Friday, August 24, 2012

Alewife by Douglas Watts

Ordering info for: Alewife by Douglas Watts (hard copy and ebook).

"Alewife" is a personal, biological and historical account of the alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus), one of the (formerly) most abundant sea-run fish of the U.S. Atlantic seaboard. It is the only full-length treatment of the natural and cultural history of this keystone wildlife species ever written.

"Alewife" tells the story of a fish, the alewife, once ubiquitous to the eastern U.S., which is almost gone due to wholly human causes; and a never-been-told 400 year history of many long forgotten people who labored mightily to bring the alewife back. It tells the story of the fish through its own eyes and life, apart from what it 'can do' for us. It depicts a place where cultural, natural, political and legal forces wildly collide. It's about the fight for, against, and over a dimunitive but once extremely abundant fish that still continues today in state and federal court rooms across the states of the eastern seaboard. It is about what nature in our backyards meant to us in the past, what it means today and what it might mean to us 10, 20 or 50 years from now. It's a story about a lot of disparate people over 400 years and how nature and culture provoked them for good, bad and indifferent. It's not nearly complete, there are many stories still untold, but gives a flavor for the battlefield, the stakes to be lost and gained and hints to where the tipping points have been and still are. It's a hybrid, with all the advantages and disadvantages an unorthodox approach entails. Bridging gaps might be its central theme. I wrote this for an adventurous reader who is not afraid to skip a chapter and then come back to it later. It is intentionally kaleidoscopic; a multi-levelled story. The essays owe much to the series of young adult books, "Tell Me Why," by Arkady Leokum. 

The book is in two sections. One section is selected verbatim public domain record excerpts describing the species and its use and abuse by humans in New England from the 1600s to present. Most of these documents were written in quill pen, discovered and hand copied by the author, and have never seen the light of day before. The second section tells, in a personal essay style, the story of the alewife, based mostly on recent efforts in New England to protect and save them. 

The book began several years ago as the historic texts with a short introduction and was originally intended for dissemination to fisheries scientists, environmental regulators and river conservationists as a technical, factual resource. At the instigation of a fellow writer, Kerry Hardy (who wrote the foreword), I loosened up to tell in a first-person voice my many encounters with these critters in the waters of New England since childhood and the obstacles one encounters trying to help them not go extinct. It's a tough racket. These personal stories echo back to the historical texts, which detail how people 50, 100, 200 years ago tried to do the same thing and encountered nearly identical obstacles, albeit time-shifted by a century or three. 

The tone and weight of the text is balanced to make it accessible to an informed and inquisitive lay audience and to a professional scientific audience; and above all, to be fully scientifically sourced. My brother and I's personal travails trying to help alewives survive are deliberately told in a 'camp-fire' fashion and with the level of humor and absurdity the details deserve. 

About the Author

Douglas Watts was born in North Easton, Massachusetts in 1964 a few dozen miles from Cape Cod and the Atlantic Ocean in southeastern Massachusetts and spent most of his childhood up to his waist in ponds and brooks and saltwater. He received his education in journalism and English at the Univ. of Maine at Orono from 1982-1986. In 1986 he began work as a full-time newspaper and magazine reporter, editor and photographer in Maine and Massachusetts for a variety of small and large newspapers and then as a conservation writer for the Maine Sportsman magazine, the Atlantic Salmon Journal, Wild Steelhead & Salmon, and Corporate Challenge News. Since 1999 he has worked full-time as a professional consultant for numerous New England conservation groups, doing ecological and legal research on the history and health of New England's coastal river ecosystems. This historic research forms the bulk and inspiration of "Alewife." Since 1998, he has been a plaintiff and/or principal researcher in numerous legal cases in Maine and Massachusetts regarding restoring native sea-run fish to rivers of the northeastern U.S. His historic research has been used and cited by the United States Supreme Court in a landmark 2006 Clean Water Act case, S.D. Warren v. Maine BEP, and by the National Academy of Science in its 2004 monograph on the status of native Atlantic salmon in the United States. His advocacy on behalf of the American eel is featured in a Sept. 2010 National Geographic story by writer and artist James Prosek and his book on the same topic, "Eels," (Harper Collins 2010). He was a consultant and subject in the 2003 film "Troubled Waters: the Dilemma of Dams" by Beth and George Gage, featured at the Telluride Film Festival and Maine Film Festival.  

