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Virtual Herring Run
Along with the blooming of daffodils and crocuses, and the appearance of right whales in Cape Cod Bay, the annual migration of herring fish, known as the “herring run” is a sure sign of spring in New England, particularly where our museum is located in Plymouth as well as nearby Cape Cod.
Located on historic Town Brook in downtown Plymouth, Plimoth Plantation’s Plimoth Grist Mill is typically an ideal spot for locals and visitors alike to watch these intrepid fish make their journey each year, from about mid-April through May. In fact, alongside our mill is what might be described as a “herring highway,” a man-made structure that makes the process a bit easier for these fish which are so important to the region’s ecology.
On this page, learn more about the significance of this relatively small fish - historically, culturally, and ecologically, and find fun resources and activities for all ages, including a NOAA Fisheries virtual tour of the herring’s newly restored habitat in Plymouth!
Herring: Small Fish, Big Role
Each spring, thousands of river herring migrate from the ocean to freshwater streams to lay their eggs. They are a key species in the food web of the North Atlantic, providing food for larger animals such as whales, bluefish and osprey.
Herring have been an important part of the natural world of the indigenous Wampanoag people of southeastern Massachusetts for thousands of years. In the 17th century, they ate herring caught during the spring migration, or herring run, and dried the fish to preserve it. The appearance of the fish also signaled the beginning of the planting season. The Wampanoag planted their staple grain, maize corn, by burying herring with the seeds to provide nutrients for the growing plants.
The English colonists were familiar with herring, which they called alewives. Plymouth colonists were awed, however, by the alewives’ vast numbers in North America. According to one account, as many as 12,000 alewives swam upstream in a single tide! Tisquantum, also known as Squanto, taught the colonists the Wampanoag practice of fertilizing corn with herring.
It wasn’t long until the rushing water that sustained the herring was also harnessed for industry, including a grist mill on Town Brook. The damming of Town Brook to provide power blocked the way to the herring spawning grounds at the brook’s headwater, Billington Sea. When the colonists noticed a decrease in the number of herring, they began taking measures to protect this important resource. They appointed wardens to oversee the herring run and required mills to maintain separate side streams or “troughs” (fishways) to allow the herring to pass the dams. Today, a modern fishway sits behind Plimoth Plantation’s Plimoth Grist Mill, a working exhibit of the museum.
By 2002, industry on Town Brook ceased, leaving decaying mill sites and stretches of water through which few herring could pass. The Town of Plymouth began working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other partners to remove dams and restore Town Brook’s ecology. In 2019, the removal of Holmes Dam completed the seventeen-year project to give herring complete passage to their historic spawning grounds.
In 2018, the annual herring run was estimated at 185,000, up from lows of 40,000 in the 20th century. With continued efforts to restore the watershed, we may once again see runs return to historic levels. The herring only run in Town Brook in the spring, and you can see live footage on the Town of Plymouth’s fish camera!
Learn More: Virtual Resources and Activities
Much of what we know about the importance of herring and other fish in 17th-century Plimoth and Patuxet comes from Wampanoag oral tradition, written primary sources, and archaeology. Here are some ways you can dive deeper into this fascinating topic:
- Explore our virtual exhibit History in a New Light: Illuminating the Archaeology of Historic Patuxet and Plimoth to learn how archaeologists use evidence buried underground - including herringbones - to understand how Indigenous and colonial communities used herring as fertilizer for their crops and as trade items
- Take a Journey Through 20 Years of Restoration of Town Brook in Plymouth, Massachusetts with NOAA Fisheries’ virtual tour - Swimming Upstream - and learn about the value of dam removal projects like the Town Brook Restoration
- Be a Citizen Scientist! Help with the virtual herring count, study herring count data, and learn about the herring’s journey from a marine science specialist!
Come see us at the Plimoth Grist Mill where you can help us count herring during the spring, see the American eel ladder, and learn more about the important role Town Brook and the mill played in sustaining the early days of Plymouth Colony.