BREWSTER – “They live exciting lives,” said Elliott Carr about his fascination with the annual return of the herring to the Stony Brook Herring Run.
“Watching fish go up 22 three-foot waterfalls is an interesting experience, particularly when there are a group of seagulls trying to eat them,” said Carr, 76, of Brewster.
Carr, who retired as president of the Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank in 2006, is the author of the self-published book, “Herring Run: Life and Death at Stony Brook.” He is also the author of two other books of photography and nature essays.
“Elliott does like to go out and experience nature directly,” said Jo Ann Muramoto, senior scientist with the Association to Preserve Cape Cod (APCC). Carr is on the board of APCC, which manages volunteer herring count programs at Stony Brook and other herring runs on the Cape.
“I think he’s just a very astute observer of nature,” she said. Muramoto said Carr was one of ”many devotees of Stony Brook. There are citizens who love Stony Brook and love to visit, and watch it throughout the year.”
And while Carr is fascinated by the yearly spring journey of the river herring to spawn, he is not as fond of the fish’s nemesis, the herring gulls.
For years, the birds defecated on his roof until he put a wire guard up to keep them off. “The birds would eat and then digest in 20 minutes,” he said. “The runoff from the poop was actually good fertilizer,” he said. But poop and the squawking were annoying, he said.
“I used to go out with a BB gun and shoot them in the butt,” said Carr. “It didn’t hurt them, but it gave me psychic satisfaction.”
In the early 1980s, a couple of years after moving to Cape Cod to become president of Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank, Carr and his wife, Susan, bought their current house on Lower Mill Pond in Brewster.
“We certainly didn’t realize, looking down at the pond, that we were right around the corner from the herring run,” said Carr.
“Slowly it dawned on us,” said Susan.
The seagulls with their less-than-charming combination of squawking and pooping brought it to their attention, said Carr. “When the herring are running, the gulls are running, and then they’re all up on the roof pooping,” he said. That is, the birds were up on the roof until he had a wire guard installed.
One recent morning in late April, he went down to the brook at 6 AM and saw the most seagulls he has ever seen at the herring run. A short while later, they were all gone, most likely sitting and digesting in the salt marsh across from Stony Brook. “I think they are on eating shifts,” he said.
“They’re out there at 5 or 6, they all get fed, and then they come back when they’re hungry again,” he said. “The question is, how many times a day do they eat?”
As he walked by the brook and the falls, with the pools of water near the various falls thick with fish, he alternately called the water “herring stew,” and commented “it’s so thick with fish you could walk across it.”
Suddenly, a seagull was circling in the air. And then another. Soon, the sky was full of seagulls, and then the brook was full of those same hungry-again seagulls, back to eat at the all-they-can-eat herring buffet.
“I have a little bit of a tendency to project human characteristics onto the birds,” said Carr, who once wrote a book on ospreys. “Ospreys are lords of the world, flying a thousand feet above the water,” he said. “”They have a social structure. The two of them live together and raise kids.”
“But herring gulls are totally undisciplined in every respect,” said Carr. “Osprey are halfway between herring gulls and human beings. Herring gulls have no respect for each other. They have no respect for fish. There is very little I see about herring gulls that attract me.”
On the other hand, he’s attracted to the same thing the gulls are: the herring.
“These are river herring, not Atlantic herring,” said Muramoto. “They spend most of their adult lives at sea feeding. They will migrate upstream to spawn. In that way, they are like salmon. But unlike salmon, who will spawn once and then die, herring will do this three or four times in their lives.”
“The return of the herring is a great indicator of spring,” she said. “It’s a harbinger, a symbol of spring returning. At the same time, the osprey return. That’s probably not a coincidence.”
The APCC, using volunteers, monitors how many herring go through the run each year, said Muramoto. The volunteer counts, managed by APCC, have been going on since 2007, she said.
“We partner with a lot of organizations, towns and agencies,” said Muramoto. “There are 15 herring runs being monitored on the Cape. We are affiliated with 12 to 13 of them.”
According to Muramoto, “The count method is quite straight forward. We’re taking nine 10-minute counts throughout the day. Our volunteers measure water temperature, air temperature, and record weather conditions, using a simple code for weather conditions.” Volunteers go to the same spot for each count, and “keep an eye out for eels, other species of fish, evidence of predation or problems in the run,” she said.
“If the volunteers see poaching, we ask volunteers to contact either the herring wardens in their town or the natural resource director in their town,” said Muramoto.
As for the specific counting, she said, “Essentially, one stands looking down at a spot. It’s faster and easier to use a clicker counter “
Since the count began in 2007, said Muramoto, the numbers have improved dramatically at the Stony Brook herring run. “There has been a more than 1,000 percent increase in herring run size,” she said. The number, based on 10-minute counts, in 2007 was 22,348, while in 2014, the number was 271,363.
