Wednesday, March 23, 2016

For the Love of Fish

By Cindy Sabato, Director of Communications

Belying its name, the Ten Mile River is actually 22 miles of waterway snaking from Savage Pond in Plainville, Mass. south through the Attleboros and Seekonk before entering Rhode Island, where it meanders through Pawtucket and East Providence, over the Omega Dam and into the Seekonk River and Narragansett Bay. It once supported a robust fish run of river herring and American shad, anadromous fish that live as adults in salt water and return each spring to spawn in the fresh water where they were born. But dams built along the Ten Mile River during the Industrial Revolution—not to mention the calamitous pollution of the time—brought an end to what may have been one of the most prolific fish runs in Rhode Island history. That is, until lifelong career fisherman, Paul Bettencourt, got an idea. A great idea.

Great ideas often take perseverance, determination, a long view and a hero. And Paul’s idea was no exception. On the morning I talked to this story’s hero, the gritty, 75-years-young angler had already been up to Turner Reservoir on the Ten Mile, pulled on his hip boots, walked out on the wall and caught a few fish. I’d learn later that all three of his daughters had caught a striped bass by the time they were four years old and that he’s taught all but the youngest two of seven grandchildren how to fish. Wearing precisely the mischievous wide grin, silver beard and well-worn Greek fisherman’s cap one would expect of a beloved grandfather and sportsman, Paul told me the story of how, from the mid-1960s through 2015, he relentlessly pursued his idea to restore the connection between the Bay and the Ten Mile River for herring, shad and the many fishermen who enjoy these waters. And how a meeting with Save The Bay sparked a determined, community-wide effort to make his idea a reality. 

The Idea
“What happened was… my brother Joe [Bettencourt] and I had just started fishing over on the Barrington River when he got a call that his son had hurt himself, so we rushed back to his house and had to dump all our [bait] herring in the Ten Mile behind his house. That put a lightbulb in my head. There were no fish up on the Ten Mile River. I said to Joe, ‘Hey, why don’t we get some herring and stock this place?’” Paul said. 

A self-proclaimed “fisherman and environmentalist,” Paul long ago understood the importance of the herring to the ecosystem and to the survival of recreational fishing in and around Narragansett Bay.
“The river is a nursery for the herring, which are part of the food chain. Everything that swims out there feeds on herring; even the smallest fish will feed on them when they’re young,” he said. “Until the last ten years or so, people didn’t care about the herring, just the big fish. But the big fish wouldn’t be here if the herring weren’t.” 

His idea to “get some herring and stock this place,” however, wasn’t particularly legal. “We’d go out at night, so the game wardens wouldn’t come after us, scoop up 100 to 150 herring from other places, put them in 20-gallon galvanized buckets with water and ice, and then fly home to get them back in the river before they died,” Paul said. “Me and my brother started it, and others saw us and joined in, and over the years, it was all the recreational fisherman in the Rhode Island who kept the herring in the river,” Paul said. 

Over time, stocking turned to scooping as the herring that Paul and his friends initially relocated to these waters began to return to spawn. Trouble was, they couldn’t get up over the dam into the Ten Mile River. So for the next several decades, the determined fisherman and legions of others took on the labor-intensive work of hoisting thousands of returning herring over the ten-foot dam at Omega Pond in long-handled nets. And a new vision emerged. A series of fish ladders would allow herring to swim the three miles from Narragansett Bay to Turner Reservoir at the Rhode Island/Massachusetts border.

“I went to different companies about it. I went to DEM and talked to different directors. I talked to state representatives. But there was no funding. No one was going to put any money up for it. Nobody was interested enough in the herring to put money toward it,” he said. So each spring when the herring returned to spawn, the scooping continued, in the dark of night, for many more years. 
Things took a turn in the mid-1990s when Paul met Wenley Ferguson, Save The Bay’s director of habitat restoration. He might call her the second hero of this story.

“When I first met Wenley—and remember, I’d met many different groups and people before, but it did no good—there was an excitement about her,” he said. Gesturing with his hands, he added, “You can hear her voice go from ‘down here’ to way up in the high pitch, you know? It was a pleasure! She’s a cuckoo clock, because you’d have to be cuckoo to care about what we were doing.”
“When I first met Paul, I remember four-wheeling along the banks of the Seekonk River, and Paul literally telling the story of the area, how he gathered herring as a kid and sold them to markets on the East Side of Providence,” Wenley said. He showed her areas that were at one time herring runs that have been filled in along this industrial waterfront, some, he said, to make a junkyard, others by neglect. “Paul was clearly a do-er. He had seen his childhood fishing spots destroyed, yet never gave up, and was able to mobilize and energize a bunch of fishermen to move herring over the dam by hand. That is no easy task,” she said.

