WELLFLEET — The construction site where Chequessett Neck Road crosses the Herring River was bustling on Oct. 24 as pallets of enormous metal squares called truss panels arrived on trucks. The first 100-foot span of panels went into place two days later. Three similar spans will soon be added to form the 320-foot superstructure of the temporary bridge over the river, representing a major milestone in the ongoing Herring River Restoration Project.
WELLFLEET — Mayo Beach is bustling on an August evening. SUVs are loaded with beach gear, and musicians tune up under the tent across the street. In the background, the plunk of pickleball on paddle echoes from the court. But continue down Chequessett Neck Road a few miles to find a subtler symphony — that of the Herring River.
Behind the dike, there is a quick splash as an osprey swoops to the river’s surface and takes a menhaden. A clapper rail, unseen, squawks from the marsh grass, which whistles in the wind. The encroaching tide pours through the dike and pushes inland.
The Herring River, fed by the fresh water of Herring Pond that meets the saltwater tide of Wellfleet Harbor, is a favored spot for birders, including Stephen Broker, a retired science educator who lives in Cheshire, Conn. and Wellfleet.
Broker deftly paddles his canoe behind the dike that has restricted the tidal flow here since 1907. This place, where a student journalist hopes to see a heron, is familiar to him. Broker first began exploring the river with his brother Thomas in the early 1960s. The family first came to Wellfleet after his father returned from World War II, and among his photographs are two of Chequessett Neck and Griffin Island — then a sandy treeless landscape — taken by his parents, Thomas and Evelyn, in 1946.
Those childhood explorations, Broker says, led him to deepen his understanding of natural history by studying biology at Wesleyan University and later earning a master’s degree in ecology and wildlife management at Yale, in what was then called the forestry school.
Returning again and again to the cottage his parents built on Long Pond Road in 1952 (the house now boasts improvements like electricity and running water), Broker has become a meticulous documentarian of the birds of Wellfleet, with many of his sightings published in Mass Audubon’s Breeding Bird Atlas 2, compiled between 2007 and 2011.
Broker launches behind the dike. “That part is easy,” he says. He can lower his 17-foot canoe down the slope single-handed. Getting back up the slope is a challenge, though, when he’s in his usual lone research mode. He packs cushions, a spare paddle, and a dry bag for his binoculars and his camera (he uses a Nikon D50 with a 500 mm fixed lens to get close-ups). When he’s alone on the water it can be hard to control the canoe in the wind, so he’ll run it up on a mud flat to steady himself for taking pictures.
Today, with a writer and her friend on board, he’s well weighted. We are quiet, and for the most part our presence does not seem to disturb the birds. “The birds are doing what they’re doing,” Broker says. “In the canoe, motionless, and silent, birds will come within about six feet of the boat,” he says — much closer than they will when he’s on foot.
“West Cove No. 1” and “Mill Creek” are part of a nomenclature Broker has developed to describe locations on the river, which he uses when he posts on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird database. He sees many in the broadest section of the river, just up from the dike, before it bends northwest and zigzags to High Toss Road. There are eight species of herons and egrets recorded on this Herring River “hot spot” — a total of 228 species in all. “A pretty good number,” says Broker.
He is looking forward to watching how the estuary responds as the restoration of the river progresses. He believes the chance to watch the increased tidal flow here will “be as interesting and informative as the ecological recovery of Yellowstone National Park following wildfires or the Mount St. Helens ecosystem recovery following volcanic eruption.”
Another outcome he hopes to see: “Tom and I would canoe from Herring Pond to the mouth of the river,” he says. Could that become possible again? “Maybe, in time.”
At low tide, the great blue heron stands tall in the shallow water fishing with its long orange beak for a dinner of menhaden, crabs, herring, insects, and other invertebrates. Now, with the tide coming in, Broker points out seven blue-gray birds perched in the pitch pines that line the marsh.
Great blue herons nest in colonies, and although they are regularly seen on the Cape’s waterways, there has been only one confirmed record of a great blue heron nest in Barnstable County. The birds breed in swamps in the Berkshires, on Plum Island, and in other coastal areas of Massachusetts and migrate here once their young have fledged.
Another kind of heron is long-legged, long-necked, and wide-winged like its blue cousin; but the great egret we saw has beautiful white feathers. Like the good relatives they are, great egrets and great blue herons can be found sharing the same roosting trees at high tide. We saw two snowy egrets as well.
On the western hillside of the river, a family of five ospreys occupies the limbs of a dead tree. Their nest sits on a tall pole near the Chequessett Club, and they have come to the river to feed, Broker says. He follows an osprey with his camera as it flaps its wings and catches a breeze, gaining altitude. From a height of 30 feet, it dives to the water and comes up with a menhaden in its talons, then returns to the tree to feast.
Broker first spotted a Virginia rail here in 2012. Then he confirmed clapper rails, a breeding pair, in 2013. There were only two confirmed records of these shy birds in Massachusetts up until then. We hear the clabbering call of a clapper rail hiding in the cordgrass where it lives, but it eluded us, staying out of the reach of human eye and camera lens this evening.
Additional reporting contributed by Teresa Parker.
