By Doreen Leggett
One of Gordon Peabody’s defining moments on Cape Cod was in the mid-1990s, when he became a member of the Provincetown Conservation Commission and involved in the environmental restoration of Hatches Harbor. That experience led to him becoming part of one of the largest environmental projects in the peninsula’s history: restoring the Herring River in Wellfleet.
While serving on a technical committee, reviewing science on the effects of 100 years of blocking most of the river’s tidal flow, he pored over the scientific data available. The news wasn’t good.
“It was kind of like an unflushed toilet. The Herring River had become an acid bath,” Peabody said.
With the removal of the Chequesset Dike, reestablishing tidal range and salinity, hundreds of acres of wetland habitats could be reclaimed and a productive fish and shellfish nursery reborn.
At one public meeting he remembers a fisherman from the then-Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association saying the benefits would extend well past the marsh and Wellfleet harbor.
“‘We have to do it for every fisherman,’” Peabody remembers him saying. “That opened my eyes.”
It took decades, but now, as the Herring River restoration begins, Peabody owns Safe Harbor Environmental Services. He and his team have worked on many projects, but he still keeps the larger picture in mind.
He is now examining data that aims to show how ongoing beach nourishment will impact the aquaculture farms off Indian Neck. Peabody and his team volunteered to collect the data.
“Oysters are critical to the identity of Wellfleet, so I felt there needed to be some clarity,” Peabody said.
Peabody’s interest in shellfishing and finfishing is not new. Before attending college in New Jersey, where he was involved in various environmental initiatives, he worked in an electronics laboratory that was testing space rockets. An intern working with him had a girlfriend in Provincetown.
In the summer of 1967, they ended up driving to see her and he ran into Charlie Mayo, father of Stormy Mayo, a highliner in the giant tuna sport fishing fleet, who had just gotten a CB radio.
Peabody was able to quickly hook it up and made friends with the Mayo family.
He landed on the Cape permanently, after college in the 70s, and spent time crewing with Mayo, as well as lobstering and bay scalloping.
His most memorable fishing trip, however, was after he had gotten out of the commercial industry.
Peabody was doing some painting work at a house off downtown Commercial Street and took a break, having lunch on the deck.
It was the early 1990s, the date was November 2, and one of his crew pointed to what she thought was a shark in the harbor.
“It was a moon tide, flat calm. There wasn’t a ripple to be seen,” said Peabody. “I knew it was a tuna fin. The fish was behaving a little strangely. I was thinking it was driving tinker mackerel onto the beach.”
Peabody figured it was an albacore, maybe 70 to 100 pounds. With a gaff in hand, he hit the beach thinking he would grab it quickly and have a nice cookout that evening.
He told his crew he would be right back and wearing a flannel shirt and jeans, he took his boots off and waded into the harbor.
“The reflections made it hard to see, but when I took a swipe it felt like hitting a concrete block,” Peabody remembered.
Realizing it was likely a much larger fish, Peabody located a yard sale harpoon and line stashed in a shed near the beach. The line was all tangled up, in a rat’s nest.
He put the barb on the harpoon and was in water up to his waist, waiting for his chance to harpoon the tuna, which he knew now was a bluefin – and a big one at that.
“I am starting to float a little bit and at that point Paul Tasha appears in a homemade rowboat, about 8 feet long, made out of plywood,” Peabody continued.
Peabody knew Tasha, respected him as pretty much everyone did in Provincetown as a most competent native waterman, but he was focused on this big fish. Tasha asked what Peabody was up to. Peabody said it was a turtle.
Tasha didn’t buy the turtle story, rowed over, saw the tuna and told Peabody to jump in, so he did.
“I saw the fish and threw the harpoon and hit the fish and, boom, my life changes,” Peabody said.
Tasha remembers the moment well, although his story differs slightly from Peabody’s.
“I’m right and he is wrong,” Tasha said with a laugh. “No, no go with his version.”
Tasha said they were in about six feet of water and when the harpoon struck the tuna they were pulled further out.
“The boat jolted forward and (Peabody) fell down in the middle. There was a little chaos,” said Tasha, a natural-born raconteur.
Two problems arose quickly. First, the line ripped all the meat off Peabody’s hands. Second, the fish, heading for Long Point, dragged the back of the boat underwater.
“People watching were thinking we had an engine,” said Peabody.
Soon the fish was going in circles, so the boat was as well. Peabody had his crew row out with a long length of dog leash chain that had a big fish hook at the end and he kept throwing it at the tail, to stop the fish from swimming in circles.
“Both of us were starting to get dizzy,” said Tasha.
He missed a half dozen times before finally hooking the tail, but the line was now also wrapped around his legs.
“We were able to hoist the tail up so the tuna couldn’t spin us in circles anymore and make us throw up,” Tasha chuckled.
Peabody said he had the harpoon line in one hand, the chain in the other and his crew had waded out to meet them.
They rowed into the shore and got the fish in the boat, and in the excitement and radio chatter a buyer had come down to the beach and suggested they express the tuna to Japan. It was the end of the season and the buyer thought they would get good money for it.
Peabody was used to selling tuna as cat food from his sport fishing days, three cents a pound. He got $8,000 for 300 pounds dressed. He gave half to Tasha (because the boat traditionally gets half the catch) and paid his crew $50 for every foot they got wet.
He donated most of the remaining money to a fund set up for the big fire at the old Pilgrim House hotel downtown and used some of the rest to take the parents of his then-girlfriend to dinner – “the one and only time they liked me,” he said.
Peabody lived in Provincetown a good while after that, mostly on a sloop he sailed to Maine in the summer. He then moved to Wellfleet seasonally and is now in Orleans year-round, in part because of the evolution of the town.
“There was a cultural waterfront change in Ptown where I couldn’t even get a parking spot,” Peabody said.
He is still connected to the idea of a working waterfront there, which is why he volunteers on affordable housing issues and studies that help protect the fishing heritage.
Peabody said he is proud of the work of the Herring River Technical Committee and the subsequent iterations of the committee, and excited to see the project start.
He also is working on the data he and his team collected last year on sediment transportation by Indian Neck. Peabody has heard from concerned shellfishermen who worry about oysters being buried.
“There are thousands of cages, you just can’t move them,” Peabody said.
“We are all in this together.”