Spring Has Sprung and a Young Herring’s Fancy Lightly Turns to Thoughts of Love
Or, at least, propagation of the species.
Spring has finally arrived in New England and as surely as the forsythias bloom and the peepers peep, the alewives–a kind of river herring called Alosa pseudoharengus–are returning to their parent streams to spawn. Luckily for us, part of the Plimoth Mill is built right over the top of Town Brook, so we bear daily witness to the migration of these plucky fish.
In Plymouth, they start their voyage at the mouth of Town Brook (just a stone’s throw from Plymouth Rock) and end up in Billington Sea. Over the course of their journey they will swap their normal saltwater habitat for freshwater (they are anadromous), swim about 1.5 miles against the current of the Brook, and gain 81 feet in elevation.
Against the current
Uphill, 81 feet
From saltwater to fresh water
Having arrived at Billington Sea, the girl fish lay their eggs and the boy fish release milt over them. They then make the less strenuous but equally perilous return trip to the ocean. Each year the alewives return to the same parent stream to spawn. They can live as long as nine years. The babies, fry or “young of the year” hatch after three to five days. After growing for a few months in Billington Sea, in late summer they swim downstream to the ocean. After several years of maturing, they will return to the same brook in which they were hatched, their parent stream, to spawn.
The seasonal spectacle of alewives on parade makes a tempting and easy feast for seagull, osprey, cormorant, heron, striped bass, trout, otter, mink, and raccoon. At The Plymouth Mill we have a group of regulars who hang out waiting for dinner to present itself. There’s the cormorant in our lower tail race, Miko the raccoon who sleeps off alewife binges on our roof (and who isn’t at all good about cleaning up after himself), and two seagull regulars at their post–they remind me of the two grumpy hecklers on the Muppet Show.
Like our resident chow hounds, humans have come to rely on the seasonal bounty of alewives. Herring were, and still are, an important part of life for the Wampanoag. They’ve been using alewives as food and as a source of fertilizer for corn for thousands of years. Wampanoag man Tisquantum (shortened to Squanto by the English) famously and generously shared the practice with the Pilgrims.
Colonists quickly began to rely on alewives, but as decades passed they noticed a decline in the alewife population. They made the connection that waterworks and dams, like the one used to supply power to John Jenney’s grist mill, were blocking the herring from returning to their spawning grounds. Over fishing was also seen as a culprit. In 1662 legislation was passed which regulated the times in which herring could be taken (like the colonists, they got to take the Sabbath off!), limited use of the mill during the herring run, and stressed the importance of keeping animals and “Boyes” from bothering them during their migration. I guess boys will be boys, no matter the century.
…and that they are to lett them goe up on Fryday nights, on Saterday nights and on the Lord’s daies; and the town doth proibite all those that have enterest or shalbee Imployed in the Mill to stopp water when the tide is out of the pond during the time of the herrings; and that they the said parties are hereby authorized to take course for the preventing of Boyes, swine and dogs from annoying of them in theire coming up.”
1662, Records of the Town of Plymouth
In 1667 the town required that the mill make provisions, such as a flood gate, so that the alewives could have “…free libertie to goe up to spawn att the season therof…”
350 years later, the alewife population is still being monitored with an eye toward conservation. More on those efforts in the next post, Herring Love, Part II.
Below is an image of the herring way that runs behind our mill today, and which helps the fish get up and over our ten foot high dam. It’s made of two Alaskan Steep Pass fishways connected by a level with a resting spot in the middle. More on the fishway in the next post too.
And here are a few of the over 100,000 alewives that will pass through it this year. Queued up and waiting their turn!
So, if you live near a place where the herring run, get out there and appreciate them! Cheer them on like the marathon runners (or swimmers) that they are.