WELLFLEET — The Cape Cod National Seashore published a list of important events that took place at the Herring River beginning 15,000 years ago when the glacier formed that part of Wellfleet and Truro. Another milestone occurred on Aug. 17 when the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture awarded $27.2 million for the restoration of that once thriving estuary.
With the more than $22 million granted for the project by the state, the total amount now secured is nearly $50 million.
After 20 years of planning, the first phase of the largest salt marsh restoration in the Northeast is set to begin, likely by the end of the year.
“This is hugely significant,” said Carole Ridley, the project coordinator. “That is all the funding needed to do the Chequessett Neck water control access and sluice gates and other elements.”
On Aug. 23, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, U.S. Rep. Bill Keating, and a host of other federal, state, and local officials gathered at the Chequessett Neck Road dike, where the most important element of the vast restoration will take place. It is here that the town and the state built a dike in 1909 for mosquito control, a plan that not only failed to reduce the mosquito population but destroyed a productive herring fishery and turned 890 acres of salt marsh into a mass of dead trees and invasive weeds, Ridley said.
The restoration of the Herring River will “correct a terrible mistake we made 113 years ago,” Warren said at the Wellfleet Public Library on Aug. 23.
“Today is a defining moment,” said Wellfleet Town Administrator Rich Waldo. “We can move from planning to implementation.”
Reconstruction of the 165-foot-long Chequessett Neck Road dike is the largest piece of the project. The opening of bids for that construction is scheduled for the middle of September, with groundbreaking set for the end of the year, Ridley said.
The restoration project has moved at a glacial pace, marked by eddies of controversy and the loss of the original president and founder of the Friends of Herring River, Don Palladino, who died in 2018.
“I’d love for Don Palladino to be here as well,” said Keating on Aug. 23.
Implementation will begin with building a temporary roadway over the river so that traffic can flow while the new bridge is constructed. Then the nine new sluice gates will be built beneath a new bridge. That part will take two years, Ridley said.
In 2025, the sluice gates will slowly open to increase tidal flow in the river. The Herring River Executive Council has adopted a plan for three years of restoration, which dictates that once the sluice gates are completed the water level will be allowed to rise gradually for one year from .4 feet at mean high tide to 1.8 feet. Then scientists will observe the changes in the surrounding marsh for two years while the water is kept at that level.
“It is very modest in order to monitor it,” Ridley said. “It will allow gathering of data to help inform the next tide policy.”
Ridley said the total construction cost is estimated at $62 million, including the bridge and other culverts and road elevations. Wellfleet secured $22,670,000 in May through the state’s Cape Cod Water Restoration Fund, and the Wellfleet Select Board accepted the $27.2 million grant from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture on Aug. 17. The project costs are based on design plans created in June, so they reflect current construction prices, Ridley said.
Some of the remaining $12 million is likely to be awarded to the Cape Cod National Seashore, which owns most of the 570 acres that will be restored during phase one of the project. The Seashore will pay for construction of the water control structure at Mill Creek by the Chequessett Club, a golf, tennis, and sailing club located next to the river, Ridley said.
The money from the state and federal grants will be used to pay $6.7 million to the golf club to elevate and rebuild holes 2, 3, 4, and 5. Currently, the golf course floods during rainstorms, and the flooding would worsen as the Herring River restoration progresses. The golf course will be closed for a year while that work takes place, from the fall of 2023 to the fall of 2024, said Barry McLaughlin, the club’s general manager.
The Herring River estuary stretches from the Chequessett Neck dike nearly to Route 6. The full restoration is expected to take 20 years. At some point during 2023, a team of laborers will begin to remove 45 acres of Phragmites and 42 acres of woody vegetation from the river basin, Ridley said. It will be mowed rather than killed with herbicides, she added. This vegetation is going to die anyway as the salinity of the water increases. But scientists want to remove it to avoid clogging the waterway, she said.
Over the next 10 years, 200 acres of wild cherry trees and other vegetation, most of which grew after 1909, must be removed. As the restoration progresses, laborers will scrape down a 1,000-foot stretch of High Toss Road to allow water to flow over it more freely. Meanwhile, the low-lying area by Duck Harbor beach will change from a freshwater to a saltwater marsh. Parts of Old County Road near the Truro town line will have to be elevated to prevent flooding.
The town of Wellfleet is the permit holder for the Herring River restoration, but this is a multi-partner project involving several state and federal agencies. On Aug. 17, Waldo said the $50 million is “a major milestone and represents a lot of effort by town staff, the Cape Cod National Seashore, and our local, state, and federal partners.”
Warren’s arrival in Wellfleet this week emphasized that point. “I’m here today to celebrate two things,” the senator and former U.S. presidential candidate said. “This extraordinary project moving into the implementation phase — it is not just a dream but a reality — and the partnerships that made it happen.”
WELLFLEET — The Herring River Restoration Project is $29 million closer to beginning phase one.
On April 27, the Cape Cod Conservation District announced that the project would receive $29 million from the $42.5 million Cape Cod Water Resources Restoration Fund established for projects throughout the Cape under the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
The Herring River, according to the Mass. Dept. of Ecological Restoration, “hosted one of the most important diadromous fish runs on Outer Cape Cod” until construction of the dike at the mouth of the river in 1909 shut off tidal flow. Now, the estuary is, according to the department’s website, “one of Cape Cod’s most degraded natural resources.”
