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Building a better fish ladder at the historic Baxter Grist Mill, West Yarmouth,

How Conservation Works

Long before the Baxter Grist Mill began milling corn and grain in the early 18th century, before quaint cottages dotted landscape, and before motels and seafood restaurants lined busy Route 28 in Yarmouth, Massachusetts, Cape Cod rivers and streams teemed with herring returning from the Atlantic Ocean to inland lakes and ponds to spawn each spring.

“The historic Baxter Grist Mill was established in 1710 and was in operation for over 200 years,” said Karl von Hone, Director of Natural Resources for the Town of Yarmouth. “This mill pond was impounded by the construction of a dam to ensure water flow for the milling process.”

With the dam in place, the herring could not reach the impounded pond and their spawning grounds. A fish ladder was built in the mid-20th century to restore access.

“A fish ladder bridges a stream up to a higher elevated pond or section of a stream or river,” explained von Hone. “It could be because of a waterfall or it could be because of a man-made structure, but those fish need to go up a certain elevation that they could not do naturally.”

A half century later, town officials and environmental experts realized that the original ladder wasn’t working very well.

“The ladder was not very efficient,” said Stephen Spear, Soil Conservationist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). “It was difficult for the fish to get up to the spawning area in the pond, which leads through another channel up to a much larger spawning area.”

Two types of saltwater herring use this pond: river herring and blue back herring. Unlike salmon, they don’t die after they spawn in the fresh water in the spring. Instead, they return to saltwater for the rest of the year. After the eggs hatch and the small fish, called fry, grow large enough, they migrate back down the channel and out to the ocean.

“These two species are at the bottom of the food chain out in the ocean, so they feed a lot of the fish that we consume,” said Spear.

Aware of the importance of herring to the local ecosystem and the economy, local, state and federal officials identified the Baxter Grist Mill Dam fish ladder as a priority site in the Cape Cod Water Resources Restoration Project watershed plan, developed in the early 2000s.  The plan targets three areas: restoring salt marshes that have degraded due to restricted tidal flow; storm water runoff control and treatment where water quality is impaired, preventing commercial and recreational shellfish harvesting; and the restoration of anadromous fish runs.

NRCS provided funding to remove the old Baxter Grist Mill fish run and construct a new ladder.

“There was a considerable amount of setup work to manage water flow while the project was being done,” said Spear. “A lot of concrete was poured, many measurements taken to make sure that the specifications were being followed.”

“The new ladder was designed to increase the length of the run by about 20 feet, lessen the slope of the ladder system, and increase the pooling areas below each ladder step to provide more area for the fish to rest before they continue up the ladder system,” said von Hone. “We are also able to control water flow by replacing the baffles.”

“I've had a tremendous relationship with NRCS on other projects and it was a natural fit when the opportunity to work on this dam came up,” said von Hone. “NRCS has been wonderful to work with and we were able to develop that partnership.”