The Contemporary Challenges of a Traditional Fishing Technique
Tub-trawling can survive on Cape Cod. Maybe.
I am a bottom longline fisherman. I commute to Wychmere Harbor in Harwich from West Barnstable, get in the boat and drive out to the grounds. I set baited hooks from plastic totes (or “tubs”) onto the seafloor as the tide turns, and then haul them back to catch cod and haddock. I drive back to the dock and unload the fish. Simple, right?
Cape Codders have fished this way for at least two hundred years. Hook fishermen land something shy of five percent of the cod and haddock in this region. Our gear is considered by many to be the most ecologically-sustainable way to harvest these fish. The economic sustainability of our fishery is where the real question lies.
When Edible Cape Cod approached our group, the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association, to do a story, we wanted to write about our fresh, local fish. The Cape has access to some of the finest quality fish landed anywhere and I would like to tell you that story alone. However, the occupation of fishing in the year 2010 poses some unique challenges so I will start by answering some of the questions I most often hear.
The first question most people ask when I tell them I fish is, “Is it like The Deadliest Catch?” Many of you may have seen the Discovery Channel’s show about crab fishing in the Bering Sea. Now contrast that image with a time 150 years ago on Cape Cod—our local fishing fleet would sail to the grounds, often through the fog, to where they thought a plentiful spot might be. Sometimes they would drop a lead weight with tallow on the end to pull up a sample of the bottom sediment. The cod, haddock and halibut they chased prefer a gravelly bottom. Then the fishermen would toss over a wooden float and anchor, and run out their tub trawl in the direction of the tide. After setting a couple of trawls the crew would start hauling the trawl back by hand and picking the fish off the hooks. After the sail home, the fish would be distributed by horse and cart to local homes and businesses.
Our fishery is somewhere between the fishery of 1850 and the Alaskan crab fisheries of the 2000s. We still use hand-baited trawls and set the same way our ancestors did, but we make use of GPS, radar and hydraulics to haul the gear. We are not powered by sail, but with diesel prices passing $3.00 a gallon it may not be far off. And while some of the New England groundfish fleet has reached the level of industrialization the crabbers on the show have, our hook fleet has not. We don’t take the same chances with our safety the crabbers do—the stakes are nowhere near as high, either. We set the hooks off the back of the boat so there is little chance of being fouled in the line as it goes overboard, and there are no cranes or overhead operations. The gear is light and we don’t “tank down” with water so our boats don’t roll over. Like the crabs in the show, however, our fish come up fully alive and flapping. The excitement of a good catch is much the same—as is the pain of “missing” the fish.
Others often ask about whether the adage, “If you love what you do you’ll never work a day in your life” is true. While fishing easily becomes an avocation for many, with all honesty I can say that I’ve worked pretty hard at it. Our days occasionally start at 8:00 A.M., but could just as easily begin at midnight—we are slaves to the time of the tide and windows in the weather that allow us to venture out when the wind is not blowing too hard. Anything over 20 knots and the sea conditions kick up enough to make the fish come unhooked as they are hauled up, not to mention make things uncomfortable.
Hooking was easier to love a decade ago, when abundant codfish in our local waters supported a 12-month-a-year fishery. Then we would plan our day around the first daylight tide and leave the dock between 1:00 A.M. and 6:00 A.M., weather permitting. Travel time to the cod grounds 30 miles distant was 2-4 hours. Setting the gear took an hour, hauling took 4-5 hours, so the dock-to-dock time was seldom more than 15 hours. One hundred trips a year was considered a lot of hook fishing!
The disappearance of our winter cod fishery and large amounts of too-hookable dogfish inshore during summer has forced us to become haddock fishermen. The haddock fishery takes place further offshore. For haddock our hooks can be equally effective at night so we often find ourselves hauling gear under the lights at 2:00 A.M. I can just barely remember that this seemed exciting the first few times we did it—ghostly white fish bellies glowing in the lights as they come up from the depths. This excitement has been tempered by the reality of the increasing costs of infrastructure—like warehouse space for the baiting crew—and fuel, permits, etc. More often than not we will try to stay on the grounds now for two consecutive tides, adding at least another eight hours to the trip. While this can boost revenues into the black for a trip, the fatigue grinds at your bones and can make you forget why you love the job so much.
