AmeriCorps Lends A Helping Hand Clearing Herring River

By: William F. Galvin

Topics: Herring

AmeriCorps member Nicole Westfall, working along side Mary Doucette, Caroline Stephen and Ashley Boudreau, pulls an old glove out of the Herring River. The AmeriCorps crew was working with the town’s natural resources department clearing the river for passage of herring to spawning headwaters. WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTO

HARWICH — In the next week or so, herring will begin to make their way up coastal rivers to headwater ponds to spawn. AmeriCorps members and local volunteers have been busy making those river passages a little easier.

Over the past two weeks, Natural Resources Director Heinz Proft has been working with local volunteers and the Barnstable County AmeriCorps crew to clear out the Herring River and Red River leading into Skinequit Pond.

Harwich has one of the most important herring runs in the state. After being closed for years due to low herring numbers, Proft said more than a million fish passed through the electronic counter at the Herring River ladder in 2019 and the number was greater than 900,000 in 2020.

“The Herring River has the largest counts in the state,” he said.

The Herring River run is seven miles long, from Nantucket Sound to Long Pond. The river runs through marshes, forests and along steep banks, which allow a lot of decayed materials, branches and logs to clog up the river. Vegetation along the edges of the river impedes the flow, making it difficult for herring to migrate up river to spawning grounds, Proft said.

The natural resources department works each spring to clean the river to improve passage. Last year, Proft said, town staff had to clean the river without the assistance of AmeriCorps, but the group is back this year.

“With these eight to 10 eager beavers, you can get a lot of work done,” Proft said of the AmeriCorps members.

After putting a couple of boards in the flume at Hinckley’s Pond on Friday morning to draw down the river flow so they would not be working in knee deep waters, Proft and the AmeriCorps crew set out along the river with chainsaws, clippers and pitch forks to remove vegetation from the river.

“We did two miles this morning and we’ll do another mile this afternoon,” said AmeriCorps member Jordan Halloran, who grew up in Yarmouth. “We started at Hinckley’s Pond and we’ve been clearing out leaves, sticks and branches that impede the flow of the river so herring can pass through. We’ve also had a few heavy logs in the river.”

AmeriCorps is a residential national service program administered locally by Barnstable County with a focus on improving natural resources. The staff works with local towns and conservation groups on a regular basis. The 10-month program provides compensation and housing for the workers, who stay in homes in Wellfleet, Chatham and Barnstable.

The AmeriCorps crew on Monday was scheduled to clean Red River leading into the Skinequit Pond spawning grounds.

Proft said two weeks ago volunteers Tom and Tommy Birch and Bob Leo Parr, Jr., offered a helping hand in clearing Princess Brook, which connects Hinckley’s Pond to Long Pond and Cahoon’s Canal, linking Hinckley’s Pond with Seymour Pond.

“I would say a very small percentage of Harwich residents are aware of these magnificent natural resources and how valuable these little fish are, not only for the food chain, but what a role they played in the history of Harwich,” Tom Birch stated in a Facebook post. “It’s great to give back to the town,”

Halloran said they did not see any herring in the river on Friday, although they came across a couple of perch. The herring usually start heading up the river at the end of March and April, Proft said, and May are the two big spawning migration months each year.