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Joe Cardoza and Allan Watts at Dummer Camp.

This is an audio recording from  c. 1990 of Joe Cardoza of Spooner Street, North Easton, Mass. telling me and my dad about getting smashed on Manhattans at a hotel in Gorham, New Hampshire with Everett "Evie" Ericson of North Easton in the 1960s. Evie was an architect who had his office at the same Olmstead building as the North Easton Post Office at the Rockery. He convinced me to eat a quahog raw once down at Mattapoisett.

Audio track (MP3). 

Friday, March 11, 2011

How not to solder a padlock in the woods at midnight

Since my one attempt at teenage vandalism did not come close to succeeding, I can tell the story.

When I was in eighth grade, the big chunk of woods behind our house was purchased and subdivided for development into what are now called McMansions. Because the land is quite ledgy and rocky with Dedham granodiorite, the first two operations consisted of cutting down most of the trees and then dynamiting the ledges and hauling the boulders off the shattered land.

This did not sit well with me, but as a 15-year-old with $10 in my savings account I was quite helpless to stop it. The developers had all their legal permits.

The dirt road to the development was quite a ways in the woods and blocked by large metal posts driven into the ground and secured with ametal chain and a padlock the size of a softball.

One day after school I decided to solder the keyhole of the padlock that held the chain in place across the dirt road. That way the trucks couldn't get in and cut and dynamite any more trees and ledges down.

This plan would take cunning and stealth and certain pieces of equipment: a Bernzomatic blow torch and a roll of solder from the cellar. It would also require sneaking out of the house at night after my mother went to bed. It would also require a Hogan's Heroes type of disguise, which in this case was all the dark stuff I had in my bureau and a navy blue ski mask, even though it was summer.

Fully equipped at about 11 p.m. I snuck out of the house with ski mask, matches, torch and solder and hiked through the woods to the construction site and tried to find my way down the little, circuitous deer paths I chose so as not to be seen beneath a street light. Once I got to the chain and lock I discovered I knew nothing about how to solder, particularly the part about heating the lock as well as the solder, and I didn't bring any flux. So the solder kept beading up and rolling off the padlock and didn't plug up the keyhole, which my plan required.

After a couple minutes I heard voices and leaves rustling in the woods and froze in a cold sweat with visions of the fluorescent lights of the Easton Police Station and the inevitable call home to mom that I had been arrested, was in the pokey and needed bail money to get out. As the voices got closer, I panicked and bolted as fast as I could in the opposite direction: deeper into the woods toward Stoughton. I fell a few times, banged my knees and head on rocks and trees, scraped my face on saplings but just got up and tried to run even faster. I was scared but also astonished. How could I so easily get discovered and caught?

There were yells and screams of "Someone's up there in the woods," and it sounded like half a dozen people were following me. By their footfalls and voices I could tell were spreading out to cut off my routes of escape and trying to flank me from the sides to cut off any alternate routes. So I ran faster, zigzagged like a tailback and tried to throw them off my intended path, which I didn't know.

They were gaining on me. Who were they? Did the developer hire Green Beret squads to camp out and watch over their stuff at night just to catch people like me who didn't know how to solder?

Finally, like a deer in a deer drive, or a rabbit chased by a wolf pack, I zagged when I should have zigged and got cornered and tackled in the leaves and rocks. The man who knocked me down pinned me on the shoulders. He was much bigger than me. I couldn't wriggle away or see him. "I've got him," he yelled and the rest of the group converged. "What's this," one said grabbing my hand, "It's a blowtorch."

