Herring Count Volunteers Making a Difference for the Ipswich River

The Ipswich River Watershed Association began our 16th annual herring count on April 1st, 2014. The count takes place at the Ipswich Mills dam fish ladder located in downtown Ipswich MA. We are fortunate to have many dedicated volunteers count for 10-minute shifts throughout the day until the beginning of June. As of April 10th, we have not seen any herring, but the water temperature is reaching the point we expect to see the first fish.
At one time, the Ipswich River experienced runs of millions of herring, shad, salmon, striped bass, and other ocean fish that swam as far upstream as Wilmington to spawn every spring. Native Americans called the river Agawam, meaning "place where fishes of passage resorted," a testament to the rich fish populations it once supported. In 2013, we only observed 33 individual herring and we estimated the total run size (including fish we did not see) to be less than 1,000 fish. Today, dams, low flows caused by water withdrawals and the transformation of traditional spawning habitat into water supply reservoirs prevent herring from thriving in the river. As disappointing as these numbers are, it is just as important to document the absence of river herring as it will be, someday, to document their return.
We want to restore the river's vitality– an enormous task – and documenting the herring population is a critical step in this process. Other critical steps in the process include removing dams, which no longer have a practical function, and controlling the amount of water local water systems remove from the river.
The Ipswich River has the potential to host a thriving herring population and fishery once again. Other rivers on the north shore like the Parker River have seen modest gains in recent years, so there is hope! As an important part of the food web, a healthy herring population would be very beneficial to the ecology of the river.
To learn more about our herring count and the other work we do, please visit our website at

Ryan O’Donnell

Programs Coordinator

Ipswich River Watershed Association

April 10, 2014