Perhaps the most important question people ask me is, “Where can I buy your fish?” The odd reality of our local fishery scene is that, at the moment, my fish simply are not available directly to Cape Codders. Your local fishermen have been forced to focus on advocating for a management system that puts the health of our fisheries first, and we have not been able to focus on the changes occurring on the market side of the business. For the last several years, almost all of my catch has been sent to the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction, where it is bought by Boston-area seafood distributors and sent all over New England, occasionally even back to the Cape. While this system allows our high-quality fish to reach the high-end restaurants in major cities, it leaves little room for community involvement in the fishery.
Some of the major regulatory fires have subsided for now, and as a group we have begun to look at ways to reinvigorate our markets and bring local fish back to the Cape. The local farmers’ markets have us stymied, since the Massachusetts Department of Health requires fish sold at these markets to be frozen. The Cape has neither the processing nor the freezing infrastructure to meet this requirement.
Of course there are fish markets on the Cape and these often feature local fish. One of the issues with a globalized economy is that consumers expect to be able to access a full array of products at any time, but that simply isn’t the case with our mix of local fish. To meet customer demand most local fish dealers use fish from New Bedford or Gloucester or even Canada, Iceland and Norway. The disconnect is that consumers have stopped asking about where the fish came from or who caught it and how. We have contemplated an idea known as Community Supported Fisheries (CSF). This program would be modeled after the highly successful community supported agriculture (CSA) programs that sell farm shares directly to consumers. Members of the community would buy a “share” of the fishery on a quarterly basis, entitling them to a certain portion of fresh local fish each week. A CSF program has been very successful in Port Clyde, Maine, where consumers receive five pounds of fish, shrimp or lobster each week. While our mix of species would be different, the concept is the same. The CCCHFA is currently in the process of surveying members of the community to determine the level of interest in such a program. Please contact our group at www.CCCHFA.org if you are interested.
That’s a long-winded way of saying these fish aren’t available. But with a little encouragement from you, the concerned consumers of the Edible community, we can reestablish direct local relationships. As long as you are prepared to hear that, on occasion, the weather was too rough or the fishing was terrible and there are no fish at the moment. To me this seems a small sacrifice for the guarantee of fresh product with a story.
While I have not been asea long enough to be considered a sage, I have noticed that many of my peers are given to “catastrophizing”, positing that the future is bleak and holds little promise of better days to come. We are surrounded by trends that support that conclusion. Yet there is light ahead; new fishery rules and a tighter management style should finally pay off with recovered fish stocks. Which almost answers another question, “Do you want your kids to become fishermen?” I hope my boys Zachary, 14, and Cooper, 13, will find something to do with their lives that involves the same passion and sometimes joy that I have found in fishing. My own father represented Proctor & Gamble’s Paper Products division in Southeastern New England for over 30 years. He was also a Navy man. My early exposure to his sea chanteys came on our 16-foot sailboat, the Bounty(P&G’s most popular product) in the briny depths of North Bay in Osterville. My fate was sealed when I got a summer job on a tuna boat, the Esperanto, out of Barnstable in 1985.
With my sons, I have done my best to present what I do to them in a way that allows them to see what I enjoy about it without sugarcoating. I have been seasick a few times in my life and saw to it that they knew what that was like too. They will inevitably make their own choice, as I have.
Eric Hesse is the captain and owner of the fishing vessel Tenacious II home ported in Harwichport. He started fishing commercially in 1984 and currently catches cod and haddock in the spring, winter and fall, and bluefin tuna in the summer. Eric serves as a member of the board of directors of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association. He holds a B.S. in Physics from Bates College and a M.S. in Civil/Environmental Engineering from UMass Amherst. Eric and his wife Lee Ann have two sons.