A Cape Cod Notebook 5/8/07

listenHerring Rights Article

By Robert Finch

I read with some regret this past week that the Brewster Selectmen plan to discontinue putting the "herring rights" article on future annual town meeting warrants. Let me explain. When I lived in Brewster, one of the things I looked forward to each year at town meeting was the so-called "herring rights" article. There, tucked away among zoning amendments, road repairs, and requests for new police cruisers, was a small article that asked "To see what action the Town will take with regard to its Herring or Alewife fisheries." And each year, along with the rest of the assembled citizens of Brewster, I would vote "that the fishing rights at Stony Brook Herring Run not be sold." The herring-rights question was hardly one of the more momentous articles on the town's multimillion-dollar warrant. It was not likely to affect the tax rate, property values, or cause neighbor to rise up against neighbor. Rather, it was one of those routine "fixtures" at town meeting, along with articles to give the dog tax to the Brewster Ladies Library or to contribute annually to the pension of a former Brewster teacher now living in Boston. Like these, it received almost automatic approval, even by voters who, I suspect, had no idea what an "alewife" was. Brewster's herring article goes back at least to the beginning of the 20th century, when the "rights" to the Stony Brook run were traditionally sold each spring to the highest commercial bidder. This was often an off-Cape fish wholesaler who would come and net hundreds of barrels of alewives out of the large holding pool next to the old Stony Brook Mill in order to sell them for lobster bait or fish meal. The practice ended sometime in the 1960s, not because of enlightened environmental sensibility, but because of a decline in the herring run's economic importance. Nonetheless, the article remained on the warrant and every year the town dutifully voted "not to sell the rights" to its alewives, though no one any longer came to make an offer. Since then, economic and environmental changes have made the article's practical significance even more irrelevant. In fact, due to declining stocks in the state's herring runs, Massachusetts has currently closed all runs to the taking of any fish, even by residents. So apparently the town officials have understandably decided that the old herring rights article is unnecessary and obsolete. Maybe so, but I hope they might reconsider. There was always a certain enthusiasm in the chorus of "Ayes" that yearly greeted this question that suggested it was still of some use to us. Maybe we were merely grateful for a breather from the thornier budget items on the warrant, from ever-increasing municipal costs and the pressures of growth, from the bitter feelings and divisiveness that frequently accompany these exercises in small-town democracy. Among a sense of diminishing local powers and the lack of any common vision for our future, we may have been genuinely thankful for the chance to raise our hands in confident endorsement, to give heartfelt, unanimous approval to something, to say, "We stand for fish" - if not much else.