Many Hands (and Shovels) Make Wet Work at James Pond 3-2-16

Vineyard Gazette

Many Hands (and Shovels) Make Wet Work at James Pond
Alex Elvin
Wednesday, March 2, 2016 - 2:30pm

Along with polling stations around the Island, James Pond was the place to be on Tuesday, as fishermen, town officials and others pulled on waders to help clear a channel for herring that will arrive in the spring.

The channel is cleared every year, but this was the first official opening since the 1980s, when a town order of conditions expired and was never renewed. West Tisbury herring warden Johnny Hoy put out the call for volunteers last week after the conservation commission voted to allow the openings to continue.

Herring warden Johnny Hoy (at right) led the band. — Albert O. Fischer
And the call was answered.

Hidden by tall dunes along Lambert's Cove Beach, more than a dozen people were at work in the pond Tuesday afternoon. Tall sticks marked the channel. A yellow lab named Rose bounded through the chilly water to greet people as they arrived with shovels and waders. Two swans kept watch in the distance.

By late afternoon, dark piles were forming along the sides of the channel, which extended about 300 feet into the pond. The breeze carried a slight rotten-egg odor of decomposing material as globs of silt and peat splashed in the water.

James Pond once supported healthy herring and eel populations, which in turn supported local fishermen. But the channel to the 50-acre pond has become more closed as a result of storms and other causes.

Josh Goldstein, whose family owns the Mansion House in Vineyard Haven, remembered his father buying eels from Capt. Norman Benson, among the last trap fishermen on the Island, who lived nearby.

"It's a beautiful pond," Mr. Goldstein said, taking a quick break in the channel. "And when it's moving there's a lot more fish and there's a lot more life." He added that the decline of local fisheries in general underscores the importance of herring, which sit at the bottom of the food chain.

Conservation commission member Prudy Burt: "Anything for the fish." — Albert O. Fischer
Mr. Goldstein's wife Regan tossed a shovelful of gray silt into the water. "You can see them massing on the beach sometimes, trying to get in," she said of the herring.

Capain Benson's great-grandson Jeffrey Maida was also there. Coincidentally, Tuesday would have been Captain Benson's 131st birthday.

"The pond used to be a lot more active with everything," said Mr. Maida, resting against his shovel at the far end of the channel. "It will be nice to get some fish back in here."

Until this year, the annual digs have been more secret than celebration, and many who came on Tuesday were new recruits. But most were familiar with the pond's predicament. Conservation commission member Prudy Burt said she was grateful for the opportunity to give a hand to migrating species.

"Anything for the fish," she said.

Farther up the channel, Mr. Hoy assessed the progress.

Next up: herring in April. — Albert O. Fischer
"Over there it seems to be almost deep enough to let them in," he said, motioning toward the barrier beach, beyond a long bar covered in phragmites.

"If we can make this four feet wide and it lasts through April, we'll be doing good," he said. "And then next year we'll get the machinery and make a big deep one."

Eventually he hopes to obtain permission from the state to use an excavator to clear a more lasting channel. A public hearing on the topic opened in West Tisbury last week and was continued to March 22.

Meanwhile, Mr. Hoy plans to come back around tax day in April to make the final cut through the beach. "That's easy because you get the water," he said. "You make a little trickle and it starts to run and then you kind of help it." But Tuesday's job was a group effort, and Mr. Hoy said he had never seen so many people at work in the pond.

"This is commercial fishermen and interested people, recreational fishermen, good citizens, and everybody pitching in," he said. "It's a good thing."

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