On Saturday afternoon, a roomful of people listened to Michael Hopper, president of the Sea Run Brook Trout Coalition, describe a vision of West Tisbury’s Mill Pond quite different from the dredge-maintained impoundment the town’s Mill Pond committee is currently exploring.
That alternative is a free-flowing stream unimpeded by dams and returned to its natural state and capable of supporting healthy populations of native species. The stream feeding the Mill Pond did just that when Dr. Jerome Smith, author of The Natural History of the Fish of Massachusetts, visited the brook in the early 1820s and saw more sea run brook trout spawning there than anywhere else in the state.
Mindful of the political undercurrents swirling about the town’s decision about the pond, Mr. Hopper told the gathering at the town library that he was not in West Tisbury to tell townspeople what they should do. He was there only to describe what fishing organizations had accomplished in restoring coastal streams in southeastern Massachusetts and might serve as a possible model.
Mr. Hopper traveled to West Tisbury at the invitation of Prudy Burt, who has embarked on a campaign to place stream restoration, at least that portion that created Mill Pond, on the table next to dredging as an option town residents might consider. Doing so, she said, would eliminate the cost of maintaining the pond and dam and would open Mill Brook to brook trout, white perch, herring, and American eels.
Ms. Burt said she was encouraged by the good turnout on Saturday, about 50 people, and the questions posed to Mr. Hopper. The most difficult challenge, she said, has been to convince some residents to consider an alternative to a pastoral and scenic view they have always known.
“They are so wed to the beloved historical aesthetic that they just can’t believe that this is a viable option,” she told The Times in a telephone conversation Monday.
Mr. Hopper began his presentation with a description of growing up in Wellfleet as a transplanted New York kid in the 1970s. “I did a lot of fishing and hunting and never realized what a sea run brook trout was until I bought my second fishing book,” he said. “And that story is what led me to your library today.”
The author of the story, “The Lady and the Trout,” was Nelson Bryant of West Tisbury, the outdoor columnist for the New York Times for almost 40 years.
Mr. Hopper, president of Trans Oceanic Seafoods, said that in the 1980s he became involved in stream restoration on the Quashnet River in Falmouth and later Red Brook in Wareham.
Mr. Hopper chronicled the history of the brook trout, America’s first sportfish. Once prolific in Massachusetts streams, the brook trout fishery is a shadow of what once existed, mostly due to dams and overdevelopment.
“When you start losing the connectivity of streams you segment populations or lose them altogether,” he said.
The Quashnet River in Falmouth was restored from a maze of manmade cranberry bogs. The effort included bank restoration and the planting of trees to provide shade to maintain cool water temperatures.
The result was that brook trout re-colonized the entire stream, he said. Another discovery during the restoration process was that the trout retained unique genetic strains markedly different from hatchery-raised fish.
A coalition of conservation groups and state and federal agencies funded the projects. In the case of Red Brook, the price tag was approximately $300,000, most of which was provided by state and federal grants, and included 40,000 volunteer hours over a span of 20 years.
Turning to Mill Brook, Mr. Hopper said it lacks upstream fish passage, a problem that could be addressed without removing all the barriers. Improving flow could be beneficial for Tisbury Great Pond he said, because it would help flush sediment building up in Town Cove.
Mr. Hopper said that unlike dredging, there is state and federal money for dam removal and stream restoration projects. Federal grants will also pay for dam removal on private property when the owners support it.
Mr. Hopper said that, were Mill Brook restored, the existing trout would return to the great pond to feed and find plenty of food there. The frequency of openings to the ocean would not affect the trout, which tend to avoid the open ocean.
During the question and answer session, members of the Mill Pond Committee expressed several concerns. Craig Saunders, a hydro-geologist, said that removing the dam would de-water surrounding wetlands that now filter nitrogen, possibly adding nitrogen to the great pond.
Rick Karney, director of the shellfish group, expressed similar reservations. “I think we have some indications that ponds are quite effective nutrient sinks,” he said.
“I am not a hydrologist, I am not a biologist,” Mr. Hopper said. “I am a volunteer that became enamored with something that appeared to be lost in Massachusetts, the sea run brook trout, and as a volunteer I’ve seen real success in the streams that we have restored.”
Brice Contessa, a fishing guide, saw promise in what he heard. “I’m an Edgartown resident,” he said, “so the water politics of West Tisbury are clearly none of my business, but I personally don’t see how restoring a stream to its natural state could ever be a bad idea.”
As people filed out of the library, Mr. Hopper knelt in front of the man whose story had set him on his course and asked him to sign a book, “Fishing Moments of Truth,” an anthology he bought at the age of 17.
“From 1972 on, I read every article you wrote for The Times,” he told Nelson Bryant, as the writer thumbed through the pages of a story that brought back memories of fishing a Cape stream. Mr. Bryant recalled that he told his companion, Mary, “a pretty little thing,” not to throw stones in the stream because a trout had been coming to his hook and she scared it.
“It was that story that got me involved in everything,” Mr. Hopper told Mr. Bryant, now 88.
Asked for his reaction to the effect his story had had, Mr. Bryant said, “Well, it makes you think you weren’t pissing your life away.”
No cheap fix
Last month, the West Tisbury Mill Pond committee presented a report by ESS Group Inc. based on a series of environmental and engineering studies of the pond with the goal of preserving it. The report said Mill Pond is an artificially created system that is no longer used for its original purpose to provide power to a variety of mills.
A number of small dams and private diversions used to create private ponds affect the natural water flow, the report said. The primary flow diversion occurs just south of Scotchman’s Lane, where a canal diverts water southwest to Parsonage Pond. Several other small surface diversions to ponds and wetland areas along Mill Brook are also present downstream. Of the flow that reaches Mill Pond, some is diverted away from Mill Brook into a second outlet at the southwest end of Mill Pond. This water ends up flowing into Factory Brook and Maley’s Pond.
After describing several options the report said that, “Dredging provides a more reasonable and long-lasting solution, but may also prove to be the most costly alternative.”
The costs described range from $150,000 to $700,000, depending on the complexity.
“Unfortunately, the options for restoration of Mill Pond are relatively limited at this point in time, and the only true solution is a relatively expensive one,” the report concluded.
Should the project move forward to fruition, the effort to reintroduce native species would not have to start from scratch, Mr. Hopper said. Despite the various impoundments and diversions, brook trout still survive in scattered freshwater brooks and streams along the upper reaches of Mill Brook.
On a warm summer day last August, three technicians from the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (DFW) surveyed four streams as part of a continuing statewide project looking at the fisheries of Massachusetts’s streams and rivers.
The technicians surveyed Paint Mill Brook, Tiasquam Brook, and Mill Brook in Chilmark and Blackwater Brook in West Tisbury. They found wild brook trout in three streams.
A recording of Mr. Hopper’s presentation titled “Mill Brook Restoration” is available at the West Tisbury Library and at mvtv.org.