Marstons Mills River Herring Run

Cape Cod herring run


Barnstable Clean Water Coalition

The history of the Marstons Mills herring run dates back to 1705, when it was first used as a fishery. It was not until 1846 that the Town of Barnstable began regulating fisheries to preserve the herring. This required the removal of obstacles obstructing the run, along with regulations on the herring harvest. In 2005, the Atlantic State’s Marine Fisheries Commissions prohibited the complete harvesting of herring in Massachusetts unless the state can prove the waters to be sustainable for the yield.

The herring start their journey in Nantucket Sound, travel through the Three Bays estuary to the Marstons Mills River and up the fish ladders into Mill and Middle Ponds. Each year, alewife and blueback herring travel from the salty ocean back to the freshwater ponds where they were born to spawn. The adolescent herring spend the next three to four years of their lives in the ocean until they develop the strength themselves to migrate back to their “home.” The Marstons Mills herring run’s current purpose is to recreate the hurdles that these anadromous herring require to travel. The ladders inserted in the stream require the herring to jump and struggle, an instinct that this species holds.

The actual monitoring of herring at the Mill Pond fish ladder began in 2006. In 2012, Barnstable Clean Water Coalition, adopted the project and organized volunteers to conduct the annual herring count. Per the Massachusetts Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, the herring count begins on April 1st and continues until no herring are recorded at the run for two days in a row. The herring run usually lasts about four to six weeks after the first fish is sighted.

To date, 2012 has been the largest year on record for the Marstons Mills herring run with 87,308 fish counted. This large count was followed in subsequent years by decreasing counts: 2013 - 56,987 herring, 2014 - 47,006 herring, 2015 - 23,840 herring, and 2016 - 13,954 herring. It is common for a high-count year to be followed by low-count years, because the herring migration runs in a three to four year cycle, resulting in the migrations of herring to vary annually.

2017 Update

Despite the late start to the 2017 Marstons Mills River herring run due to colder water temperatures, the herring counts were higher when compared to previous years. Our dedicated BCWC volunteers were out daily at the Mill Pond fish ladder counting the herring from 7:00am to 7:00pm, seven days a week starting in early April and ending in mid-May. Volunteers counted approximately 5,251 fish, including both Alewife and Blueback herring. From the visual count data, scientists at the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) calculated an estimated run size of 36,148 herring in the Marstons Mills River for 2017. This is up considerably from the 2016 numbers of 2,043 fish counted and run size of 13,954 herring.


Recent Article:

NOAA Fisheries  -  4/20/2018


Barnstable Clean Water Coalition