Herring run in Brewster

by Donna Cain, Innkeper and owner

We always know when spring is here as we hear all of the seagulls “squaking” with content at the Stoney Brook Grist Mill which is just behind our second inn, Brewster by the Sea Inn and Spa. It’s quite a sight to see the seagulls swooping down and eating many of the herring that are jumping upstream to reach Upper Mill pond where they will spawn over the summer months.

Herring Run
Herring Run.

It was interesting to read that the herring population is very healthy and increasing every year. The article below was written last year by the “Wicked Local” There is much debate as to why the population is increasing. When we first moved here over 10 years ago it was fun to watch the kids catching the herring in their nets. When the population starting decreasing you could not get a permit to catch the herring.

Herring at Stony Brook

2007 – 22,300
2008 – 25,289

2009 – 11,062

2010 – 48,099

2011 – 37,091

2012 – 41,028

2013 – 153,262

(one wonders how they can count the actual number of herring:)

Herring in Brewster
Herring in Brewster

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 Association to Preserve Cape Cod reports last spring’s estimated record run of herring was 153,262 fish.

“It’s certainly encouraging to see this big increase at Stony Brook,” said noted Jo Ann Muramoto, senior scientist at the Association to Preserve Cape Cod, who oversees their work with herring. “Still it’s so, so low compared to historic records based on the barrels of fish they used to take out. I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet.”

Prior to 1903 Brewster had an official herring catcher who had to supply each town family with one eighth of barrel of herring a year. The average annual catch was 225 barrels. In contrast, in 1912, Harwich’s Herring River produced 1,200 barrels.

The official “record” only covers eight years, the formal herring counts began in 2007 but it still a good sign. The previous high was 48,099 in 2010 so this represents a tripling.

The question is, is the bounce due to the reworked (in fall 2010) culvert under Route 6A, which is now 18-feet wide instead of 4 feet, or does it reflect a general rebound of herring around the state?

“I’d like to think it’s a combination of both of those,” Muramoto said. “I do think making the culvert wider has made a difference. During the run itself a number of people including myself stood over the culvert and looked down at thousands of herring schooling to pass through the culvert whereas before maybe a dozen could move up at one time. An entire school could make it through now.”

Muramoto explained that herring seem to like to form a school before they move upstream.

“It’s probably the way they migrate upstream. If you watch at different points they seem to like to congregate in schools. This schooling pattern is pretty common,” she said.


That could be a way to reduce the chance of predation by gulls or other animals.

Massachusetts imposed a three-year moratorium on herring harvests (both alewife and blueback herring, both in the genus Alosa) on Jan. 1, 2006. That was extended for another three years in 2008 and has continued since. Connecticut and Rhode Island have also closed their herring fisheries however herring can be caught in the open ocean as a bycatch of other fisheries, especially Atlantic herring (Clupea Harengas). Most of the bycatch occurs around Cape Cod, according to a 2008 study.

“The effects of fishing at sea are not well controlled,” Muramoto observed.

Dana Condit, head of Brewster Mill Site Committee, puts more stock in the fishery shutdown than the new culvert.

“I grew up right there and I remember in the ’60’s they’d show up like this year and they would use that culvert,” Condit said. “In 1968 they changed the configuration where the fish go into the pond and they navigated that in huge numbers.”

The Stony Brook fishery was big business in those days.

“They used to sieve them out in the back of dump trucks and in barrels on tailor trucks. They took a lot of herring out of there,” Condit recalled.

Last year (2012) saw big runs of herring in the Charles and Black rivers, as well as at Stony Brook and in the Monument River in Bourne.

“This may have begun in 2012 and is continuing this year. We’ll know better when the Division of Marine Fisheries presents the results from around the state later this month,” Muramoto said. “I think 32 runs are monitored in Massachusetts. The highest numbers are on Cape Cod.”

Muramoto works with herring monitors in several towns.

“There are increases in some, others are the same,” she said. “The Herring River in Wellfleet almost doubled this year. Pilgrim Lake (in Orleans) was the same. The Mashpee River was the same but some counts were lost. The Quashnet (River) was the same. The increase for Stony Brook was one of the most dramatic.”

“I talked with construction guys from the DMF and they had wonderful numbers everywhere. It wasn’t just us,” Condit said. “A lot of runs did very well off Cape.”

The herring run generally peaks in late April and early May. Muramoto recruits 15 to 20 volunteers to do the counts. Nine counts are done each day at random times during herring season, at a designated location, each count lasts 10 minutes. Herring runs in Bournedale and Sandwich have electronic counters.

The herring do run at night, but nighttime counts have been problematic.

“We’ve tried to use a video camera underwater at night but had severe lighting problems,” Muramoto said. “We weren’t successful seeing fish.”

We stopped by the Herring run last night and Byron was able to get some great shots of the herring in the water. The pictures have an impressionistic feel and we both loved the shots so much that we want to frame some.

Herring in Brewster
Herring in Brewster

This particular evening the seagulls were flying overhead but were not swooping down for dinner…..maybe they had their fill for the day.


Many of our guests staying at the Captain Freeman Inn and Brewster by the Sea love visiting the Brewster Grist Mill. This weekend the town is celebrating Brewster in Bloom and the mill will be open for tours. They will also be selling their wonderful ground corn meal. We love to purchase the ground corn for our wonderful Captain Freeman Corn Muffins which we serve regularly at the inn.

Happy Spring!

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