Project coordinator and Harwich lawyer Carole Ridley said in a May 2 interview that the NRCS funding will cover “75 percent of the construction costs necessary for the Chequessett Neck Road bridge and one other project, still under review.”
Wellfleet is pursuing non-federal matching grants to fund the other 25 percent, according to Ridley.
Ridley said the project’s first phase aims to transform the three existing culverts at the Chequessett Neck Road dike, which allow up to 18 feet of tidal flow to pass through, to a 165-foot bridge with a tide gate system. This system would eventually rehabilitate 570 of the original salt marsh’s 1,100 acres, ecologist John Portnoy said during a May 7 guided tour of the dike. Portnoy said the project is the largest saltwater marsh restoration ever attempted in Massachusetts.
If the Wellfleet Conservation Commission approves the project’s orders of conditions at a meeting scheduled for May 18, bridge construction could begin as early as November, said Friends of Herring River board chair Dale Rheault.
As for costs, “$62 million is an estimate based on permit levels and design plans,” Ridley said. “It includes construction costs and monitoring adaptive management over the first five years of implementation. That number will be refined as design plans are finalized. That’s our best understanding of the cost today.”
In April, the project received a general permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and water quality certification from the Mass. Dept. of Environmental Protection, but the NRCS funding represents the project’s first significant allotment of money.
“The success of this project is based on a lengthy list of partners,” Barnstable County Commissioner Mark Forest said on April 28.
Interim Wellfleet Town Administrator Charlie Sumner told the Independent on May 2 that the town would be the “managing entity” for the NRCS funds. While the “lion’s share” of the money headed to Wellfleet is for the Herring River Restoration Project, Sumner said there are other recipients as well, namely drainage projects at two town landings and an erosion project at Keller’s corner.
Sumner hoped to finish the permitting process “relatively soon,” and while he remains optimistic the project will receive full funding, he acknowledged the town “needs to close the funding gap” before it can solicit bids.
In light of Wellfleet’s current financial situation, Sumner said, “I have received a few emails and phone calls from citizens concerned about Wellfleet’s financial liability with this project. That’s a fair concern,” he added.
Though the project has aroused opposition from some residents, Friends of Herring River Executive Director Martha Craig described the mood at an April 14 conservation commission meeting as “100 percent positive.”
Barry McLaughlin, general manager of the Chequessett Golf Club, said at that meeting, “The club is enthusiastically behind this project, and we will do everything we can to be a very supportive partner.”
Because some of the club’s land would be damaged in phase one, Wellfleet agreed in February 2021 to provide the club with $6.7 million to rebuild parts of the course. Rheault is pleased about the golf partnership; on the May 7 tour, she said soil from the golf course could be used to build up low-lying roads.
Ridley explained that the Wetlands Protection Act requires that tidal restoration not “significantly affect the built environment.” Three private properties in addition to the golf course will be affected by phase one and will require mitigation, including elevation of some structures, Ridley said. All property owners are cooperating with the project, she added.
In an interview, Forest highlighted both local and broader potential benefits of restoring the salt marsh. “Restoring wetlands is important in tackling global climate change,” he said. “If we don’t have healthy wetlands, we’re in trouble.”
WELLFLEET: THIS WEEK'S CURRENTS
Most meetings in Wellfleet are remote only and can be watched online. Go to wellfleet-ma.gov and click on the meeting you want to watch, then follow the instructions on the agenda.
Thursday, April 7
- Board of Assessors, 10 a.m.
- Housing Authority, 10 a.m.
- Rights of Public Access Committee, 1 p.m.
- Cape Cod Commission, 3 p.m.
- Dredging Task Force, 7 p.m.
Tuesday, April 12
- Cape Cod Commission Subcommittee, 5:30 p.m.
- Select Board, 7 p.m.
A Permitting Marathon
Charlie Sumner and Brian Carlstrom, who are respectively Wellfleet’s interim town administrator and the Cape Cod National Seashore’s superintendent, signed a notice of intent on March 23 for the approval of Phase 1 of the Herring River Restoration. According to the Mass. Wetland Protection Act, the town is required to mail a notice of this to all abutters within 100 feet of the property line of the restoration project.
On Thursday, April 14 at 5 p.m., the Truro and Wellfleet conservation commissions will be holding a joint public hearing on this matter over Zoom.
In the long run, the Herring River Restoration Project aims to remove manmade tidal restrictions imposed at the Chequessett Neck Road dike and restore tidal wetland habitat in the Herring River floodplain.
For the last two years, the initiative has been lurching through the permitting process, which involves approval from a string of bodies at the municipal, state, and federal levels.
In June 2020, Phase 1 of the project received approval from the Cape Cod Commission. This first step seeks to restore 570 acres of wetland as part of an incremental approach to gradually reintroduce tidal flushing to the floodplain, according to the notification to abutters. More than a year later, this was followed by approval from the Mass. Dept. of Environment Protection with a water quality certification in September 2021. Shortly afterwards, in October 2021, the project received a general permit from the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.