I still had the ski mask on. The group converged over me with clenched fists and wild screams about 'let's kill him.' At this point I thought my face would probably not have recognizable features within a few minutes and waited to hear what your own bones sound like when they crack on a warm mosquitoey night. I thought I was going to die.

"Pull his mask off," they yelled. The lead guy ripped the ski mask off my head. Then they all said in a puzzled voice: "Drugless?" It was my schoolmates. "What the hell are you doing out here?"

I told them my story and they told me theirs. I was trying to solder a padlock in the middle of the night. They had all taken LSD and had been running around in the woods high as kites since dark.

"We came this close to killing you, you idiot."

So the whole soldering the padlock idea didn't work out.

Today, 30 years later, it does not help my self-esteem for my wife to casually point out that Super Glue in the keyhole of a padlock is much easier and cheaper than @#$%^& solder. Where is this information when you need it?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Easton's Queset Brook

This is a video me and my brother Tim made of us tracing the Queset Brook in Easton to one of its sources, Lincoln Spring next to the Easton Lutheran Church on Lincoln Street. The spring and the seeps nearby all flow into the little pond behind the Town Pool and then into Mr. Parker's little pond on Main Street. The back part of the video is at the wet meadow that used to be Flyaway Pond until the dam broke in 1968. Flyaway has now reverted to its natural state: a wild cranberry meadow.

We did this at Thanksgiving 2003 and as you can tell I was fascinated at the clarity and purity of the water in these little rills and brooklets that all come together a quarter mile downstream and go into the Queset Brook. Timmy's discovery of a big giant hellgrammite in one little rill helped to confirm my suspicion that this set of brooklets do not dry up in the summer. Hellgrammites are the larval phase of dobson flies and live in the water for years before emerging into flying insects. We also found some big crane fly larvae too, another sign of stream permanence. [Clue: because hellgrammites and large crane fly larvae tend to need to grow for 2 or more years underwater, we could tell these rills did not dry up every summer.]

This little network of spring and seep-fed rills are what supported the native brook trout of Queset Brook and what led 1700s settlers in Easton to name Queset Brook, "Trout Hole Brook."

Native brook trout could be restored to this part of Queset Brook tomorrow if the several intervening dams below were breached. These dams were first built for the Ames Shovel Works in the early 1800s and now have taken on 'ornamental' status. But in reality these tiny dams and the tiny ponds they have made serve only today to prevent native fish, particularly native brook trout, from living in Queset Brook as they did for millennia.

We made this video to illustrate a point. Just because a native species, like brook trout, was extirpated from its home 200 years ago does not mean we cannot today bring them back. At Queset Brook in North Easton, all of the fundamental elements are now present to bring the species back. The one missing element is restoring the connectivity of the brook by breaching the tiny 'ornamental' and/or forgotten dams that still lie in its headwaters. Restoring connectivity is critical to brook trout because during the summer they need to be able to get to where the water is coolest and they are incredibly well adapted to doing this provided there is not a 5 foot stone and concrete dam getting in their way; or by corollary a tiny pond behind the dam which artificially raises the water temperature of the brook to a point that the trout cannot tolerate.

Back in 1975 Easton had a 'dual bicentennial' which meant that Easton's 250th birthday since its incorporation in 1725 coincided by one year with the nation's bicentennial. Easton had much fanfare and parades and observances at this time. My dad was on the organizing committee. It just so happened that a few years prior, William and Elise Ames Parker and the Ames' family had donated to the town as conservation land all of the area seen in this video and the town built a set of stone-dust walking and bike paths through it, which are still there.

So in 1975 David Ames and the town somehow convinced the State of Mass. to do a one-time stocking of brook trout into Queset Brook and Picker Pond as part of the bicentennial celebration. My brother Tim and his friend John Brown caught lots of these brook trout and also noticed that many of them held over for several years in Queset Brook if you were hardcore enough to find them.

