Two masters of an ocean art: sustainable fishing n. Fishing that does no damage to marine environments or ecosystems, and helps maintain fish populations plentiful enough to support thriving fisheries.
Six a.m., 30 miles southeast of Nantucket Island, is the start of Taylor's and Perry's reward on this August day, for saying goodnight at prime time, waking at a cruel hour, slinking down the stairs, and bouncing through some of the scariest shoal water on the planet. Their trip has ended at dawn, with the sun just risen over a vast ocean wilderness, but the new day is locked in what Taylor calls "black fog." The air is a briny brew, so richly aromatic that a newcomer's nostrils dilate with each breath.
There are many rewards in Taylor's and Perry's days at sea. Limited visibility is of no concern to them. Twenty to 40 fathoms beneath their shoes (120 to 240 feet) are the hills and valleys of the Great South Channel. No person has ever seen them, but now, sitting in his cabin, Seahound moving slowly along, Taylor is studying their ghostly contours on the screen of a sounding machine, and scribbling LORAN (Long Range Navigation) numbers in a notebook. Perry waits alertly at Seahound's stern, holding a 14-foot aluminum pole called a flag. Foam cylinders gird its midsection, for vertical flotation. An aluminum radar receiver is mounted at its upper end. Attached to its lower end are 450 feet of anchor line and a 35-pound anchor. Suddenly, Taylor glances sternward and nods his head. Perry throws the flag overboard and the anchor line goes streaming away, but the anchor remains in the boat; Taylor is searching his screen for the right place to drop it.
Taylor is captain and owner of Seahound, Perry is his mate, and both are hook-and-line fishermen. There are no nets aboard their boat, no trawling gear. Tied to that anchor are 1,500 feet of 88-gauge woven-nylon line, coiled neatly in a tub at the transom. Attached to the line, at five-foot intervals, are 12- to- 15-inch leaders, or gangions, each terminating with a needle-sharp, carbon-steel hook baited with a large oval of squid. There are 300 baited hooks in the tub, and beside it is another tub, with the same contents, and then another tub. The lines from all three tubs have been tied together by Perry with state-of-the-art becket knots, making up a set -- 4,500 feet of line and 900 baited hooks. Seahound is a 40-foot, Down East-style craft, and elsewhere on its capacious deck are a dozen more tubs -- four more sets. There are 22,500 feet of line aboard (4 1/4 miles worth), and 4,500 baited hooks, five sets ready for this day's fishing.
Where the lines of the three tubs join, Perry has clipped five-pound window-sash weights. Together with the anchors, the weights will keep the baits on the bottom -- where the fish are.
Seahound is still moving purposefully along, the flag is bobbing behind the boat, and Taylor remains at his screen. Thirty miles off Nantucket, high above a bottom as mysterious as the moon, he's saying, "I'm looking for spots down there the size of my dining room: rock piles, and changes in bottom terrain, places where fish congregate. I should know where they are; I've been doing this for nearly 30 years, but the fishing isn't what it was. It's our contention that much of the bottom habitat has been ruined by scallopers and trawlers. We believe that unless it's allowed to repair itself we'll never have another good year class of codfish."
The tide runs north and south where Taylor fishes in the Great South Channel, changing direction every six hours. The fish he's after won't bite when it's running hard, so the lines are set on slack tides. "Our fishing is a race against the tide," Taylor is explaining. "We want the lines to go down as straight as possible. Otherwise, they could hang up on rocks." Suddenly -- many things aboard Seahound happen suddenly -- he calls to Perry, "Drop anchor," and moments later, with the anchor on the bottom and Seahound moving southward, the baited lines are fairly rocketing overboard. As each line nears its end, Perry lifts a sash weight over the side. No sooner has one tubful of line disappeared than another starts to fly. The milky-white objects that go shooting from the lines and into the sea are pieces of wax paper, Taylor says, used to keep the baits from sticking to each other. "Nothing in this boat goes into the ocean that isn't biodegradable," he adds. "I've seen too many seabirds and sea turtles strangled by plastic."
