocking of the ponds with adult alewives, and proper enforcement of closed seasons, will be necessary to obtain appreciable results within the next few years".