WELLFLEET, Mass. – Feb. 6, 2023 – Over a century ago, the Herring River Estuary was a pristine 1,100-acre tidal marsh. At the time, the Herring River played a critical role in linking freshwater to the saltwater bay of Wellfleet Harbor. But in 1909, a dike was built at Chequessett Neck Road that impeded the natural flow of water, altering the estuary's ecology and transforming it from salt marsh to freshwater wetlands.
Ducks Unlimited (DU) is partnering with the National Park Service (NPS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Restoration Center (NOAA), Massachusetts Division of Ecological Restoration, Wellfleet Conservation Trust, Friends of Herring River, the town of Wellfleet, and others on a $60 million project to replace the dike with a bridge and implement vegetative and sediment management to reestablish natural salt marsh conditions. The bridge will be equipped with control gates to return the natural flow of tidewater to the marsh.
“The Herring River Estuary is the largest tidally restricted estuary in the northeast and this project is a once-in-a-century opportunity to address the impacts of past generations,” said DU Regional Biologist Bri Benvenuti. “The scale and success of the Herring River Restoration Partnership is an excellent example of what can be achieved when conservation and community partners come together.”
Vegetation clearing in Duck Harbor has begun on the site to promote the growth of native salt marsh plants, such as cordgrass, which is already emerging. Once the bridge is built, scheduled for completion in 2025, the gates will be incrementally opened to reintroduce tidal flow to 890 acres and will continue to be monitored to allow for adaptive management.
The return of salt water to the Herring River Estuary will lead to ecological and social benefits. The restored tidal flows will improve water quality and promote the expansion of shellfish in the estuary and Wellfleet Bay. It will also allow Atlantic Herring to reach their historic spawning ponds.
The influx of salt water will combat invasive phragmites and allow native salt marsh plants to flourish. This will increase the diversity of wildlife and habitat in the estuary and is expected to provide food, shelter, nesting and migratory habitat for many species of birds, like the at-risk American Black Duck. The improved health of the estuary will enhance recreational opportunities and benefit regional tourism while serving as a model for restoring other estuaries in the northeast.
“We are ecstatic to finally begin the groundwork to recover this vitally important ecosystem,” said Brian Carlstrom, NPS superintendent. “By returning the tidal flow, Herring River will have the chance to recover and heal itself. We have achieved this milestone through the support and collaboration of our federal, state, and local partners.”