For generations, the arrival of the herring at coastal ponds has been the Island's harbinger of spring. Now, major initiatives are under way across the Island to enhance waterways for the returning alewife.
This week, work began and is almost complete on the construction of a fish ladder at the head of Lake Tashmoo.
In Edgartown last Saturday morning, a team of Island teachers and naturalists assembled at the Herring Creek at Mattakessett in Edgartown. Their arrival is part of an ambitious effort to bring the old Mattakessett herring run back into service. Edgartown has embarked on a $600,000 project to rebuild the herring run that once connected Katama Bay to Edgartown Great Pond. The project involves improving the water quality in Crackatuxet Pond and also gives town managers another option to maintain water quality in Edgartown Great Pond.
On Tuesday, the Oak Bluffs and Tisbury committees overseeing the Richard F. Madeiras herring run at the head of Lagoon Pond agreed to accept a gift of $6,500 from the Oak Bluffs water district for the purchase of a fish counter for that run. The managers want to be able to fine-tune their management of herring that migrate through the fish ladder.
These three separate projects underscore a rising awareness that herring are a wonderful part of the Island's ecology and history.
Herring are a welcome sign of the season. Each spring they swim by the thousands from the ocean to their place of birth to lay their eggs and then return to sea. For hundreds of years, this community has managed and reaped the benefits of the herring's migration. Until the early 1900s, herring runs were highly productive and profitable. For most of the 1900s, herring runs either were abandoned or disappeared because of changes on the shoreline. While the economics of harvesting isn't paramount these days, the value of herring now shifts to ecological and environmental fronts. Scientists know that herring have much to contribute to the health of coastal ponds, especially ponds that are nutrient rich with algae.
Charlie Blair, harbor master in Edgartown, is head of the Great Ponds and Herring Creek Restoration Project. Mr. Blair hopes to have the old Edgartown herring run working by next spring. Last winter a critical portion of Edgartown Great Pond was dredged to allow the old sluiceway to be used again. The dredge moved 7,000 cubic yards of sand.
An engineering firm is now designing a new concrete herring ladder for installation next winter. Water testing for shellfish disease will begin in March. State and federal permits will be obtained. They hope to get the Army Corps of Engineers permit by May. "We hope to have all the remaining permits by the middle of October," Mr. Blair said.
The project calls for putting new culverts under Herring Creek Road and Katama Road.
Mr. Blair said the old creek does require some cleaning, but the use of small dams will raise the water level.
"We have already raised $250,000. The money comes from a Fish America Grant with help from federal government. There is money from Herring Creek Trust and the Great Pond Foundation." And this spring, voters at their annual town meeting will be asked to add $45,000 as the town's portion of a matching grant.
Education is a significant part of the project, and on Saturday morning a group of Island teachers went down to the creek to listen to scientists talk about ways children can be involved in the science that goes with the restoration.
David Faber, a science teacher at the Edgartown School, was there along with teachers from the high school and charter school. The site visit was part of a two-day workshop that began the night before and was organized by education coordinator Faith Burbank of the University of Massachusetts Extension in Hanson. Notable coastal waters scientists are involved including Arthur G. Gaines Jr. of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Paul Bagnall, town shellfish constable, and others. Representatives from The Trustees of Reservations, the county and land bank attended. Others involved, though not at the meeting, include Bill Wilcox of the Martha's Vineyard Commission and Rick Karney of the Martha's Vineyard Shellfish Group.
Yesterday, construction of a new $20,000 herring run at the head of Lake Tashmoo in Tisbury was nearly complete. Derek Cimeno, town shellfish constable, said he is pleased that Dale McClure of Watercourse Construction finished yesterday. It has been a two-year process. "Ninety per cent of the work is done. We just have to put in the baffles," Mr. Cimeno said.
"Next month we will transport herring from Lagoon Pond into the freshwater pond at Tashmoo to begin a stocking process," said Mr. Cimeno. They hope herring will spawn in the pond and create juveniles with the necessary biological link to the restored pond. Those fish will go to sea and in three years will come back to the spot where they were spawned.
Mr. Cimeno said herring are good for the health of any pond, for they feed on algae. One of the principal reasons for installing the run is to bring these fish into both the freshwater and saltwater ponds. With more herring in Lake Tashmoo, there will also be more striped bass.
The success of a herring run has been demonstrated at Lagoon Pond. There are already herring making their way up the ladder into the freshwater pond. On Tuesday, the overseers of the pond met and accepted a $6,500 gift from the Oak Bluffs water district for the purchase of a fish counter. Mr. Cimeno said they want to know how many fish make it through the run so that data can be gathered on the project's success. They also want to use the data to adjust the issuing of fishing permits.
"Four years ago Oak Bluffs and Tisbury issued 60 herring fishing permits," Mr. Cimeno said. "Last year there were over 200 permits issued between the two towns. We are obviously taking more out of that pond. We just want to make sure that it doesn't harm the fishery," he said.
The herring fishing season at the Lagoon Pond run doesn't begin until April 6. Mr. Cimeno said: "I saw a bunch of herring on March 5."
Mr. Cimeno's work as a shellfish constable is expanding to include alewives, and he is excited about that. "At Tashmoo Pond there are several pairs of nesting osprey. They will get a lot of food from that herring run. We haven't seen otters around that pond in a while, but they'll come back. With the herring run at the head of Lagoon Pond, we've seen otters come back."