Up next in this slow march to the starting line: receiving a waterways license from the MassDEP. Applications were submitted last year, according to a press release from the Friends of Herring River. —Jasmine Lu
WELLFLEET: THIS WEEK'S CURRENTS
All meetings in Wellfleet are remote only and can be watched online. Go to wellfleet-ma.gov and click on the meeting you want to watch, then follow the instructions on the agenda.
Thursday, Feb. 10
- Town Administrator Search Committee, 1 p.m.
- Nauset Regional School Committee, 6 p.m.
Monday, Feb. 14
- Dredging Task Force, 7 p.m.
The Wellfleet Housing Authority, a state-authorized body that helps people obtain affordable housing, is seeking a new member for a seat appointed by the governor. The term is for five years. To apply, you must submit an online application to the state including a resume and cover letter.
Mia Baumgarten formerly held that position, but her term expired Jan. 20 and she chose not to seek reappointment. Baumgarten could not be reached for comment by deadline.
Housing authority chair Elaine McIlroy said the group “will miss her thoughtful presence, and her networking with young people in town.” Baumgarten is 32, making her one of the youngest members of any town board.
The governor has 120 days to act on the appointment from the date the application is received. If he does not act, the select board can make the appointment.
“This is what happened with Mia’s appointment,” McIlroy said. “It took over four months to fill the vacancy.”
Herring River Bridge Ahead
Following decades of research, an incremental restoration of tidal exchange in the Herring River estuary is scheduled to begin this fall.
The Herring River Restoration Project, the largest tidal restoration project in New England, encompasses over 1,000 acres of degraded estuarine habitat. Construction will include a new bridge, two dikes, and a tidal control structure at the mouth of the Herring River.
“The first construction project will be the bridge,” said Carole Ridley, project coordinator, during a meeting of the Herring River Stakeholder Group on Feb. 2. “We’re anticipating construction to start in the fall of 2022.”
The town can put the project out to bid in May, Ridley added. —Michaela Chesin
WELLFLEET — In the summer, alewives and bluebacks — two species of herring that in spring migrate from the coastal marshes here to the Herring River’s kettle ponds — stay in the ponds to forage and feed until fall. As temperatures drop, these juvenile herring swim downstream, leaving their freshwater spawning grounds for the sea. There, they spend several years growing into adults. Each spring, mature herring face a daunting task: pulling a U-turn and pushing their way back up the Herring River to spawn the next generation.
Their journey back home is perilous, particularly at two chokepoints created by manmade structures. Understanding how these obstacles affect the herring has given scientists an up-close view of changes to come once the river’s natural tidal flow is restored.
First, at the river’s mouth, looms the Chequessett Neck Road dike, erected in 1908 to dry up the “unsightly swamps” upstream for mosquito control, according to a 1906 proposal by Whitman and Howard Engineers. (As previously reported here, current science shows the effect was the opposite as far as mosquito control goes.) The dike functions as a tide gate, allowing river outflow but blocking inflow from the bay.
Further up the Herring River, the migrating fish must travel through a culvert — a pipe that shunts the stream beneath Schoolhouse Hill Road.
Both chokepoints have created what aquatic ecologist Derrick Alcott called “a feeding tube for predators.” Up and down the river, herring casualties result — just outside the dike, where hungry striped bass patrol, and in the culvert, where snapping turtles hunker.
The Toll at the Tide Gate
We know this because Alcott tagged and tracked the herring as part of his Ph.D. research at UMass Amherst. Though the research was conducted in the mid-2000s, his conclusions were only recently published in a 2021 article in the Canadian Journal of Fishing and Aquatic Sciences.
Alcott said the tagging involved teams of two, working at lightning speed. One person holds down the writhing fish, securing its head and tail. A colleague angles a scalpel toward the fish’s belly. A quick poke between the ribs and pelvis — and in goes the passive integrated transponder (PIT) tag, where it lies loose in the stomach cavity, nestled among internal organs. Surgical glue helps seal the incision, then the herring is released back into the waves. For each fish, the whole process — capture, measurement, tagging, release — happens in under a minute.
Researchers working with other animals would typically administer anesthesia for this surgery, but herring, being “ram ventilators,” need to keep swimming forward in order to move dissolved oxygen over their gills. Anesthesia would halt the fish’s movement — which, in turn, would rob them of air. “We determined the safest method for these fish is to not anesthetize, go super fast, and get them back into the water, swimming and breathing,” said Alcott.
After placing a detection antenna at the dike, Alcott and his colleagues watched the run for two spring seasons in 2014 and 2015. The setup functioned like an EZ-pass system. Each time a PIT-tagged fish swam through, the device recorded the date and time along with a code unique to each specimen.
Their findings were troubling. Many herring, despite multiple attempts, failed to pass through the tide gate at the dike, which “acted as an obstacle to upstream migration,” Alcott and his colleagues reported. Their work confirmed “long-held local suspicions,” according to John Portnoy, a retired National Seashore ecologist.
