What is the Madaket Ditch?

The Madaket Ditch is a waterway that meanders from Hither Creek, starting near Madaket Marine, and ends up connecting to Long Pond at Second Bridge on Madaket Road. It was dug in the early 1660s as a cooperative project of the Nantucket Wampanoags and the earliest English settlers to improve fishing for everyone.

Madaket Ditch.

On the mainland there are natural “herring runs,” by which herring (actually alewives) reach fresh water for spawning. There was none on Nantucket until the English brought metal picks and shovels, which made excavation of an artificial herring run possible.

Alewives are anadromous, which means that they live in saltwater but go to freshwater to spawn. Eels, on the other hand are catadromous, which means they live in fresh water but go to the ocean to reproduce.

The Madaket ditch provided a way for alewives to come into Long Pond and for eels to leave the pond. Nantucket fishermen, originally both Wampanoags and English settlers, harvested both alewives and eels as they passed back and forth through the Madaket Ditch.

There was a line item in the annual Town of Nantucket budget for maintenance of the Madaket Ditch into the mid-twentieth century. For the past several years there has been a moratorium on the taking of alewives because of the drop in their numbers. The moratorium was intended to last for three years to give the population time to recover. Recovery has not taken place, so the moratorium remains in place indefinitely.

Currently the Madaket Ditch is unused. If the moratorium is lifted in the future, there may no longer be Nantucketers left with the skills needed for taking alewives and eels.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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