The Legendary Spring Herring Migration

The annual spring spawning herring run appears as soon as the temperature of the water warms up. That rings the alarm of the herring’s biological clock for the time to begin its pilgrimage out of the ocean and up the coastal rivers to return to the inland fresh water ponds of its origin.

This is a truly remarkable natural phenomena classified as ‘anadramous,’ meaning migrating up rivers to spawn.

In preparation for this sometimes long, hazardous journey, herring school up by the hundreds of thousands as a group effort to reduce risk of predation by being polarized in direction and reaction as a single organism, able to wheel and turn for a synchronized evasive maneuver.

The herring run often with the larger cousin, the shad, as I have illustrated in my rendering, and this symbiosis has a historical consequence in early New England history.

It started as a godsend for the winter starved pilgrims of Plymouth in 1621, unexpectedly appearing with a cornucopia of protein-rich food, easily caught in existing Indian weirs. It became a dependable bonus to boost agriculture until, finally in 1707, magistrates here had to enact regulations to restrict and limit usage to just one fish for every hill of corn planted.

Then again, in 1778, the spring run up the Schulkill River at Valley Forge provided sustenance to Washington’s hungry troops and heartened their resolve to continue to fight on for independence.

Henry David Thoreau was just one of many prominent observers of the undaunted and intrepid resolve of the migration into Walden Pond, bravely against all odds, of which only a small percentage would achieve the reproductive mission of their resolve.

Thoreau likened their heroics to the embattled minutemen farmers who stood their ground by the Old North Bridge that arched the flood of the Concord River and were destined to reach their goal to turn back the ebbing onslaught of imperialism.

However, all too soon, the age of industrial waterpower was to bring migratory obstruction dams to New England, some of which are now gradually being torn down to restore access for the marching legions of spawning migration.

In the meantime, construction programs of alternate fish ladders by fisheries have provided passage around high dams, with constructing incremental and gradual series of smaller waterfalls with pools, rising up like the locks of a canal and quite successful in restoring the life cycle of fish freedom of movement.

There are two public runs in our area, the first in the Mattapoisett River at the intersection of Route 6, and the second a little further away at the Nemasket River in the Thomas Memorial Park in Middleboro.

When you see the gathering of sea gulls overhead, you will soon know a most spectacular spring ritual is once again passing before our very eyes to take us back in history, as well as ensuring the future of this legendary pilgrimage for our wildlife heritage.

By George B. Emmons


One Response to “The Legendary Spring Herring Migration”

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  1. Maria Giddings says:

    Hey this is a great article but I’d like to add that there is also a herring run for the public to see at the Plimoth Grist Mill in downtown Plymouth. The ladder runs up right next to the mill and comes out on the other side. It’s really neat too see and the grist mill is pretty cool too!

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