For decades, local observers had worried that the tidal restriction at the dike was harming the herring run. Portnoy voiced his own concerns over the dike in a 1997 article published in Environment Cape Cod. Wellfleet’s river herring fishery was “once one of the largest in the state,” he told the Independent. Before the dike was built, the town annually collected $1,000 from the herring auction, which was “enough to pay all the town’s elected officials,” Portnoy wrote after reviewing old town meeting records. But after the dike was constructed, earnings plunged, along with Wellfleet’s herring run.
While Alcott’s study anchored these observations, the PIT-tag data surfaced new questions.
Herring in a Pickle
Early in the spawning run season, 78 percent of tagged herring passed through the dike, but near the end of the period, the success rate sank to 16 percent.
Alcott then co-authored a new Wellfleet-based study, this one with Christopher Rillahan at the UMass Dartmouth School for Marine Science and Technology, that zeroed in on a likely culprit: striped bass — which, thanks to conditions created by the dike, can feast on a fish-in-a-barrel buffet when these later herring waves come.
This time, Rillahan deployed a new technology — the ARIS Explorer 3000 — to visualize the action churning just seaward of the dike. With ARIS, he was spared the rigors of performing dozens of 60-second surgeries. His device allowed him to monitor fish noninvasively by emitting a series of sonar beams underwater. ARIS then converts these sonar readings into fine-scale videos, which showed the silhouette images of herring milling around, migrating, and, when stripers arrived, scattering.
The stripers caught on the ARIS videos look like larger shadows, swimming solo or in loose aggregations. The smaller herring, by contrast, stay in tight schools.
The dike channels large volumes of water through a narrow opening — a setup akin to partially blocking a garden hose with your thumb. So, it “dumps out water in a huge jet of turbulent, high-velocity water,” said Alcott.
The herring can ride an incoming tide up the river, but when the tide recedes, billowing back towards the harbor, “those conditions are just too powerful for a fish to swim against,” Alcott said. For slightly more than half of the day, the dike is completely impassable.
Meanwhile, the water jets have carved out deep scour pools on both sides of the dike. During the impenetrable outflow periods, herring gather in those pools, waiting for the water to change direction. The problem for the herring, said Alcott, is that “predators may be there, waiting.”
And, in fact, the ARIS Explorer 3000 caught footage of large numbers of striped bass joining the herring there, particularly during the ebbing tide. This dike, the researchers proposed, spared predators the chase, where “prey win the race a bunch of times and get away,” Alcott said. Instead, the striped bass “can just hang” and get an easy shot at the herring.
“It’s no surprise that the area seaward of the dike is a great fishing spot,” said Barbara Brennessel, a Wellfleet biologist not involved in the research. “Every time you drive there, except at low tide, you will see fishermen parked on the dike, poles in the water.
“The river herring are captives, having to wait for ideal conditions to pass the tide gates,” she added, “and when the stripers and bluefish arrive, they are toast.”
Out of the Frying Pan
For the herring that manage to dodge the stripers, wriggle through the dike, and continue up their namesake river, it’s far from smooth sailing.
In the upper reaches of the river, Patience Brook splinters off from the main trunk, flowing as a narrow, ankle-deep stream that feeds into the ponds. At Schoolhouse Hill Road, the water enters a culvert — a ribbed-steel pipe about two feet in diameter — which shunts the brook underneath the road to emerge on the other side. Putting in a culvert is cheaper than building a bridge to take the road over the river.
Come springtime, herring migrate through Patience Brook and into the culvert, where they are met with a snapping turtle ambush.
Once again, local observers already had an idea what was happening. On several occasions, volunteer herring counters had witnessed snapping turtles crawling into that culvert. “People sat there and waited for them to come out on the other side,” Alcott said, “but they didn’t.” Instead, folks told him they’ve heard popping sounds from below — the snap of a turtle’s jaws, perhaps, clamping down on a herring snack.
To follow up on these reports, Alcott set up further research using underwater cameras. Sure enough, snappers were posting up in the culvert, taking up the full width and lunging at incoming herring. Alcott logged further evidence by drawing blood samples from the turtles. “You are what you eat,” Alcott said, “so your blood will contain the carbon atoms of the things you’re eating.”
Turtles that ventured into the culvert exhibited high levels of marine-derived carbon isotopes in their blood, while those who stayed away showed no signs of these atoms.
“As for the herring, they often swim through the culvert, right through the center — whether there’s a turtle or not,” Alcott said. “They don’t seem to recognize the snapping turtle as a threat.”
By contrast, bass, perch, and sunfish swerve out of the snapper’s way. Alcott is not sure why this is so. It could be, he guesses, a lack of familiarity with the trap. Or it could be the herring’s “deep, innate urge to move upstream in order to spawn and produce the next generation.”
Alcott imagines a herring’s risk analysis, if there were such a thing, unfolding differently at the culvert than it would at the tide gate. “Think about the costs and benefits,” Alcott said. “Once you’ve migrated all the way up the river, it’s like, ‘Well, I have no choice now. I’ve invested so much in this.’ ”
At the tide gate, by comparison, Alcott continued, “If it looks like a nightmare with the stripers and you’re running a predator gauntlet, then it’s like, ‘Eh, maybe we’ll check out a different river.’ ”
The good news at the culvert: turtles consume less than one percent of the herring population, according to Alcott.
