Restoring Migratory Fish in the Merrimack River

Home Conservation Restoring Migratory Fish in the Merrimack River
Restoring Migratory Fish in the Merrimack River

The Merrimack River watershed is the fourth largest in New England, and historically supported great runs of migratory fish. Over the past 200 years, their numbers have dramatically declined, negatively impacting the ecology of the watershed and coastal waters. Along with our partners, NOAA Fisheries has developed a comprehensive management plan for the watershed aimed at restoring these important fish, and the habitats on which they rely.

Dams, Fish, and Why They Don’t Mix

Diadromous fish spend part of their life in freshwater, and part in saltwater. Prior to pervasive dam construction in the late 18th and early 19th century, they were abundant in the Merrimack River watershed. Species that were seasonally present in great numbers included:

  • American shad, river herring (alewife and blueback herring)
  • Sturgeon (Atlantic and shortnose)
  • American eel
  • Striped bass
  • Atlantic salmon
  • Sea lamprey

The annual migrations of these fish were anticipated by local people and wildlife alike. Eagles, osprey, otters, and many other native species would rely on this seasonal abundance of fish for food. They often adapted their breeding season to coincide with the arrival of the vast schools of fish. In fact, diadromous fish are one of the few food sources that can travel inland from the ocean, against the flow of rivers and streams. When the young fish and surviving adults swim back to the ocean, they also play a crucial role in the marine food web as both predators and prey.

Dam construction began throughout the watershed shortly after the arrival of European settlers as a way to harness the power of the river. They reduced habitat connectivity and the abundance of diadromous fish. Widespread industry in the watershed, including many paper and textile mills, resulted in degraded water quality. This further exacerbated the effects of decreased habitat connectivity and lack of access for fish to their natal waters. These combined factors resulted in a severe reduction in fish abundance. It effectively removed diadromous fish from the habitats upstream of Essex Dam, the first dam on the Merrimack River. For Atlantic salmon, the habitat alteration and associated impacts proved too much, with 10 individuals or less returning to the river in each of the last five years. Atlantic salmon are now listed as endangered and are one of NOAA Fisheries’ Species in the Spotlight. Modern restoration efforts have resulted in some improvements; however, the abundance of diadromous species remains a small percentage of historical levels.

Map of Merrimack River Watershed
Map of the Merrimack River Watershed showing the mainstem, major tributaries, and associated cities in New Hampshire and Massachusetts Credit: NOAA Fisheries

What Is Being Done to Help?

Over the past year, NOAA Fisheries has worked with partner agencies to develop the Merrimack River Watershed Comprehensive Plan for Diadromous Fishes, including:

  • U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  • Massachusetts Division of Fish and Wildlife
  • Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries
  • New Hampshire Fish and Game Department

The plan is primarily focused on the restoration of American shad, river herring, American eel, and sea lamprey, based on their historical presence, and the suitability of remaining and potential habitat in the watershed.

The purpose is to create a framework that balances diadromous fish restoration efforts with other water resource uses and ecosystem services in the Merrimack River watershed. The plan was designed to protect, conserve, and restore the habitat and natural resources of the Merrimack River. It supports NOAA Fisheries’ goals for the watershed.

With more than 3,000 barriers in the watershed, habitat connectivity remains the biggest challenge facing the restoration of diadromous fish. Most of these dams are relics that no longer serve their designed purpose. However, several of the large dams that originally provided power for mills have since been fitted with powerhouses containing modern turbines that generate clean energy. NOAA Fisheries and our partner agencies engage with dam owners to ensure effective fish passage is maintained at these facilities. The goal is to balance restoration of diadromous fish with the need for sustainable energy production.

Planning on Fish

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River herring heading upstream. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/ Jerry Prezioso

The plan highlights restoration priorities throughout the watershed, providing managers with a framework to restore diadromous fish and support sustainable use of watershed resources. It includes detailed information and recommendations for the 20 subwatersheds in the 5,000-square-mile basin, which comprise more than 9,500 miles of rivers and streams. Much of this habitat is currently inaccessible to migratory fish. Out of the thousands of barriers in the watershed, seven strategic dams have been identified that have the potential to greatly improve accessible habitat with the provision of fish passage:

  • Talbot Mills Dam (Concord River)
  • Pepperell Dam (Nashua River)
  • McLane & Goldman Dams (Souhegan River)
  • Kelley’s Falls Dam (Piscataquog River)
  • Hooksett & Garvin’s Falls Dams (Merrimack River)

With effective fish passage at these dams, it is estimated that spawning habitat for American shad and river herring could be nearly doubled. It would increase, from the current 4,200 surface acres to more than 7,200 acres. Providing access to more habitat results in increased fish production and will hopefully accelerate their recovery to historical abundance. While implementing fish passage at these dams will take time, successful engagement regarding these barriers will ensure a high return on investment of restoration resources.

There is much work to be done in order to restore diadromous fish populations to their former levels. With dedicated partners, and a comprehensive plan, NOAA Fisheries is poised to meet the challenges facing these important natural resources in the Merrimack River watershed.

To read the plan and learn more about ongoing restoration efforts in the watershed please visit  the website and search for Accession Number 20210617-5016.