Their meeting just happened to occur at a time when Save The Bay was starting a new initiative to assess habitat restoration needs in the watershed. “We’d always had a vision to restore the Bay’s water quality, and now we were expanding that vision to include restoring the Bay’s habitats. The time was right for bringing fish back; improvements in wastewater treatment in the upper Bay and the Ten Mile River had led to water quality that could now support the return of the anadromous population,” she said. 

Sometimes it’s not just what you know, but who you know, and Wenley knew people at other agencies and organizations who were interested in fish restoration. She knew, for example, that the City of East Providence owned the upper two dams, and that city manager, Paul Lemont, was a fisherman. “When I pitched the idea and said the word ‘shad,’ I could see the excitement in his eyes,” she said.

The city quickly embraced the vision and became a partner. Dick Quinn, an engineer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, had already completed a conceptual design for three fish ladders that became a blueprint for the project. Before long, Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), Save The Bay and the City of East Providence each secured matching funds that would allow the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a feasibility study.

More than a decade after the completion of the feasibility study and countless hours of work by DEM and the Army Corps of Engineers on the engineering and design of the ladders, three fish passages would be built at the first three dams on the river: Omega Pond Dam, Hunts Mill Dam and Turner Reservoir Dam. The ladders would provide for upstream migration of adult blueback herring, alewife and American Shad to historic spawning areas. Each stair-like ladder would be four feet wide with a floor slope of one vertical rise to eight horizontal runs so that the herring and shad could literally swim through the ladder to reach their spawning grounds. The project would open up some three river miles and 340 acres of spawning habitat that could support more than 200,000 herring. 
By this point, Paul was feeling good. “I thought ‘this is really gonna happen,’” he said.

“This was Paul’s vision. My role was to learn his vision, share it with others, pull together partners, secure some early funding, and push the process in the early stages. Then, other organizations and leaders stepped up,” Wenley said. And, thanks to the Ten Mile River Watershed Council formed by Keith Gonsalves in the mid 2000s, more community support was built for the river restoration and even more people shared Paul’s vision.

An Idea is Realized
As the complexity and expense of the project grew—there were easements to be secured, an overhead power line to circumnavigate, a railroad bridge in the way, a gas line to be moved, and more—so did the list of partners and funders. Among them were the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with state and local partners including the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association and the Ten Mile River Watershed Council.

While the project progressed, the annual spring “human fish ladder” event that Paul began in the 1960s—by this time being done legally under the auspices of DEM and coordinated by the Ten Mile River Watershed Council—became the community-wide “Scoop The Herring” celebration that served to reconnect people to the river in their backyards. 

Spring 2015 was the first season in more than a half-century that Paul didn’t throw herring over the Omega Pond Dam. He didn’t have to. On a warm day in April, Paul and Wenley both received calls from Keith Gonsalves, his ecstatic voice proclaiming, “the herring are using the ladder!” The ladders allowed for the first unassisted spawning run of herring on the Ten Mile River in more than a century. On June 19, 2015, during a ceremonial ribbon cutting, federal, state and local leaders and community partners celebrated the $9.5 million project. “It was a great example of a community-based project conceived by a local fisherman that has led to a partnership of community organizations and government agencies,” Wenley said.

“There was nothing more pleasing to my eyes than to look down at that fish ladder and see the herring swimming by. They climbed up the whole ladder and kept going. I went up to Hunts Mill to see how many were there, too. I counted there and jotted down when I saw them and how many, and other people were doing the same thing. And boy it was a pleasure to see,” Paul said.

The Long View
For Paul and for Save The Bay, the opening of the fish run was a vision realized. “Bringing a forage fish back to an historic habitat is bringing life and vitality back to the river. The return of these migratory fish enhances the freshwater and saltwater fish populations, which improves recreational and commercial fishing, brings back osprey and great blue herons that feed on these fish and increases the biodiversity of the river,” Wenley said.

Opening up the fish passage is only part of the story. True habitat restoration will take work on many fronts. The upper Turner Reservoir and Central Ponds often experience blooms of toxic blue-green algae and the flow in the Ten Mile River is dominated by wastewater effluent and impacted by polluted runoff. Save The Bay is steadfast in our commitment to continued river restoration. Our work is inspired by the determination of local environmental stewards like Paul Bettencourt, who support us as volunteers, donors, visionaries and voices for the Bay.

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