“The tide gate is the bigger problem,” he said. Of the fish trying to clear the Chequessett Neck dike, only 50 percent make it through, enter the river, and migrate upstream to spawn.
When the Herring River Restoration Project opens up the dike, Alcott predicts, herring will have passable conditions all day every day. The stripers, at that point, will presumably have to sing for their supper.
WELLFLEET — For the Cape Cod Mosquito Control Project, late summer was all about whacking through shrubbery and spraying waterways with larvicide. But these measures have only nibbled at the edges of this year’s mosquito boom.
“We can only get to maybe 20 percent of the breeding habitat,” said Gabrielle Sakolsky, Mosquito Control’s entomologist and superintendent.
Sakolsky’s crews did received approval from the Cape Cod National Seashore to cut access paths to previously inaccessible water channels, but larvicide, it turns out, is only a short-term solution. Mosquito ditches, Sakolsky now proposes, are the long-term remedy. But Park scientists point out that the ditches have a complicated ecological history in the Herring River basin.
This summer’s scourges flourished after overwash from Cape Cod Bay spilled into the Herring River basin, greatly expanding mosquito breeding habitat. “We’re probably going to have more overwash events next spring,” Geoff Sanders, the chief of natural resource management and science at the Seashore, told the Independent. “And it’s likely there will be good habitat again.”
Unclogging the Flow
Branching out from the main stem of the Herring River, mosquito ditches were meant to keep water moving along, reducing the amount of standing water available for egg-laying. But those channels haven’t been maintained for decades. They’re congested with vegetation, and dead trees have tumbled into the water, impeding flow. These are the waterways Mosquito Control wants to unclog.
What past experience and scientific research show, however, is that the ditches and their maintenance contributed to massive fish die-offs in the 1980s, by churning up harmful compounds from salt marsh sediment.
In the fall of 1980, American eels were dying by the thousands in the Herring River. In post-mortem analyses conducted by the University of Rhode Island and the National Fisheries Service in Maryland, the eels’ gills and gastrointestinal tracts were found to be studded with lesions.
The alewife fishery fared no better: the Seashore was receiving local reports of die-offs among juvenile herring, particularly in the lower stretches of the river that emptied into Wellfleet Harbor.
Alarmed, Seashore scientists sampled the water and found asphyxiating conditions that spelled doom for fish. The lower Herring River was afflicted with deficient oxygen levels, particularly during the summer. In fact, during some stretches, the water was totally deoxygenated for weeks. John Portnoy, a retired Seashore ecologist who published these findings in 1991, suspected that the Chequessett Neck Road dike was responsible. The Herring River salt marshes teem with organic matter undergoing decomposition — a process that consumes immense amounts of oxygen.
“Under natural, undiked conditions, this oxygen is replaced by the daily supply of oxygen-rich waters,” Portnoy told the Independent — waters that would flow in from the harbor on incoming tides. The dike, however, stalled this cycle of replenishment.
Mosquito ditches worsened the problem in two ways: first, by creating a “deep organic sink” that further depleted dissolved oxygen, according to Portnoy’s 1991 paper. And further, Portnoy found extremely high sulfate levels in water emanating from these ditches.
Left undisturbed in salt marsh sediment, these compounds are benign, but active mosquito ditches can drain the soil, exposing them to air, and triggering a chemical reaction that unleashes toxic levels of sulfuric acid into streams. To make matters worse, high acidity can then mobilize excessive concentrations of aluminum from the sediment, intensifying water toxicity.
Progress for Herring
For all of these reasons, mosquito ditch maintenance was abandoned after 1984. The Herring River remains heavily monitored, and Tim Smith, currently the Seashore’s restoration ecologist, has noticed some progress. In the aftermath of the die-offs, the Seashore kept juvenile herring confined to Herring Pond during the summer, shielding them from oxygen-depleted waters. Now, the river’s oxygen budget is still low, but in the absence of ditch maintenance, conditions have improved enough for the herring to resume their normal migration from the pond.
But low oxygen and high acidity are persistent problems in some waterways, although they’re no longer as widespread throughout the floodplain. “Even with the absence of ditch maintenance, we’re still getting these really bad conditions for extended periods of time,” Smith said.
Given the history and current precariousness of the river’s health, the Seashore is wary of Mosquito Control’s proposal to clear the ditches. “The only way we can see this happening in an ecologically responsible way is to do it in concert with the Herring River Restoration Project,” said Smith. “Tidal exchange is the answer to all of these problems.”
Restoring tidal flushing would allow oxygen-rich seawater to replenish the estuary with every high tide and prevent organic buildup in the river. A regular influx of seawater would also neutralize sulfuric acid released by active mosquito ditches.
This regulated acidity would not only keep aluminum levels under control but also potentially disrupt an advantage that mosquitos have long wielded over fish predators. In the ’80s, Portnoy noticed that while elevated acidity completely excluded fish from large portions of the estuary, mosquitos showed reproductive success under these conditions. Keeping acidity at bay may level the playing field between predator and prey throughout the wetland system. As an added bonus, the river’s restoration may create small channels in the floodplain, granting fish greater access to mosquito breeding sites.