One major reason for the improvement, said Muramoto, was the replacement of a four-foot culvert under Route 6A with a box culvert that is 18-feet wide. The culvert was finished in 2010, she said. In addition, “Changes were made in the fish run at the dam outlet. It was originally built for fish harvesting. It wasn’t ideal for herring migration.”
In fact, the area was once an industrial center of the Cape and there is still an old, working mill there. “Historically on Cape Cod, going back to colonial times, herring used to be an important harvested fish,” said Muramoto. “Towns would grant licenses for fishing for herring.”
“Nowadays, we think about herring being important for the food web. At this time of year, there’s not a lot of food out there for other species, like ospreys, stripers and others… The goal of trying to restore herring populations is to fix a damaged ecosystem.”
There is now a moratorium on taking herring. “You used to see tanker trucks in there taking herring,” said Carr.
And while the Stony Brook run has come back, Muramoto said there are mixed results from other runs on the Cape. “Other runs saw some increases. The Mashpee River and the herring run in Harwich improved. Elsewhere, we saw very small increases, or even declines. The story at Stony Brook is a pretty remarkable one that we think is due to the restoration, but it’s not widespread,” said Muramoto.
According to Muramoto, the fish swim up the falls to five linked ponds with 400 acres of spawning habitat. The “small fry, the young fish, will start to migrate back out to sea, and that lasts from June through early November,” she said.
“There are probably millions or billions going back out,” she said. “Not all of those will survive.
I don’t think anyone has tried to count the juveniles going out to sea. That is a really important number, the number of children you have.”
Carr finds himself drawn to the run.
“Two Mays ago, I spent a lot of time down there photographing everything and anything,” he said of the time he spent taking photos for his book. “I’ll never be back there quite as much.” But still, as the run was starting to grow each day this April, he found himself there almost every morning.
Carr’s path to being a go-to person for information about Stony Brook began with a childhood in Hanover, New Hampshire, home of Dartmouth College and lots of woods. His father was a professor of political science, but just as importantly, he said, “Any kid in Hanover plays in the woods, or they did when I was back there.”
“I never aspired to anything,” he said. “I just assumed I was going somewhere else. Nothing negative, more of an assumption that I’m not going to end up in Hanover.”
He was good at math, and majored in economics. He ended up in banking even though when he was young he thought of banking as putting money into a sock. “I thought that if you took to the sock to the bank, they’d put the sock in a vault. That was my idea of banking until I went to graduate school.”
He spent a brief time as a bank teller in Cleveland. “Being a teller for a month or two is very damn complex. I was piling up money and checks all day long, never believing I’m going to balance it at the end of the day,” said Carr.
But he learned and became the executive director for a state trade association, Savings Bank Association of Massachusetts. He was involved in banking changes in Massachusetts and the nation, and even testified before Congress, said Carr.
But always, the outdoors beckoned.
He had lived in Pembroke and commuted 29 miles to Boston every day. When the objectives of the banking changes he was working towards were met, he said he wanted a change. “I wanted to go to a bank that was anywhere but Boston. The first offer that came was from Cape Cod.”
Community banking suited him, he said. “I was very happy to come to a small town. I could have lived anywhere from Wellfleet to Brewster.” He chose Brewster. “All of these towns are New Hampshire again, the outdoors again.” He rode his bike to work.
And with exercise as his passion, he decided on a big one-day adventure. He did what is known as “Thoreau’s Walk,” from when Henry David Thoreau walked from Coast Guard Beach to Provincetown. Carr walked it, with two others, from 3:30 AM to 5:30 PM. He was inspired by the journey.
“As a bank president, I had some prominence.” He got a column in a local newspaper, and the column became popular.
He wrote a book, “Walking The Shores Of Cape Cod.” It was published in 1995.
“As a writer, I had to think about it more and I didn’t want to take notes. So I bought a digital camera,” said Carr
And that’s how he came to publish his herring book, and his book on ospreys.
“He’s a wonderful photographer,” said Muramoto.
“It’s a tourist attraction,” said Carr about Stony Brook.
According to Carr, three species show up each spring – herring, seagulls and humans.
The journey of the herring attracts the casual tourists as well as the more passionate. “My group of herring monitors are volunteers who live in the area, and just drop by to observe,” said Muramoto. “It’s not just a matter of counting fish for them.”
And as is obvious, and as Muramoto and Carr pointed out, the site of the old mill is quite scenic.
“During the spring there will be buses full of people,” said Muramoto. “It’s very popular. It’s so popular I don’t go there.”
— Brian Tarcy
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