by Donna Cain,
Every spring we look forward to telling guests about the herring run in Brewster on Stony Brook Road.. The fish that make their annual trek upstream are not true herring but are actually alewives. They are a bony fish that was very popular in the 1800’s. The fish were dried and salted and could be preserved for many months. They also made great fertilizer for the important corn crops. At one time, there were so many alewives that the town of Brewster sold the fish to other towns. When we first came to Cape Cod 12 years ago it was common to go get a herring license so that you could catch the alewives with nets as they jumped upstream.
We never actually got a net and license but it was fun to see the kids catching them on the side of the brook.
My husband Byron is a great photographer, and he has collected some astonishing photos of this annual migration. I sometimes have a hard time watching the seagull devour so many herring and Byron always reminds me that this is a perfect example of mother nature.
By the end of the season it is crazy to see how fat all the seagulls are not to mention how white the neighbor’s roof is where the seagulls perch each day:)
As the number of alewives declined Brewster stopped giving permits and many studies and theories developed on what could be done to increase the alewife population on Cape Cod. Several years ago the town installed a new culvert on 6A which allowed more water flow on the creek. Last year there was a published article about the number of alewives counted making there trek upstream. I always wondered how they could count the fish and obviously this is just an estimate. It was encouraging to see how the numbers are increasing and that the alewife species is alive and well on Cape Cod.
Herring at Stony Brook
2007 – 22,348
2008 – 25,289
2009 – 11,062
2010 – 48,099
2011 – 37,091
2012 – 41,028
2013 – 153,262
They won’t be packing barrels of smoked herring out of the Stony Brook Mill site like they used to 100 years ago, but maybe some day folks will be able to dip their nets in to catch the sparkling silver fish once more for their private smoking.
The alewives are such interesting species as the adult fish that is usually about 4 years old, swim upstream from the ocean to the ponds where they were born. The older ones come first and some younger ones may follow as well. The female alewives lay their eggs in the quiet ponds above the mill. Each mature female lays 60,000 to 100,000 eggs. A great many of these will feed the snakes and turtles that also live in the ponds. The small fraction of those that hatch will find their way back to sea. In one spring season there may be over 1/2 million fish in the stream.
One can always tell when the herring are running as you can just look to the sky and see how many seagulls are hovering. The run is just behind Brewster by the Sea and guests can actually walk from the inn. We have found the best time is early in the morning.
Nature is abound on Cape Cod!