What the Town of Easton didn't do in 1975 was to ask how a native, self-sustaining population of brook trout could be restored to Queset Brook and what this would require. Instead, the Town and the State of Mass. elected the much easier route of dumping a 100 or so hatchery brookies into Queset for 'the kids to catch' and assuming they would disappear within a year by being caught or dying from lack of access to necessary habitat, which is basically what happened.

From the comfortable perspective of sitting here 40 years since, the error made by the Town Fathers of Easton in 1975, including my own Dad, seems head smackingly obvious. But at that time it wasn't obvious due to lots of cultural, psychological and sociological factors.

Or to put it another way. In 1978 when I was 13, I got up one Saturday morning on a lark and rode my 3-speed Schwinn bike all the way down Route 138 for 30 miles from Easton to the Segregansett River near Dighton to just try and see and catch a native brook trout and then turned around and biked home (which is uphill all the way) in time for supper, knowing I would get in trouble for doing it without telling my mother (she thought I was just riding down the street).

Of course, I pedalled past the Frates Dairy Milk Bottle in Raynham.

But why did I do this? Because at age 13 I was obsessed with seeing an actual native brook trout in its native habitat. Not a trout in a hatchery where you put a nickel into a machine and get a handful of pellets to feed them.. Not a stocked, finless rainbow trout dumped into a Cape Cod pond or Lake Massapoag in Sharon. But the real thing: a real, wild, native Massachusetts brook trout living in its native, aboriginal environment. And from buying Francis Smith's guide to the remnant trout of southeastern Massachusetts at Tight Lines in West Bridgewater, I knew the closest place to see a native Massachusetts trout was either in the Segregansett or the Palmer Rivers in Rehoboth and Dighton. So off I went on my bicycle with a little spinning rod tied to my back.

The experience was worth it, since it encouraged me to drag my Dad down to the Palmer River for a number of fishing trips in the swampy, mosquito infested jungle that the Palmer is. And I think he liked it. We even dragged my stepmother, Maureen, down to the Palmer one day when the mosquitos were incredibly thick. Then we stopped at the A&W root beer stand in Taunton afterwards and I got so sick from covering myself with Old Woodsmans bug dope that I puked all over the parking lot.

So I guess the moral of the story is that if we restored a native, functioning population of brook trout back to Queset Brook in North Easton in 1975 I would not have blown chunks all over the A&W root beer stand on Route 138 in Taunton where the car hop girls had to walk around.

But on the other hand, because I went to the Palmer River alot in high school, I did get to meet a box turtle who was slowly and methodically tromping along the brook bank and sniffing the air now and then. He (or she) was probably the coolest box turtle I ever saw because the woods were completely still and quiet and then there's this box turtle just box turtling around the moss next to the Palmer River and I was lying down on the ground a few inches from the box turtle making goofy faces at him. That was when all worlds coalesced and collided. It was just me, the Palmer River, the mosquitos, the moss, native brook trout and a very old box turtle ambling about in the woods wondering who the hell I was.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Redfin Pickerel in Easton's Brooks

The redfin pickerel (Esox americanus) is the smallest and least known member of the pickerel and pike family, which contains the more well known and much bigger chain pickerel, northern pike and muskellunge. Chain pickerel (Esox niger) and redfin pickerel are the two species of the family native to Massachusetts.

Redfin pickerel are very small, usually less than 5-6 inches, and only rarely up to 10 inches. Since they are quite similar in appearance to chain pickerel, most people who have seen a redfin pickerel assume it is a very small chain pickerel.

Redfin pickerel occupy a fairly unique niche along the Atlantic seaboard: very small first and second order brooks. In some areas, such as northern New England, this niche would be occupied by the brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis). Unlike redfin pickerel, native brook trout are extremely intolerant to water temperatures much above 65 F.

Easton is unusually situated at the very top of the divide between the Neponset and Taunton River watersheds. For this reason, especially in North Easton, most of the brooks are truly first order streams, meaning they rise directly from isolated marshes, bogs, seeps and springs. In contrast, a second order brook is one formed by the joining of two first order brooks. Nearly all of the brooks in Easton are first or second order, meaning they are very small and have a very limited watershed. Brooks of this type have some very unusual attributes, including, unfortunately, that they can periodically dry up during prolonged droughts.

