New Hampshire’s Taylor River springs from the ground at its origin on the Hampton Falls/Kensington line and gathers flow as it streams eastward some 10.6 miles arriving at the head of tide at a dam at the junction of I-95. The Taylor River arrives DOA (Dead on Arrival) as the water spills over the dam under I-95 into the brackish waters of the Hampton Marshes. It was not so, not so many years ago.
In fact Taylor River was full of life in 1976 when a fishway was installed at the I-95 dam to allow the passage each spring of river herring into the freshwater section to spawn as they once historically did. That first year New Hampshire Fish and Game Marine staff estimated a herring run of 450,000 herring. Considering one female herring may spawn 200,000 eggs, untold millions of juvenile herring were raised in the freshwater impoundment before flinging themselves back into the sea that fall.
River herring numbers naturally vary in cycles each spring based on several factors including survival of juveniles to adult, which takes three to five years, and even spring water condition each April into May when adults return to the freshwater where they were hatched.
But the Taylor River has had a dramatic decline in returning adults since 2000. Between 1978 and 1986 the river herring numbers varied from about 100,000 to nearly 400,000 fish. That number fell to between 40,000 and 80,000 herring per year over the next decade further slumping to 10,000 to 40,000 between 1994 and 2000. Since 2001 the number of river herring returning to the Taylor River has dropped dramatically to 7,000 in 2001 and just 147 herring in 2006!
The Fish and Game Department in a cooperative effort with the Department of Environmental Services have been looking for causes to the dying of the Taylor River. Low summer water flows and high water temperatures (Global Warming) and a lack of oxygen in the water above the dam appear to be significant factors. Studies are underway to look for potential causes such as past pesticide uses upstream. Hampton Falls has a strong agricultural history including several apple orchards where pesticide use is common. Fish and Game staff are currently trying to collect samples of bottom feeding fish, such as suckers, bullheads (hornpout) and even American eels to try to determine if chemicals, such ass DDE, DDT or DDE are present in the fish. Surprising no common white suckers have been captured, though they are common to other water bodies in the area, and even bullheads have been hard to net in the impoundment above the dam. Only sunfish and golden shiners seem to be plentiful, though a few chain pickerel have also been netted.
So far the most likely suspect in the decline in the water quality, and thus the fish themselves, has been simply the increased number of humans and the impact increasing development has on water quality.
Hampton Falls, like so many other towns in Rockingham County, has grown in leaps and bounds the last few decades. Surprisingly the 1950’s census at 629 people showed fewer than the first census taken in 1776 at 645 individuals. All of that has changed dramatically in the last couple of decades, which shows a significant decline in herring numbers corresponding to the increase in human numbers. The Hampton Falls human population has more than tripled in the last five decades going from 629 in 1950 to 2,037 in 2007. As an example, the human population increased 28 percent between 1990 and 2000, while over this same period the river herring run declined 40 percent.
Simply put, human impact on fish and wildlife is significant. Our roofs, driveways and parking lots quickly shed water each spring leaving less water to gradually filter into the river over the summer to reduce the temperature and keep the oxygen levels up. Our use of fertilizers and nutrients from septic systems flows into the rivers, spiking plant growth, which then die over the summer, depleting the river of oxygen. There is little doubt that humans are having a significant affect on the reduced water quality in the Taylor River.
And it is not just the Taylor River in Hampton Falls that has seen a significant decline in the spring river herring runs. Both the Exeter River in Exeter and the Oyster River in Durham have had declines within the last decade.
In a Federal Aid Report completed by the New Hampshire Fish and Game Marine staff in March of 2007 (Go to nhfishandwildlife.com, 2006 NH Coastal River Herring Report) they reported : “ The number of returns to the Exeter River has steadily decreased since 2003. It is speculated that reduction in returns could be due to water quality problems in the impoundment above the dam...” The poor summer water quality above the dam in downtown Exeter is actually significantly worsened by water diversions by the town and a local academy for water supply as well as a river-side condominium complex that draws water out of the river to cool the old mill building converted to residences. Here again folks in town, who are simply watering their lawns or washing their cars on a hot summers day, are actually slowly suffocating the fish within the river by depriving them of oxygen. The beautiful Exeter River coursing through town is slowly dying, yet to a human eye appears healthy. Over three decades of river herring restoration efforts by the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department seems to be literally going down the drain! The ocean, and us all, will truly be the worse for it.
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