We are Cape Cod, but we easily could have been Cape Herring
By Doreen Leggett
A narrow dirt road through the Brewster woods is dark as pitch, but shiny minivans, SUVS, and compact cars line the way to a lighted house at the end.
Inside, close to 20 people are gathered around a table flanked by enormous windows that reveal the inky forest up the hill from the storied herring run at Stony Brook. The brook that leads to Cape Cod Bay was made famous by the man who lived in this home in the woods and wrote about this peninsula’s intimate connection with the alewives that travel to and from the sea.
‘“The herring are running!” must have been a great cry once, for men, women, and children over the whole Cape. There was a deep meaning in this seasonal event, since the fish were part of the local livelihood the year round.”
So wrote John Hay in his celebrated book, “The Run,” first published in 1959.
It was alewives, and their cousins the Atlantic sea herring, that had drawn representatives from conservation trusts across the Cape to the Hay house, now home to the Compact of Cape Cod Conservation Trusts. And it was Hay’s legacy of drawing attention to the small iridescent fish that Seth Rolbein of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance invoked.
“There’s no better place to talk about how important these forage fish are to the marine ecosystem, to the many fisheries that rely on them, and to our deep sense of our communities and history,” said Rolbein.
That moment, and the support of the 22 land protection groups gathered that night, marked the beginning of an effort to enlist residents and officials across the Cape in the effort.
The mission: Raise voices in support of the work of the Fishermen's Alliance to create a buffer zone to protect herring off the Cape’s coast.
The proposal: Move mid-water trawlers, 150–foot boats that often work in pairs and scoop up millions of pounds of sea herring, away from the near shore. These boats target sea herring, but they also can catch close to 70,000 pounds of migrating river herring as the schools of related fish mingle.
“In the barer, colder, perhaps simpler days, days when men lived closer to their natural surroundings and were more dependent on them than they think they are now, the alewives meant food and revenue, an abundance returning to your own backyard,” wrote Hay.
As the New England Fishery Management Council, the key group that recommends federal fishing policies in our region, headed toward a December meeting, close to 150 comments calling for a buffer zone poured into its office. The vast majority came from the Cape and in support of herring.
“If the English sailor, Captain Bartholomew Gosnold had been ashore in the springtime instead of on his ship when he gave the Cape its name, it might now be called Cape alewife,” wrote Hay.
In addition to town boards of selectmen up and down the peninsula, the Barnstable County Commissioners and Assembly of Delegates, the Association to Preserve Cape Cod, and the entire State House delegation representing the Cape and Islands -- five Republicans and three Democrats -- joined this groundswell in a united call to ask the Council to protect herring close to shore.
"Our communities have a long, intimate connection to the sea. The rich biodiversity of the area's marine ecosystem is at the heart of our region's existence and prosperity," read the delegation's letter, addressed to Council Director Thomas Nies.
When mid-water trawlers tow their nets just outside the state’s three-mile limit, it isn’t just herring that are lost. Because the boats remove so many bait fish, other species that feed on them – cod, haddock, tuna – disappear as well.
Along with official missives, passionate voices joined from across the Cape. They spoke of how hundreds of thousands of river herring trying to return to their towns’ traditional alewife runs and ponds are caught as bycatch, threatening an already fragile population, undermining town investments and the work of scores of volunteers trying to bring the herring runs back to life.
Folks like Dana Condit in Brewster, Judy Scanlon and Suzanne Phillips in Orleans, and Rex McKinsey in Provincetown spoke about what they saw, what they know.
“Last year heavy trawlers were four miles off shore at Nauset Beach,” said Suzanne Phillips, a member of the Shellfish and Waterways Improvement Advisory Committee in Orleans. “You have a commercial fishing fleet at Rock Harbor and those fish eat herring and menhaden. These (trawlers) … scoop up everything, including baitfish. The same issue affects recreational fishermen. We don’t have the surf casting we used to have.”
McKinsey, Provincetown’s harbormaster, noted that the town’s fleet is predominantly day boats that depend on the very fishery the industrial trawlers remove.
“Provincetown’s commitment to our commercial fishing fleet acknowledges our historical ties to the sea as well as the current and future sustainability for the outer Cape as we work to develop a blue economy,” McKinsey wrote. Provincetown depends on $9 million worth of fresh seafood products coming over the pier each year, he added.
“In the old days on Cape Cod there was hardly a seafaring man who did not take his salt herring abroad with him…There were many smokehouses on the Cape, and in the wintertime dried fish hung on the barn rafters above the haylofts,” wrote Hay, who then quoted an old timer: “‘We lived off the earth. Potatoes and smoked herring. That is why some of us old goats lived so long.’”
The Fishermen's Alliance doesn’t want to stop the fishery, which provides lobster bait and other products. The goal is to push the boats further offshore and create a buffer along the coast, which has been successful in the Gulf of Maine.
“They can go fish anywhere they want; they have 150-foot boats. I’ve got a 34-foot boat; I can’t go 150 miles offshore to catch tuna. I have to be close to shore,” said Bruce Peters of Orleans, who fishes for blue tuna and striped bass as captain of the Marilyn S.
Ted Ligenza, captain of the Reine Marie, remembers back to the 1990s, when he was fishing Great Hill, off Chatham, and saw the big trawlers for the first time. He remembers looking down at his fish finder before they came.
“There was dogfish, herring, codfish, and pollock on my sounding machine,” the Chatham resident said. “The whole sounding machine had fish on it, from bottom to top.”
Ligenza is one of the few fishermen who still uses hooks and a handline to catch fish. His hooks float just above the ocean floor so he thought that he would be able to fish the area after the big boats pulled out.
Ligenza was wrong. There was nothing left.
“I was soon to learn that if they were towing, nothing would be there. They are basically catching everything … We didn’t realize how bad it was going to be,” he said.
Even after testimony like this, the Council decided to offer nine options – including allowing the status quo to continue – for more public comment. Formal hearings will likely be held in March with a final decision expected in June.
The Alliance is hopeful that voices across the peninsula once again speak out for a strong, year-round buffer zone.
"We believe that the voices of people across the Cape and Islands must be heard at the federal level," said John Pappalardo, CEO of the Fishermen's Alliance. "Establishing this buffer zone will benefit fishermen, of course, but even more so the entire community, and the fishermen of tomorrow."
“Alewife management depends on their almost relentless drive to go back where they came from. No life insists on its locality more strongly,” Hay wrote.
Crucial public hearings on herring will be scheduled this spring. Check back here for more information on how you can get involved.