While our backs were turned, the Santuit River quietly died.
What should have been a joyous autumn day spent exploring a lovely trout stream with MDFW fisheries biologist Steve Hurley and interns from Patagonia’s Boston store was instead a post mortem examination of the Santuit River, due to the chilling realization that its salter brook trout appear to have been extirpated.
The Santuit River was one of only three salter streams of any significance remaining on Cape Cod, and until recently it was home to an abundant population of genetically stream specific salter brook trout. According to Steve Hurley, although the Santuit River was always considered the third best trout stream on the Cape, it produced big salters, perhaps the finest brook trout of all of the remaining salter streams.
During the late summer, Hurley, along with the US Geological Service, surveyed the Mashpee River and the Santuit at the request of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe for data on the local trout populations. While they found good numbers of brook trout in the Mashpee above Asher’s Path, Hurley and his crew were stunned when they were unable to turn up any trout in the nearby Santuit River. In response to this unpleasant surprise, Hurley made plans to return to the Santuit River in late October, just prior to the brook trout spawning time in southeastern Massachusetts, a time when brook trout would have to be in the river.
When my friend Steve Cronin and I arrived at Sampson’s Mill Road in Mashpee on a warm day in late October, we found Hurley and his interns measuring fish that they had captured while electro-fishing the Santuit downstream of the road. The bucket containing their catch was full of mummichogs and eels with a few sticklebacks, but no trout.
After returning the captured fish to the river, we put on rubber gloves and grabbed nets and followed Hurley with his backpack electro-fisher, heading upstream – north toward Route 28. This was my first visit to the Santuit, and I was pleasantly impressed by its similarity to the nearby Mashpee River. Like the Mashpee, the Santuit meanders through a narrow, steep sided valley shaded by the massive beech trees growing along the valley’s flanks. In sharp contrast to these wooded riparian valleys of the Mashpee and Santuit are streams like the Quashnet River, the Coonemessett River, and Red Brook where anything resembling valley walls were, long ago, stripped of trees and flattened to make cranberry bogs, while the river channels themselves were straightened and reduced to irrigation ditches.
I wish that I could say that we found trout, but we didn’t. A few small bass, one white perch, some eels and an angry crayfish were all that we had to show for our efforts. After shocking undercut banks and the margins of numerous spring seeps, Hurley stopped just short of Route 28 and conceded to the harsh evidence that the salter brook trout of the Santuit River are gone, reducing the Santuit to just another name added to the long, bitter list of extirpated salter streams.
On our way downstream to our vehicles at Sampson’s Mill Road, we talked about what might have happened to the Santuit’s brook trout. We had observed several conditions along the stream that may have contributed to the brook trout’s demise. The most obvious threat was the Willow Bend development and its golf course. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection was fully aware, as far back as the 1990s, that the development’s water withdrawals could adversely impact the Santuit and its trout, yet as recently as early October Willow Bend was advertising in the Boston Globe that new houses were being built that featured between 3 and 5 bathrooms.
Where do the towns of Mashpee and Barnstable and their respective Conservation Commission, and Mass. D.E. P. expect Willow Bend to get the water for all of these bathrooms?
Another adverse impact to the Santuit’s trout is the loss of woody debris along the stream’s banks and in its channel. When Hurley had electro-fished the Santuit with Brendan Annett back in 2003 to acquire samples for genetic research on salters that Annett was doing for a thesis, the Santuit was both full of trout and full of wood. While the downed trees had made electro-fishing difficult, Hurley said that they made excellent habitat for the stream’s trout by providing lots of overhead cover and deep scour holes throughout the stream’s channel. Meanwhile, it was plain to see that the Santuit that we were wading in on this fall day had, since 2003, been deliberately cleared of all of its wood. The stump ends of saw cut trees could be seen all along the river. The stream channel itself was exposed and featureless, and except for undercuts in the stream bends, there was very little cover for the stream’s fish. Looking at the cleared stream, left wide open to the sun, Steve Hurley shook his head saying only that, “Chainsaws and trout streams don’t mix well.”
We also discussed the problems with Santuit Pond, the starting point for the Santuit River. Over development and the excess phosphate and nitrogen flowing from septic systems had reduced Santuit Pond to an algae choked, unswimable and anoxic environmental disaster. Following an order from the Federal EPA, the state spent millions on repairing the dam and the fish way where the pond exits into the river – and devices (solar bees) were installed to control the algae – yet, obviously, little or no consideration was given to the native salter brook trout that had lived in the sun dappled little stream running south to Popponesset Bay.
On our way home Steve Cronin and I talked about what needs to be done to protect salter brook trout and reverse the trend of extirpation that we continue to see even in this “environmentally enlightened” age.
We agreed that a stream monitoring program, like that used at Red Brook, might have detected early signs of the Santuit River’s declining water quality. At Red Brook and Bread and Cheese Brook in Westport, TU volunteers have deployed temperature loggers along the length of these streams to detect and record any increases in water temperature. By deploying the loggers down stream from roads, cranberry bogs and dams, a record of both when, and to what extent, those man made structures heat the water has been created. Loggers are also placed near groundwater upwellings and spring fed tributaries to monitor them for any changes to the streams that might be related to water withdrawals from private and municipal wells.
Meanwhile, on Martha’s Vineyard, Sea Run Brook Trout Coalition has deployed temperature loggers below dams on Mill Brook, a salter stream that was written about by Nelson Bryant, the former outdoor columnist for the New York Times. The purpose of the Mill Brook project is to educate the public about the summer time thermal (heating) caused by dams, and how that impacts brook trout.
Temperature loggers actually do more than record temperature every 15 minutes, they also keep people returning to the stream at regular intervals so that they can witness any changes taking place. At Red Brook and Bread and Cheese, the volunteers downloading temperature data from loggers also use digital cameras to make a visual record of the stream. At Red Brook this visual record of the stream and its changes goes back almost twenty years.
If the Santuit River had been the focus of a temperature logging project similar to those being carried out on Red Brook, Bread and Cheese Brook and Mill Brook, its unique strain of salter brook trout might have been saved. Salters gave America its first sport fishery, and their reliance on and adaptation to the rich habitats found at the nexus of fresh and salt water systems predates by millennia our own often misguided adaptations of those ecologically rich confluences. These small, coldwater brook trout streams with their connection to saltmarshes, estuaries and bays are the defining features of our region, yet people drive along Route 28 on Cape Cod, on their way to the beach or a golf course and never notice the shining little rivers full of life that run beneath the road.
And above all else, the beautiful little Santuit leaves us with a sorry lesson – it died quietly while our backs were turned. We have only ourselves to blame for its death.
There is small hill near the Santuit River called Trout Mound. According to Mashpee Wampanoag legend, a great trout shaped the river by forcing its way inland and, in so doing, cleared the way for herring to reach the pond. The Great Trout is buried at Trout Mound.