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The Changing Shape of the Cape & Islands: Herring River, Wellfleet

Editor’s note: This is the 18th in a series of articles covering the region’s dramatically changing coastline. Click here to see all of the articles.

Herring River Wellfleet

Wellfleet Harbor, the Herring River and the Chequessett Road dike.

“The Herring River Restoration Project is a rare opportunity to reclaim a once-vital lost ecosystem. . . It is the result of more than a decade of careful study and collaboration involving Wellfleet, Truro, the National Seashore and other state and federal agencies.” 

Throughout history the tides at Wellfleet Harbor carried oxygen-rich ocean water up the six-mile long Herring River. In the last century, however, a manmade dike has disrupted the natural flow of the tides and is threatening the ecosystem. Here, we examine changes at the Herring River and the efforts being made to restore the surrounding area to its former thriving glory.

For more than 2,000 years the Herring River was surrounded by a 1,100-acre salt marsh. According to Don Palladino, president of Friends of Herring River, the river was the center of Wellfleet’s community and economy as recently as 120 years ago.

“Town reports from the late 1890s indicated that 200,000 herring were netted annually from the river,” Palladino says. “Today our herring counters register 10 percent of that number.”

In the early 20th century came an idea to build a dike across the Herring River on Chequessett Neck Road. The intention was to reclaim the marsh area around the river, create cranberry bogs, increase shellfish breeding, and lessen the mosquito population. The project was approved at a town meeting in April 1908 with $10,000 earmarked for construction, and was completed in September 1909.

John Portnoy, a retired Cape Cod National Seashore ecologist and co-author of the 2016 book “Tidal Water: A History of Wellfleet’s Herring River,” shares more reasons why the dike was built.

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