It will take 12 minutes to lay the first set, and as the third tub empties, Perry ties another flag and anchor to its far end. He heaves it overboard, and soon 900 squid-baited hooks are stretched downtide over what is potentially one of the fishiest stretches of bottom left in the northwest Atlantic. Taylor motors away, scribbling again, searching his screen for another dining room. Perry has removed the empty tubs, yanked three more loaded ones sternward, tied their lines together, and tied in another anchor, anchor line, and flag, ready to lay a second set.
With Taylor directing the show, and Perry -- possibly the progeny of a prima ballerina and a five-armed paperhanger -- executing it, more lines, hooks, and baits are soon whirring from the tubs, and rapidly descending towards the channel bottom. There's no room for clumsy moves on Seahound's deck. Perry's ballet/paperhanging bloodlines, or whatever kind they are, help him to avoid the flying lines and hooks, and to remain upright on Seahound's slick and pitching deck; to quickly move the loaded and empty tubs; to fasten seven more flags and anchors and 10 more sash weights, all precisely at the required moment; and to reliably tie a dozen more lines together -- under pressure. There is no sound but the occasional call from Taylor: "anchor" ... "flag." Not one thing goes awry, and after an hour passes, with more than four miles of line, hooks, and baits on promising bottom, it's time to start hauling in. Hook-and-line fishing done by experts is a true spectacle for those lucky enough to view it for the first time, and the show has barely begun; it won't end for another four hours.
CLF's Boston headquarters, on gray and building-bound Otis Street, is no marine environment, but for those who crave the presence of one, the revitalized harbor is tantalizingly nearby. The cries of wayward seagulls can often be heard between the blasts of automobile horns. Eddies of salt air occasionally waft up Summer Street to quicken the pulses of those, like CLF fisheries economist Priscilla M. Brooks, who are ever grateful that Boston isn't Topeka.
Brooks put her career where her heart is from an early date. Before entering the University of Rhode Island to earn a Ph.D. in environmental and resource economics, she worked as a mate on a recreational bottom fishing boat in York Harbor, Maine, and as a crew member aboard research vessels from the Labrador Sea to the Caribbean. She also worked as a retail fishmonger at Red's Fish Market, in Pawtucket, R.I. "I learned a lot about how fish is sold at Red's," Brooks says. The tools of her trade are statistics, and data to analyze, rather than the lines, hooks, and flags of men such as Taylor and Perry, but her contribution to revitalizing fisheries in the Gulf of Maine could someday be as great as theirs.
As director of CLF's Marine Resources Project since 1999, Brooks conceived of CLF's Sustainable Fisheries Initiative. Sitting in her office -- all greens and blues, marine books, prints, and charts, she says, "Fisheries managers are trying to regulate their way to sustainability by controlling where people fish, what's caught, and how much. As an economist, I believe that we can design market-based incentives to encourage the use of sustainable fishing practices. This fall, we're working with Cape Cod fishermen to launch our pilot program -- promoting hook-and-line caught cod. Hook fishing has long been considered to be one of the more ecosystem-friendly fishing methods; it doesn't inflict damage to the ocean bottom, and it minimizes the bycatch of unwanted species. We hope to demonstrate a demand for sustainably caught seafood, and show that consumers are willing to pay a premium price for it. We hope that will encourage other fishermen to use sustainable methods."
Brooks is working at convincing Boston-area food markets to sell hook-and-line-caught fish. She has already won the loyalty of chefs in several quality Boston restaurants. Chris Douglas, at a South End spot called Icarus, says, "The hook-and-line caught cod I've used is of unbelievable quality. It just glistens." Brooks has also been in touch with Cape Cod's 88-member Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association, located in Chatham, the largest organization of its kind in New England. Among its members are Taylor and Perry.
