Ocean State Says Goodbye to Its Beloved ‘Herring Man’
April 18, 2021
Paul Bettencourt was called a lot of things, most notably “The Herring Man” and “The Baitman.” The latter appears one word into his obituary.
The well-loved and well-respected lifelong Rhode Islander passed away April 10 at his Pawtucket home — which he and his wife of 43 years, Barbara Bettencourt, bought in 1984 — with family by his side. He was 80.
His youngest daughter, Paula Bettencourt, called her dad something else — “a special person.” During a 35-minute conversation with ecoRI News on April 14, the day before her father’s services, she spoke glowing about her dad. You could her the tears as she recalled memory after memory.
She started where her dad’s legacy began: the Omega Pond Dam at lower Ten Mile River in East Providence.
“I remember being 10 or 11 and going to the dam and this whole community of people would be there moving herring over the dam,” the 35-year-old Stoughton, Mass., resident recalled. “Once he knew the fish were running he would gather his community. It took a lot of work and a lot of time. You had to pass the net up over the dam.”
Paul and his brother, Joe, started their herring rescue adventures sometime in the late 1960s or early ’70s depending on whose memory you trust. The effort lasted for nearly half a century until the Omega Pond Dam fish ladder was completed in 2015. It now helps an estimated 200,000 herring annually return to Omega Pond — their once-obstructed spawning ground, despite Paul’s decades of tenacious efforts to overcome the 15-foot-high dam.
Fittingly, it was named the Paul Bettencourt Fish Ladder.
Every spring for four-plus decades, Paul could be found at the mouth of Ten Mile River lifting herring over an old dam.
Well, at the beginning it was more like dumping herring into Omega Pond, as a 1999 Associated Press story by Paul Tolme described. The brotherly duo “removed the back seat from his beat-up ’63 Ford, put in barrels and drove to a thriving herring run down the bay. They filled the barrels, drove back to Ten Mile River and dumped them just beyond the dam.”
The story quotes Paul as saying, “We drove like hell, back and forth all night.” The legality of the enterprise was, to say the least, questionable.
Eventually, the sedan’s back seat was reinstalled and Paul’s Ford was replaced by a net system featuring PVC pipe and rubber hoses he and his brother designed and improved on as the years passed. They would scoop up herring and carry them to the pond on the other side of the dam so the popular baitfish could spawn.
They did this repeatedly for about a month each year, because, without human assistance, these anadromous fish would swim in vain in the churning waters below the dam, unable to get to their spawning grounds after returning from the ocean and traveling up Narragansett Bay.
Over the years, friends, families, and strangers began to join Paul in rescuing frustrated herring. In the final years of their work, Paul’s troops were lifting hundreds, sometimes as many as a few thousand, fish in a single day. It’s easy to see how he got “The Herring Man” moniker. It was also Paul’s way of giving nature a helping hand.
His interest in the fish and nature itself likely began when he was a kid in the late ’40s and early ’50s. Paul and Joe caught and then sold herring door-to-door in their Providence neighborhood of Fox Point.
Paul grew up to become the Ocean State’s eminent commercial bait fisherman — hence the nickname and call sign featured prominently in his obituary. Shellfisherman, recreational angler, and environmental advocate, he was an avid supporter of Save The Bay. The Providence-based organization has a long blog post dedicated to Paul’s advocacy work.
His passion and respect for nature made him easy to find: on the water or at the water’s edge, often surrounded by nieces and nephews, grandchildren, great-grandsons, friends, and passersby.
There was no shortage of family and friends to go fishing with, as Paul was the youngest of 21 children. Matilda Bettencourt, 91, — Aunt Tilly to her brother’s three daughters — of East Providence is the only one still with us.
“He taught so many of his nieces and nephews how to fish,” Paula Bettencourt said. “He took everyone fishing.”
Among Paul’s favorite activities was the opening of trout fishing season at Slater Park Pond in Pawtucket. The father, uncle, grandfather, great-grandfather would bring his family and all the essentials for a day of fishing. It didn’t matter if no fish accepted their offerings.
He was hoping to make one more family pilgrimage to the pond this year, but his health didn’t allow it.
When Paul returned to his Pawtucket home from the hospital March 31 for hospice care, his daughters had to schedule visits from friends and family. About 50 different people, a few multiple times, stopped by to say goodbye to Paul. Many more unable to visit called. Paul was lucid up until his final day or so.
One of those people who visited was Keith Gonsalves, founder and past president of the Ten Mile River Watershed Council. The 63-year-old East Providence resident called Paul a “mentor and friend.”
“He was a Rhode Island character, an icon in the fishing world,” Gonsalves said. “He could spin a tale. He also was a passionate and persistent man, some would say a pain the ass, because he fought for things he thought were important.”
Paul thought fish ladders at the dams on the Ten Mile River were important. He was right.
During Gonsalves’ final, 45-minute visit with Paul, whom he had known for 15 years, they shared a box of Kleenex, tears, and laughs.
“Paul made a difference in my life,” said Gonsalves, a retired Providence firefighter. “I am so thankful I had the chance to thank him for all he did for me.”
The duo were part of Rhode Island Monthly’s 2015 Rhode Islanders of the Year issue. The magazine highlighted their work rehabilitating the Ten Mile River.
Ten Mile River runs double that, beginning in Massachusetts and flowing through Pawtucket and East Providence before emptying into the Seekonk River and Narragansett Bay. This 22-mile river connected Paul to the places where he fished, educated, and protected nature: Omega Pond, the Seekonk River, and Narragansett Bay.
As Paula Bettencourt noted, her affable father was “so much more than fishing.” She said there are “so many little stories that captured who he was.”
Paul was a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam era, was Pawtucket’s harbor master for decades, volunteered in the city’s public school system, spearheaded the creation of the Steamboat Muster, now the Rhode Island Chinese Dragon Boat Races & Taiwan Day Festival on the Seekonk River, and served on the Pawtucket School Committee.
Paula Bettencout said her dad ran for School Committee because he was frustrated that politics were interfering with the actual needs of the city’s children. She called his time on the committee “one crazy term.” It began when she was a student at Joseph Jenks Junior High School.
His daughter said her father’s brutal honestly, passion, unique character, and entertaining personality seemed to make those School Committee meetings must-see events.
“He wanted better quality education for the students,” she said. “He ran because he wanted more say to make change.”
Regardless of what Paul was able to accomplish as an elected official, he had an impact on student education. He visited elementary-school classrooms to talk about life in, on, and around the Seekonk River. He helped organize field trips to it shores, to promote student advocacy for the environment. He always showed up with buckets and nets to help give the students a firsthand look at nature.
“Dad thought students should be learning about the river,” Paula Bettencourt said. “He believed there was more to the city than just roads and buildings.”
But despite his many interests, Paul’s life always came back to fishing and enjoying Rhode Island’s waters — fresh or salt, pond or sea — with family and friends.
“He loved the environment and wanted to share that love with others,” his daughter said. “He wanted to help people enjoy it.”
Paula Bettencourt recalled being 7 or 8 and learning to steer her dad’s “27-foot “basic fisherman’s boat,” usually around Prudence Island in Narragansett Bay where her father liked to fish.
“If you could stand and reach the wheel, he’d put you in front of him and let you pilot the boat,” she said. “All summer long he’d be teaching family and friends about boating, fishing, clamming.”
His obituary asked that, in lieu of flowers, memorial gifts be made to Save The Bay. A fitting request for a man who never made life about himself and spent his days protecting what he treasured most beyond his family.