The Seashore is angling to submit a permit application to the Wellfleet Conservation Commission for the restoration project “sometime this year,” said Smith. Mosquito Control, in the meantime, is still working with the Seashore to figure out how to encourage water flow in the ditches without churning up too much sediment.
“You don’t want to release all those nasty things if you don’t have to,” Sanders told the Independent.
WELLFLEET — Along Duck Harbor Road, a long-sleeved 100-percent cotton shirt didn’t cut it — much less, a pair of leggings. Mosquitos latched onto my clothes and plunged their proboscises right through the fabric. Everything prickled as I followed a team from the Cape Cod Mosquito Control Project into the Herring River basin. The professionals were clad in thicker apparel treated with insecticide.
“Stop for 30 seconds, and you’ll get chewed up,” warned Bart Morris, the project’s assistant superintendent. The group pressed on, ducking under fallen branches, wincing through a thorny briar patch — all while swatting, fruitlessly, as mosquitos descended.
This tangle of vegetation has prevented crews from reaching bodies of stagnant water and treating mosquito habitats with larvicide, hampering Mosquito Control’s counteroffensive against this summer’s nightmarish mosquito boom here. But after lengthy discussions, a special use permit was granted by the Cape Cod National Seashore on Monday, and crews deployed, revving up their brush saws and carving out access paths to water channels. The goal is to spray Bti — Bacillus thuringiensis subspecies israelensis — a soil bacterium that produces toxins that kill the larvae of the mosquito, blackfly, and fungus gnat, according to the webpage of the Environmental Protection Agency devoted to mosquito control.
In stagnant water, mosquito eggs are constantly hatching, but the soil surrounding the Herring River basin also contains droves of dormant eggs. These are just waiting for the right conditions; some have been patiently incubating for up to 10 years. Next week may well awaken them. The high tide on Aug. 23 is expected to crest at 11.6 feet, bringing salt water further inland from Duck Harbor. When the basin is inundated, Mosquito Control’s Gabby Sakolsky expects soil-bound eggs to hatch en masse.
Normally, flooding should drain back into the harbor as the tide recedes. But as people in Wellfleet know too well, the dike built at the mouth of the Herring River in 1909 means tidal flow is nearly absent. Now, while storm-flattened dunes are allowing more water in, that water is lingering in the basin, and the result is an expanded habitat for further egg laying.
Sakolsky, an entomologist, said she wishes the Seashore’s green light had come earlier, giving crews more time to clear brush and apply larvicide before this next overwash occurs.
The National Seashore, however, moves cautiously when it comes to disturbing the sensitive Herring River ecosystem. “I know that sometimes it seems like it takes a while to come to these decisions, but the onus is on us to make sure that we fully understand all of the activities that are going to take place,” said Geoff Sanders, the chief of natural resource management and science at the Seashore.
Since larvicide treatments began in easier-to-reach areas, Mosquito Control has detected a notable drop in its traps for Ochlerotatus cantator, a brackish-water species. The number of captured insects declined from 2,662 in one day in the last week of July to 90 in the first week of August.
Sakolsky hesitated to call this good news. While O. cantator is reaching the tail end of its season, she is bracing for surges in Ochlerotatus sollicitans, another saltmarsh species that flourishes later in August.
“They are much more aggressive,” she added, shuddering.
WELLFLEET: THIS WEEK'S CURRENTS
All meetings in Wellfleet are remote only and can be watched online. Go to wellfleet-ma.gov and click on the meeting you want to watch. The agenda includes instructions on how to join.
Thursday, August 5
- Housing Authority, 10 a.m.
- Bike and Walkways Committee, 10 a.m.
Tuesday, Aug. 10
- Cultural Council, 5:30 p.m.
- Select Board, 7 p.m.
Thursday, Aug. 12
- Wellfleet Seasonal Residents Association with Select Board, 7 p.m.
- Zoning Board of Appeals, 7 p.m.
Seashore Land Swap
In order for the Herring River restoration to go forward, the town will need to acquire a total of 9.38 acres of land in noncontiguous small slivers from the Cape Cod National Seashore, according to Brian Carlstrom, the Seashore supt. In exchange, the Seashore has eyes on obtaining a piece of the so-called Marconi Landing Strip.
Due to federal law, Carlstrom told the select board on July 27, land that will allow construction of a bridge over the Chequessett Neck Road dike and evaluation of roadways will first need to be owned by the town. The parcels include several small Seashore-owned areas along Old County Road, Bound Brook Island Road, and parts of High Toss Road, and some land on the northwest side of the Chequessett Neck Road dike.
The Seashore wants to trade its land for town-owned land of similar monetary value.
Since this is a real estate transaction, negotiations between the Seashore and the select board are allowed to be conducted in private, so as not to reveal deal-making strategies. But Seashore officials made no secret of their desire for a piece of the Marconi Landing Strip.
This 48-acre parcel, once part of a military base, is within the Marconi Beach area and surrounded by Seashore property. The landing strip is town-owned, but it is land-locked and there is an unclear title that has prevented the town from using it.
The landing strip is the top priority for the Seashore, Carlstrom said.
