New book tells the story of the small but mighty herring 9-19-14

New book tells the story of the small but mighty herring
Middleboro Gazette

Special Writer
September 15, 2014 12:00 AM

MIDDLEBORO — So much to write and say about such a small fish.

While herrings typically reach lengths of no more than 15 inches, their economic impact on the development of Middleboro and other communities in southeastern Massachusetts was so profound and their contributions to the progress of the region so distinct that the species deserves a book of its own.

Thus, "Nemasket River Herring: A History" (copyright 2014; published by the Natural History Press, a division of The History Press of Charleston, S.C.), authored by Michael J. Maddigan of Middleboro, earns its distinction as the most current — and likely most comprehensive — dissertation ever published on river herrings (also called alewives) in the Nemasket River and other local waterways. The herring have called this area home for eons and have awed generations of local residents with their reproductive powers and acute abilities to persevere and survive against the rapacity of mankind.

Like the book's subject, "Nemasket River Herring: A History" meanders from the distant past into contemporary times, providing examples of steps taken first by Native Americans, later by English settlers, and ultimately by American citizens and communities to harness the economic benefits of the herring. Readers learn that herring essentially defined the boundaries of Middleboro through their spawning processes and significantly influenced its formal relations with nearby communities, while also shaping much of its fiscal stability until well into the 20th century.

Culling information from numerous sources — including public archives, libraries, books, published articles, directories and newspaper accounts — Maddigan extensively describes the evolution of the herring as an economic powerhouse in the region and explores the many and varied uses for the fish. He also itemizes in the 191-page book the ups and downs of their annual harvest and provides in-depth analyses of their impact on other local communities, which includes their important place in the local food chain and their contributions to a healthy ecosystem. He also explains in detail efforts to assist the fish in reaching spawning grounds through construction of fish ladders.

"Like most people who grew up in Middleboro, I have early remembrances of the herring and going to the Wareham Street ladder with my grandfather to see them," Maddigan wrote in an e-mail interview. "Several years ago, I began compiling information for a history of the Nemasket River and I realized that there was so much information on the herring and so much history that hadn't been published about them that it warranted a separate book."

The vice chairman of the town's Historical Commission and the author of "Recollecting Nemasket," a column that appears bimonthly in The Gazette as well as being the title of an online blog, Maddigan is the town's unofficial historian and has written a number of local history books.

As one learns from reading "Nemasket River Herring: A History," Middleboro prized herring for more than two centuries as irreplaceable economic assets and went to great lengths to preserve their access to spawning grounds and avert overfishing and depletion of fishing stocks. Whether it was through constant monitoring of local waterways by fish wardens, through enactments of the Massachusetts Legislature or through legal means, Middleboro's leaders were vigilant in defending the herring fishery against any perceived violators and used all means available to them (legal or otherwise) to protect it for future generations.

For instance, in the mid-19th century, Middleboro "ambushed" Berkley by removing nets placed in the Taunton River in the latter community that caught herring in great quantities before they could reach Middleboro. A newspaper report of the time quoted in the book said, "The crop of lawsuits will be larger than the crop of herrings."

Another revelation in "Nemasket River Herring: A History" is that manufacturing in Middleboro — especially in the 18th and 19th centuries — was greatly affected by concerns over protecting the herring. Since water power was essential in manufacturing processes and often provided obstacles for spawning fish, the town consistently took actions to ensure that commercial interests would not negatively impact the fish.

Unfortunately, pollution from various sources is believed to have been partly responsible for a decline of herring populations in the 20th century along with over-fishing, leading the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to institute a ban on harvesting the fish which continues to this day.

"I hope that the book can draw greater awareness to the role the herring has played in our development as a community and region," Maddigan said. "Having a better understanding of this, I feel that residents will recognize the priority of protecting the fish, which is a critical link in the local food chain.

"Protecting the herring and preserving them for future generations is key to maintaining a healthy ecosystem and a healthy Nemasket River."

"Nemasket River Herring: A History" is a soft-cover book and is selling for $21.99 per copy. The book, and others my Maddigan, can be purchased locally at Maria's Hallmark Cards & Gifts located at 1 Center Street in Middleboro; or online at,, or

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