New Mashpee fish ladder and dam will aid key species to food chain

For all the road maintenance underway on Cape Cod right now, it's the river herring that may have waited the longest for a new path.

For all the road maintenance underway on Cape Cod right now, it's the river herring that may have waited the longest for a new path.

Officials from Mashpee, Barnstable, the county, and state and federal governments celebrated Friday the new fish ladder and dam separating Santuit River from Santuit Pond. The three-year, $500,000 project was part of $5 million in economic stimulus funding appropriated in 2010 to address conservation projects Capewide.

Mashpee and Barnstable split a $120,000 match for the funding, said Catherine Laurent, Mashpee's director of public works.

The dam and ladder replace older structures at the pond's southern tip that were wooden and rotting. It was one of 25 projects that received part of the stimulus funding and part of a larger, 76-project list of needs identified by the Cape's towns, the Cape Cod Conservation District and the Barnstable County Commissioners.

The river herring that will primarily use the ladder are so important to the local ecosystem, said state Sen. Daniel Wolf, D-Harwich, that the project should be viewed as a boon to the entire Cape.

"Protecting the fishing industry starts here," he said. "If we don't protect the bottom end of this, it doesn't matter what we do with fishing quotas."

River herring are a unique species, said Abigail Franklin Archer, marine resource specialist with the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension. They live in both salt water and freshwater and are an essential base for the marine food chain. Each spring they swim upstream, returning to the body of water where they were spawned, to lay their eggs. In the case of those ending up in Santuit Pond, that voyage leads them from Popponesset Bay up the Santuit River, about a 2-mile trip.

Franklin said when the fish reach the ladder, they instinctively look for the flow of water pouring down the ladder and swim against it, leaping over the steps until they reach the open water of the pond. The river herring can make this trip up to 10 times in their lifespan, Archer said.

Mashpee and Barnstable jointly purchased 300 acres around Santuit Pond in 2002, creating a preserve and preventing the area from being developed. The towns spent $9.15 million on the land, with the state kicking in $3 million.

The area also has a long history for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, said Ramona Peters, the tribe's historic preservation officer. Its original meetinghouse was on the pond's north shore, and tribal legend tells of a man-sized trout — although Peters refers to the trout as a "she" — that swam up the river but died less than a mile from reaching the pond. A burial site for the fish rests within the preserve and was an early tourist attraction for the tribe.

"This is an exciting project for a very important space," Peters said Friday.