Second on the Seashore’s priority list is a six-acre lot at “the Gut,” a town landing on Cape Cod Bay by the Herring River. If it were folded into the Seashore land, it would become part of the Park Service’s holdings on Great Island.
Third on the Seashore wish list is land south of Cahoon Hollow Road near Great Pond, a portion of which was an old driving range.
The select board and the Seashore will continue negotiations in private and, when the areas to swap have been decided, they will be brought to town meeting voters for approval. —K.C. Myers
WELLFLEET: THIS WEEK'S CURRENTS
All meetings in Wellfleet are remote only and can be watched online. Go to wellfleet-ma.gov and click on the meeting you want to watch. The agenda includes instructions on how to join.
Thursday, July 29
- Board of Water Commissioners, 4 p.m.
Tuesday, August 3
- Energy and Climate Action Committee, 7 p.m.
Herring River Wins State Climate Funds
On July 14, the Baker-Polito administration awarded $4 million to various towns and community projects to help advance “work on climate change adaptation and ecological restoration projects.” The Friends of Herring River received the biggest slice of that pie: $500,000 for the Herring River Estuary Restoration Project.
The project seeks to restore natural tidal flow to six miles of waterways and up to 1,000 acres of the estuary. The hope is that the project will bring seriously degraded habitats back to health. The goals are to “improve Wellfleet Harbor water quality, enhance migratory fish access to hundreds of acres of spawning ponds, restore a significant area of shellfish habitat, and increase coastal resilience to the effects of climate change and sea level rise.”
“We’re grateful for the state’s continuing support for the project,” said Martha Craig, the executive director of the Friends. “We’re totally thrilled.”
The grants are funded by the Office of Coastal Zone Management’s (CZM) Coastal Resilience Grant program. Friends of Herring River was listed by the CZM as one of six new “priority projects” that “present the greatest benefit to the Commonwealth ecologically, socially, and economically.” —Paul Sullivan
ON THE LANDSCAPE
There’s a bend in the road on the way to the dump in Wellfleet. The road winds through a low, wet area, a tributary of the Herring River. As far as you can see, there are black cherry trees, standing in a swamp of skeletal, bare branches that point to the sky. They are mostly dead. But when the air is wet, after a rain or when a heavy mist settles in, the entire swamp seems to swell and glow with life again. A reminder that where there is death, there is, invariably, life. There’s another lesson there, too. A quiet, ancient little love story.
The branches of these trees are covered in lichen. Lichens are the result of two organisms deciding to work together — fungi and algae living in a mutualistic relationship. The fungal partner supplies structure, nutrients, and water. The algae live on the filament structures of the fungi and provide food from photosynthesis.
Think of the algae as the leaves of a tree, and the fungi as the roots and stems. They are classified as fungi because the fungal component is the more prominent partner in this coupling. But it takes both of them to be lichen. Together, they share resources, give one another support, provide a solid foundation on which to build a life. They stick together. And it works.
There are around 20,000 known species of lichen. About 400 can be found on Cape Cod. Lichens cover 6 to 8 percent of the Earth’s land surface. They are found everywhere from the Arctic tundra to the deserts and can grow on almost any surface.
Once you start to take notice of these remarkable organisms, you find them on everything. They decorate gravestones with intricate patterns and vibrant colors. Aqua greens and mustard yellows. They grow in the hot, dry, seemingly sterile sand of the dunes. Find me a tree over 10 feet tall that doesn’t have tufts of wiry green in its upper branches. Their folded forms can be found on metal, the fiberglass of a boat hull, the rubber gasket of your car’s windshield. It seems to be quite a successful union these fungi and algae have formed.
Lichens have beautifully chosen names. The species growing on the dead trees in the swamp is called old man’s beard. It’s an unkempt snarl of gray-green threads and knots. There’s one that grows as a slick, warty film in soggy areas that’s called toadskin lichen. Another looks like the ruffled folds of kale leaves with a powdery, glaucous finish. Its name is powdered ruffle lichen. Barnacle lichen. Bloodstain lichen. Crab’s eye lichen. Egg yolk lichen. Chocolate chip lichen. Sunburst lichen. I’m not making these up. It seems the rule for identifying and naming a lichen is to think of the first thing it reminds you of, and without an ounce of hesitation, say it out loud. Blistered navel lichen. Look it up.
I try to go to the dump on days after it has rained, or when there is warmth and humidity in the air, so that I can see the lichen. They glow the color of oxidized copper. The swamp seems to be breathing: the lichens swollen to twice their dry size, lush as they drink the moisture from the air. The swamp trees almost look like they are alive again. In some way they are.
And the love story. The lichen. Two very different forms of life, bringing their respective strengths and supporting each other’s deficits to go further and do more. To thrive. Lessons sometimes hit you hard. Other times they surround you with a million intricate multicolored examples, waiting for you to finally notice them.
WELLFLEET — After two decades of planning, the official review of the massive Herring River Restoration Project will begin on March 9 when the Cape Cod Commission considers the first permits for phase one of the work. This meeting, starting at 5 p.m. at the Wellfleet Council on Aging, is the first of what’s predicted to be two years of hearings before the first shovel hits the mudflats.