Prior to 1978-1979, an enormous tract of woods existed from Holmes Street and Linden Street in North Easton all the way to Stoughton and the Stoughton Fish and Game club. It was bordered by North Main Street on the west and Washington Street on the east. Around 1979 a large chunk of this land was turned into subdivisions.

Before 1979, however, I used to walk these woods quite a bit. They had all been cleared for pasture in the 1800s as evidenced by stone walls running through the woods this way and that. Just to the west of where Whitman Brook crosses the railroad tracks near the Stoughton line I discovered a tiny brook, barely a foot or two across, that stayed wet all year round, and flowed into Whitman Brook. So one day after school I followed its trace.

At some point a century earlier a farmer had a little cart path that crossed the brook and made a tiny bridge over the brook using some flat pieces of glacial rock nearby. It was quite odd seeing such an old, but obviously handmade little piece of construction way out in the middle of the woods. Leaning on my belly on the piece of granite I looked into the water and was surprised to see a tiny pickerel, no more than 3-4 inches long, hovering in the current like a brook trout, head pointed upstream, waiting for a little insect or other bit of food to float by. I watched him for about a half hour.

Now, in hindsight, I'm quite certain I was watching a redfin pickerel, whose ancestors had probably been living in that little tiny brook for the past 8,000 or so years.

Unfortunately, the little brook was destroyed the next year to build Phase IV of a bunch of McMansions.

Too bad.

The Logperch in the brooks of Easton, Mass.

The Logperch is a member of the darter family of fish (Percina). This family also includes the yellow perch, so common to Easton's ponds and deeper, slower streams.

The darters are an incredibly varied and diverse group of freshwater fish, even though most are just a few inches long. The logperch is the largest of the darters, reaching a length of up to about six inches. Darters are unusual in that most lack swim bladders, have wildly outsized pectoral fins and the males display extraordinarily bright colors during mating season.

On the Atlantic coast, Massachusetts is just about the northern limit of darters, although there exist historic reports of the swamp darter in several brooks in York County in southernmost Maine. Interestingly, darters are quite common in the mountain brooks of central Vermont. Those I used to observe as a kid in East Corinth, VT were probably the Johnny Darter, one of the most common and best known of the family.

My experience with the logperch in Easton is limited to a single observation back in the late 1970s when I was in junior high school. We lived just up the street from Whitman Brook where it crosses Elm Street and goes into Langwater Pond and we used to muck about in the brook all the way to the Stoughton/Easton line.

One summer, most likely in 1977 or 1978, we had a particularly nasty and prolonged drought in and around Easton. Every thunderstorm missed us and you could almost hear the ground groan and sigh for lack of moisture. As my uncle Gilbert Heino would say, it was tough.

One day I walked down Elm Street to Whitman Brook and was shocked to find it was completely dried up just before it enters Langwater. Walking in the brook bed I found dozens and dozens of dead fish, lightly covered with mud. Most were about 4-5 inches long, very slender and kind of odd-looking. Coming back home I figured out, to the best of the descriptions in our various fish books, that they were logperch. Apparently what happened is that the drought was so severe that the logperch got stranded in isolated pools in the brook and when those pools finally dried up, the fish died in them.

What struck me then, and still today, is that we never knew these logperch lived in Whitman Brook. Even with all the fishing and wading and exploring we did in the brook during our growing up years, we never saw them. Apparently, they are quite reclusive little fish. Part of this might be due to our familiarity with the centrarchid family, ie. bluegills, pumpkinseeds and largemouth bass in the local ponds, as well as the chain pickerel. The bass and sunfish family are curiously non-shy, to the point that it almost seems they are as curious about you as you are to them, especially if you are swimming, where the sunfish will come up and nibble at your leg hairs. And underwater, with a diving mask, largemouth and smallmouth bass will swim right up to your face to check you out.

