Why should I care about river herring?
River herring are considered a “foundation” fish in the Buzzards Bay ecosystem. Many of the Bay’s large sportfish and water birds – including ospreys and striped bass, two other tell-tale signs of spring – rely on river herring as food. And river herring feed on plankton in the water, making them an important link in the food web.
Unfortunately, herring populations up and down the East Coast have been in decline for years. Dams and other blockages are one of the biggest problems facing river herring and other migratory fish. (When you visit these herring runs, you’ll see posted signage prohibiting the harvest of river herring. In 2006, Massachusetts became one of several states to ban the catch, sale, and possession of river herring to help protect the stock.) Accidental catch of river herring at sea in commercial trawlers is another factor.
A loss of river herring is bad news for the Buzzards Bay ecosystem. Without enough herring swimming up the Bay’s rivers each spring, sportfish and water birds have less food to eat. In the Coalition’s 2015 State of Buzzards Bay report, the score for river herring was only 2 out of 100.
The Coalition monitors river herring populations in the Acushnet River, the Sippican River, the Agawam River, the Wankinco River, and Cedar Lake/Rands Harbor using counters that track how many herring are swimming upstream. In addition, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries tracks herring migrating up the Monument River (Cape Cod Canal herring run) and Alewives Anonymous tracks herring in the Mattapoisett River. Together, these annual counts provide a view of river herring populations across Buzzards Bay.
Where can I see a herring run near me?
If you live in the Buzzards Bay region, chances are you’ve driven by a herring run at some point in your life and didn’t even know it. These fish ladders, small streams, and other fishways often create bottlenecks where schools of herring congregate during the busiest periods of the annual migration.
Herring runs make for interesting spots to stop, look, listen, and even stay awhile with a picnic lunch. And because herring attract so many other species, you may see some other exciting fish and birds during your visit!
1. Albert C. Rosinha Memorial Herring Run on the Westport River (Westport)
Located on Rocky Delano Brook at the headwaters of the West Branch of the Westport River, the Albert C. Rosinha Memorial Herring Run features a grassy picnic area next to quiet Gray’s Mill Pond. Grab coffee or a snack at the shop across the street and stay awhile to watch ducks on the pond or find the geocache that’s hidden here.
2. The Sawmill (Acushnet)
For nearly 300 years, a dam on the Acushnet River blocked migrating fish from reaching their freshwater spawning grounds. In 2007, the Coalition worked with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to open the dam for fish passage. This innovative fishway uses carefully placed boulders that mimic the river’s natural form and allow river herring to migrate upstream, resulting in a significant increase in herring in the Acushnet River.
You can see this nature-like fishway yourself by taking a walk at The Sawmill. A footbridge crosses over the fishway, with signage about river herring and other restoration efforts at the park. Look for wildlife on the river, in the woods, and in the restored maple swamp next to the fishway. And don’t forget to visit for the annual Acushnet River Herring Festival in May!
3. Oliver Mill Park (Middleborough)
Middleborough’s Oliver Mill Park technically isn’t in the Buzzards Bay watershed – but the Nemasket River, which flows through the park, is connected to Buzzards Bay through the Assawompset Pond Complex. The Nemasket herring run is the largest in Massachusetts, with more than half a million river herring migrating upriver each spring. Take a walk across the park’s charming foot bridges during the peak of the migration season in April, and you’re sure to see herring swimming below!
4. Mattapoisett River Herring Weir (Mattapoisett)
Another quaint historic herring run next to a grassy knoll, the Mattapoisett River Herring Weir is a quick stop on your herring run tour. You can walk over the weir to look for fish in the river and learn about the weir’s important history by reading the signage posted by the water. There’s also a hidden geocache here with a river herring theme.
5. Sippican River Fish Ladder at Eastover Farm (Rochester)
Unfortunately, very few herring are making their way up the Sippican River in recent years due to two dams on the river that block migration. But the herring run here at breathtaking Eastover Farm still offers a fantastic view of a fish ladder for curious onlookers. Nearby, you can enjoy a picnic by Leonard’s Pond or take a walk at East Over Reservation to look for other types of wildlife.
6. Wankinco River Herring Run (Wareham)
Wareham is home to two of the most active herring runs on Buzzards Bay. One of them is located on the Wankinco River next to the Tremont Nail Company. The Wankinco River herring run has a large fish ladder that leads migrating fish upstream into Parker Mills Pond. This is one of five sites around Buzzards Bay where the Coalition counts river herring each spring.
7. Agawam River Herring Run (Wareham)
Next to the Wareham Elks Lodge, the Agawam River herring run is another active fish ladder where the Coalition monitors river herring. Between the fish swimming up the ladder and osprey flying above waiting to catch them, this location will not disappoint. Herring are so active in the Agawam River that seals have been observed swimming up the river to catch a meal!
8. Carter Beal Conservation Area (Bourne)
The site of a former grist mill built in 1695, Carter Beal Conservation Area is home to the remnants of the first dam on the Herring River. A small footbridge crosses the river at the fish ladder, where you might see herring migrating upstream in spring on their way to Plymouth’s Great Herring Pond. This conservation area and surrounding Sacrifice Rock Woods are popular spots to hike, picnic, and explore.
9. Herring Run Recreation Area (Bourne)
Just downstream from Carter Beal near the midpoint of the Cape Cod Canal lies Herring Run Recreation Area, where the Herring River flows into the canal. This active herring run offers clear views of the fish ladder, where you can easily spot herring on their migratory journey. There’s also an interpretive trail, an interactive learning center, and the seven-mile Cape Cod Canal Bikeway, making Herring Run Recreation Area an excellent destination for a day-long adventure.
10. Wing Pond Woods (Falmouth)
Falmouth’s Wing Pond is another spawning area for river herring, which swim up Herring Brook from Buzzards Bay at Old Silver Beach. You can reach the herring run from Wing Pond Woods off the Shining Sea Bikeway. A wide, sandy trail threads between the pond and a working cranberry bog toward the woods and the herring run.