CHATHAM — For Don St. Pierre, who turns 80 in August, digging ditches, climbing hills and bushwhacking through the puckerbrush isn't as easy as it used to be. He's stepping down as the town's herring warden after more than half a century of watching over the fish runs and their seasonal visitors.
A Harwich native, St. Pierre started working on herring runs when he was a member of the sportfishing club Cape Cod Salties, and each spring he’d help clean out the run at Red River in South Harwich. When he moved to Chatham in 1960, he helped warden Wally Bicknell, Sr., maintain the town’s two sluiceways that link Ryder’s Cove and Stillwater Pond with Lovers’ Lake. When Bicknell was ready to retire, St. Pierre remembers voting at town meeting and proposing that the town remove the $500 stipend paid to the herring warden each year. Town Moderator Igo Toabe took objection.
“He said, ‘Why, are you going to do it for free?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it for free,’” St. Pierre said. And until he turned 65, he did just that. Now, the $750 annual stipend helps pay for his health insurance. While Bicknell served until age 75, St. Pierre has made it to almost 80, and needs a cane when walking on uneven turf. “I’m an antique,” he said.
St. Pierre is glad to recommend shellfisherman David Peterson to take his place as herring warden. “He’s a nature guy,” St. Pierre said, and he remembers Peterson working on the herring run as part of a Boy Scout project years ago. “I think he’ll do a good job.” Selectmen have yet to act on the appointment.
The annual herring migration has been part of the rhythm of life on Cape Cod for as long as people have lived here. Once used as a food source and to fertilize gardens, herring were a key bait for use in recreational and commercial fishing. And for many years, the anadromous fish came to Cape Cod ponds to spawn in enormous numbers.
“You could go down to the herring run and just put your net in there to go bass fishing, and you could get 30 herring in 30 seconds. It was unbelievable,” St. Pierre said. But the herring migration fluctuated year to year, and because a single downed log or other obstruction could block the passage of the fish, herring runs need careful attention.
About 10 years ago, for no apparent reason, herring stopped showing up in Chatham. “We ran out of herring. We stopped getting them,” St. Pierre said. Consulting with friend and former Harwich High School classmate Allin Thompson, St. Pierre reached out to the state Division of Marine Fisheries for help. Using a truck normally used to stock ponds with trout, state officials brought two loads of herring from Bourne and placed them in Lovers’ Lake. The fish spawned there, and the problem was corrected.
“Where the babies are born, they go back to exactly the same pond,” St. Pierre said. There’s still no clear explanation for exactly how the ocean-going fish find their particular pond out of thousands of waterways, but they do so each year without fail.
“Mother nature is amazing,” he said.
But sometimes, it needs a little help. One year, the culvert under Old Comer’s Road broke, and St. Pierre had to crawl on his belly through the pipe to locate the problem. Holding a flashlight in his mouth, he made the repairs, but had a tense moment when he came nose-to-nose with a snapping turtle.
St. Pierre’s had help over the years. He thanked the family of Walter Meier, who owns property at one of the fish ladders and allows St. Pierre easy access; he said retired highway department worker Paul White was also a regular helper. And Coastal Resources Director Ted Keon has been invaluable. “He’s been a real, real ace in the hole for me,” St. Pierre said.
When the two fish ladders needed repair several years ago, the town procured $65,000 in stimulus funds for the job. A contractor was located, and a work plan was devised that involved lots of equipment, a portable power generator and even a portable toilet for the work crew.
“I said no,” St. Pierre said. With Keon’s help, he asked state officials for permission to have the use of two laborers and to have the town purchase the materials itself. The job was done for $700.
The biggest threat to herring in recent years has been overfishing, St. Pierre said. Pair trawlers that were working just offshore were catching enormous amounts of Atlantic herring—which school with the river herring that use local herring runs—and the number of fish coming through local runs plummeted. A state prohibition on the taking of herring remains in place, but St. Pierre said it’s clear that the trawlers were the problem. He credits the work of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance for advancing regulations that reduce that fishing pressure, and last year’s herring counts showed an enormous recovery in the numbers. So far, this year’s fish traffic seems even heavier.
“I love it. They’re coming back,” St. Pierre said. “They’re coming back like gangbusters.”
In times of uncertainty like these, there’s something reassuring about the rhythms of nature and the return of the herring. Does St. Pierre feel it?
“You’re darned right,” he said. “That’s why I volunteered all those years, because I wanted it to happen.”