BANGOR, Maine — In watering holes from Augusta to Waterville to Bangor (and beyond), something fishy is going on. Something very, very fishy.
Friends and colleagues of Peter Bourque wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We’re calling it ‘Pete’s Pub Tour,’” explained Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife fisheries biologist Gordon “Nels” Kramer, describing the informal get-togethers that former colleagues are holding to celebrate Bourque’s retirement after more than 46 years as a fisheries professional.
“If we had just a regular retirement party, we figured we’d probably have to have it at the Augusta Civic Center to accommodate everyone,” Kramer said with a laugh.
Kramer was kidding. Maybe. But after watching Bourque interact with about 20 well-wishers at the Pete’s Pub Tour stop in Bangor recently, two things were clear: Peter Bourque left an indelible mark on the state’s fishing resources over his long career. And his colleagues can’t imagine a DIF&W fisheries division without him in it.
Bourque was a biologist first, enjoying time working out of regional offices in Greenville and Ashland before moving to Augusta to help lead the division in 1983. And while he spent the final 28 years of his career as an administrator, he always felt that the truly important work was being done deep in the woods, far from the view of politicians and headquarters staffers.
“He viewed his job as supporting the field personnel,” said Kramer, a regional biologist who works out of Enfield and has been with the DIF&W for almost 30 years. “Not as us supporting his climb to the top, or whatever. I think we all understand — everybody here — how valuable he has been to the division and the resource.”
Rick Jordan, who retired in 2010 after 31 years with the department, is even more direct with his praise of his former boss.
“Pete is absolutely the best biologist I’ve ever known,” Jordan said. “He was the kind of guy you could talk things over with. He was very reasonable. His motto was, ‘You’ve got to support the troops.’ And not every administrator looks at it that way.”
Bourque said when he and his wife, Mary, bought what he called their “honeymoon cottage” in Rockwood while he was working in Greenville in the mid-1960s, he couldn’t imagine things getting much better.
“We had a place right on the Moose River and I thought I’d probably be there a lifetime,” Bourque said.
A few years later, however, another plum job became available: The Fish River-Allagash region needed a head biologist.
“I didn’t expect my wife to say, ‘Let’s go,’ but she did say, ‘Why don’t you apply?’” Bourque said. “So I did and got that job, and we were off to Aroostook County. None of us had been there before. And we were there for 15 years.”
During those years, Bourque lived across the street from the Ashland DIF&W headquarters and could walk to the office. He loved the region, the people and the waters he helped manage.
But in 1983, an Augusta position — assistant chief of fisheries — opened up, and he was promoted. After a brutal round of budget cuts in 1984, he found himself as the fisheries chief, with no assistant of his own.
“I enjoyed having the opportunity to kind of be able to advocate for the regional biologists and the work that they were doing before the Legislature and before the commissioners, and to try to convince [legislators and administrators] that the work we were doing was important and necessary and that they needed to support us,” Bourque said.
Kramer said it’s not as if regional biologists didn’t operate without supervision. In fact, they knew that since Bourque had spent so many years in the field, he had to be totally convinced that a project was worthwhile before he would sign on. But once he did, biologists knew he would support them and take any necessary flak.
“You had to justify [your plan]. He was as tight as tight can be. But if you convinced him of the worth of a project, he’d do everything possible,” Kramer said. “Most importantly, he always viewed his job as supporting the regions. And at times — it was to his detriment, ultimately — he would run interference.”
Kramer touches on a sensitive issue: Bourque wasn’t without his critics. And when a 2003 independent review blamed him for many of the fisheries division’s woes, he was relieved of some of his responsibilities and publicly called out for perceived shortcomings.
Many expected him to resign at that time. He didn’t. Instead, he kept his head down, kept plugging away, and kept serving as a steward for the state’s fisheries resources.
That reaction — or lack of reaction — probably came as little surprise to those who knew him best.
Dave Basley, who began working as a DIF&W biologist 32 years ago as an assistant to Bourque in Ashland, said he and his longtime boss shared a similar approach to their jobs.
“He had such an even keel,” Basley said. “He never got upset. We were never rushed.”
Basley clarified: It wasn’t as if he and Bourque weren’t working hard. It’s just that they knew certain tasks could eat up a lot of time.
“It wasn’t like we had to get home by 5 o’clock. If we didn’t get home by 5 o’clock, that’s just the way it was,” Basley said. “You had your job to do, you left in the morning, and you got back when you got back. We were both of that same attitude. I think in this job you have to be that way. You can’t work by a clock.”
Evidence that Bourque felt that way — still feels that way, in fact — is easy to find. His son, Michael Bourque, recounted a story that his dad sheepishly admitted during his Bangor “tour” stop.
Officially, he’s retired. But unofficially, he’s still a fisheries biologist. And he’s certainly still a DIF&W lifer.
The story: The day before Thanksgiving (more than a month after his official retirement, by the way, and during a snowstorm that dropped a foot of snow in some areas), he did as he had done for years. He hopped in his car and headed to the office.
“I got in there and there was just one person in my whole bureau there,” Bourque said. One by one, the few DIF&W employees who had been able to get to work through the snowstorm popped their heads out of their offices. “Then they all came marching down the hall and said, ‘What are you doing here?’
“I said, ‘Well, I came to wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving, but nobody came to work,’” Bourque said with a laugh.
It’s times like that that his colleagues are remembering during the pub tour. It’s times like that they will miss in the years ahead. And make no mistake: They’re already missing him.
“He can never be replaced,” Kramer said softly. “That’s about the best I can say it.”