So absent further sightings since 1978, I can only surmise that for all those years of wandering about in Whitman Brook, there were logperch aplenty but they kept themselves extremely well concealed. This is the only logical way to explain how during that one very bad summer drought when Whitman Brook dried up there were dozens of logperch lying dead in the brookbed.

As a side note about our native Percina in Easton, many people are not aware that yellow perch engage in a very interesting spawning migration during April. I first encountered this at the back end of Picker Pond off Canton Street in North Easton. Picker Pond is fed by two brooks, one coming from Flyaway Pond and the other from Long Pond which both meet in a marsh before the pond actually starts.

Walking the little brook from Long Pond one April I was surprised to see fish in it everywhere -- far more than you would ever expect to see in such a small brook. Upon closer inspection I discovered they were all the yellow perch in Picker Pond. They had swam from the pond into the fast water of the brook to mate and lay their eggs. It was quite a sight.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Brooks of Easton, Mass.

This is a short medley of some underwater video I took in 2009 and 2010 in a few of the little headwater brooks in Easton, Massachusetts. Rather than wait for the 'full blown' coverage I'd like to do, this will suffice for now.

The first brook has no formal name. We've always called it, unimaginatively, 'the brook.' It's behind the house where I grew up on Linden Street in North Easton. It actually starts not far from Long Pond and flows east behind Canton Street, then between Linden and Holmes Streets, under the railroad tracks then into the Ames estate where it joins Whitman Brook on Elm Street. All of the video looking up at the trees is actually through the water -- that's how clear the water is.

This brook often dries up in the summer during dry spells, except for isolated pools, so its aquatic population is mostly insects, particularly water striders (Jesus bugs) and the occasional crayfish. This is from July 31, 2010, one of the hottest days of the summer. We had just gotten a big thunderstorm so the brook came up a bit from being almost dry. Since it was so hot I went out back of my mother's house and found this one tiny pool that was about a foot deep and took a dip. The water felt unbelievably good -- it was about 65 degrees probly. And clean !!!

The second brook is actually in East Mansfield. It is a little tributary of the Canoe River that comes into Canoe River campground at the 'tenting site' there. It's really pretty. This is about 200 yards up a red maple kind of swampy thing from the border of the campground. We had gotten a big thunderstorm the night before so the water is a bit turbid. This little brook has native bog iron in its bed.

The third brook is Black Brook at the old railroad grade in the Hockomock Swamp in South Easton. Black Brook is aptly named since unless the water is less than six inches deep it is so colored by tannic acid you can't see the bottom. It's not that the water is muddy or murky -- it's crystal clear -- but it is clear like reddish root beer is clear. The last clip is not underwater, but just looking down at the little pool just above the railroad grade with the reflection of the trees overhead.

The still photo at the end is my brother Tim standing above Queset Brook along Sullivan Ave. where it goes underneath the railroad tracks. This is what William Chaffin called "Trout Hole Brook" in his History of Easton from 1888. It is the one brook in Easton which has good, documented evidence of formerly supporting native brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis). It lost its native brook trout population in the late 1700s when it was dammed up for the Ames Shovel Works, which caused the water to become too warm and polluted to support native brook trout. This section of Queset Brook could support native brook trout again if several of the old dams on it were removed, which they should since they serve no useful purpose except to louse up the brook.

What's interesting is how each brook has a completely different water color. The Linden Street brook is crystal clear; the little Canoe River tributary is cream soda colored and Black Brook is almost ruby red. This is from the varying amounts of tannic acid leaching into the water from decaying leaves.

The music is an excerpt of a little improv song I made up around 1994 on a cheap Casio keyboard. A few months ago I put an electric bass guitar on it which thickens it up a bit. The melody line is a transparent rip-off of the melody line of "Third Stone from the Sun" by Jimi Hendrix with various fake embellishments.

[Note: The compression used by youtube doesn't like underwater video that much; on my computer it looks best at the '360p' setting.]