Nature’s gatekeepers


Spring weather will eventually arrive. The river herring will too, although in numbers greatly diminished from the 19th century, when Islanders eagerly looked forward to an annual harvest from one of several runs that provided the fish with a path to the freshwaters of their birth.

The remarkable return of these fish in the face of a precipitous decline is a testament to the sense of guardianship Vineyarders have demonstrated over the years for the Island’s few remaining runs.

In a story published May 12, 2005, Jo-Ann Taylor, coastal planner for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, described the herring run that once existed at Tashmoo, and is now a faint shadow of the past.

Ms. Taylor wrote the Wampanoags called the outlet of Lake Tashmoo “Ashappaquonsett,” meaning “where the nets are spread.” It was clearly an important fishing area for the indigenous people. The Europeans shortened the name to “Chappaquonsett,” and apparently took up their nets with much the same enthusiasm. One early report is of some 155 fishing shacks on the beach, with the occupants employed in the seining of herring.

Just how important the herring was in the lives of early Vineyarders is revealed in a letter written in 1842 that was addressed to Dr. Brown and signed by Seth Daggett, which contained a poem that begins, “To Chappaquonsett’s bounteous stream what praises shall we give, when we reflect how many does by its resources live.”

The poem, which may have been written by an earlier Daggett family member, is appreciative of the arrival of the herring at a time when most larders were empty, “when beef and pork is entirely gone and people have no butter.”

The poem, available at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, contains a description of an idyllic scene of fisher folk gathering to harvest herring, and the tensions that soon arose over individual claims.

“Then off each setts with pole and netts and baskets filled with pine, then to the creek each takes his stand, some Tories and some Whigs, each one declares he will see them d—-d before he will lose his digs. Then some they fight with pole and stick, and some by throwing stones, the old men gets thrown in the creek, and boys gitts broken bones …”

The poem, Ms. Taylor said, describes the intensity of the fishing effort, even on Sunday when many Vineyarders were in church, by men identified as Joe Harvey and Joe Norton. It ends, “Now of those two it’s hard to know which of them is the keenest, but neighbors say that warden Joe most surely is the meanest.”

Vineyarders still jealously guard their fishing rights, and they compose poems, though few provide such keen observations on day-to-day Island life.

A modern-day poet extolling the virtues of herring would find no meanness and much good in the efforts of West Tisbury herring warden Johnny Hoy and civil engineer and Tisbury Great Pond steward Kent Healy. They, along with the two other pond stewards, determine the timing for the opening in the barrier beach, and take a great interest in insuring that the herring born in the upper reaches of the Great Pond can return, after several years in the ocean, to spawn.

Last year, Mr. Hoy and Mr. Healy were instrumental in the installation of a new fish ladder, designed to provide a route for returning fish over the archaic Mill Pond dam, a no longer useful barrier that has created an attractive mud puddle out of a free-flowing stream that was once capable of supporting herring, white perch, native brook trout, and American eels.

Two species of fish in coastal Massachusetts are collectively referred to as river herring. They are the alewife, which spawns from late March to mid-May, and the blueback herring, which spawns from late April to June.

Herring numbers have declined precipitously along the New England coast. The reasons include overfishing, environmental degradation — that would include dams — and the loss of natural runs.

The diminishing numbers of returning herring, even by modern standards, prompted state fisheries managers in 2006 to prohibit the possession or sale of herring, effectively closing all herring runs in the state. That closure has remained in effect despite some recent modest rebounds noted at some of the state’s larger runs.

A critical manmade element in the entire natural equation that governs Tisbury Great Pond is the timing of the opening in the beach that separates the pond from the Atlantic and the duration of the opening. A backhoe is no match for Mother Nature.

In 2014, spring storms closed the opening soon after it was cut, and the herring had no free passage until May.

Each year, pond stewards contend with a variety of competing interests and environmental regulations — property owners and shellfishermen all take a keen interest in pond levels and openings — but their paramount focus is on the natural environment and the herring.

“I’m watchin’ it,” Kent Healy said, when asked about the arrival of the herring.

We and the herring are in good hands.