Taylor is 47, and if anyone has seagoing, old Cape Cod bloodlines, he does. His late mother was a direct descendant of Mayflower passenger Thomas Rogers, and he says, "Two or three of Rogers's descendants married full-blooded Nauset Indians." Taylor started hook-and-line fishing after his 1972 graduation from Chatham High School. He subsequently served three years in the U.S. Army, stationed in Germany, then entered Southeastern Massachusetts University (now UMass Dartmouth) in 1975 and earned a B. A. in history, but after six months of teaching the subject in high school he found that he loathed the job. He had fished summers during college, but by 1975 the locals were switching to gillnetting, a method utilizing curtain-like nets. Floats hold them at the surface, weights pin them to the ocean bottom; fish of all sizes swim in, are gilled, and can't back out. "Staggering poundages of cod were being caught," Taylor recalls, "and with no regard for the consequences. It was horrible." He crewed on a gillnetter until 1982, before switching back to hook-and-line, but the stocks of cod and other fish had already begun to dwindle markedly.
Perry is 27 and has mated on Seahound for nearly two years. He graduated from Nauset Regional High School in 1992, and enrolled in the University of Massachusetts, but dropped out in his second semester and went home to Cape Cod. He managed bike shops for a while, worked as a draftsman at a Boston architectural firm, and fished commercially for striped bass. He also mated on a Chatham hook-and-liner called Susan Lee for five years, while off-and-on he baited hooks -- hard work -- for seven or eight other boats.
Hook-and-lining is grueling work, and an expensive business. Taylor's annual premium for boat insurance is $5,000. Each trip, for fuel, bait, hooks, and baiting the hooks costs $800. Baiting the 4,500 hooks used in five sets is very labor intensive. Two woman employees of Taylor do the work, in a shanty beside his house. They work eight hours every day he fishes, which can be seven days a week. "They work like crazy," he says, "because the gear has to be first-rate." If some of the 4,500 hooks are dull, the women replace them. If any spots on the 22,500 feet of line are frayed, they cut them and retie the ends.
Taylor's bait costs $30,000 a year. Ninety percent of the year it's squid from Argentina, 280 pounds per trip, 30,000 pounds annually. Taylor says North Atlantic squid is worthless as bait, because it isn't handled properly when caught. For a few months in mid-winter, when commercially undesirable dogfish (sand sharks) swarm the waters off Nantucket, Taylor uses sea clams for bait. They cost even more than squid, but dogfish won't eat them.
The hours between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m., 5 and 8, 6 and 9 -- departure time depends on the day's tides -- are not the best part of Taylor's and Perry's day. On the day under discussion, the 48-mile trip from Harwichport to the Great South Channel begins at 3. It takes Seahound south along Monomoy Island, around its tip and east-southeast, all the way defying 18-knot southwest winds that churn up a vicious little sea. To a rookie hook-and-liner it seems, too late, that the right prep would have been crawling into a jumbo washing machine (water off) with a droning engine, and setting it on a three-hour cycle: Thump! ... Thump! ... Thump! ... three hoursworth of thumps. What better preparation for lying on a bunk deep in Seahound's bow, white knuckles gripping something, anything, desperate for sleep (the Bonine is working, but the earplugs are at home), praying, "Please, let us get there." Commercial fishing is no day at the beach; in Seahound's case, it's often 30 miles from one, but captain and mate have adapted long before this day. Perry, dreaming away, seems glued to his bunk. He wakes halfway through the trip, and, steadied by some inner gyroscope, lopes easily up the stairs. Taylor is sitting comfortably at the wheel, monitoring Seahound's progress. "Too many years in this business have made my knees crappy," he has said, taking to his treasured chair. Perry grabs the wheel, while Taylor goes below for an expert bit of shuteye.
It's dawn when the three-hour trip nears its end. Taylor says, "You can't hook fish at night. Fleas [a variety of tiny sea creature that he can't identify] hide in the ocean bottom all day, and come out after dark. They'll eat all the bait. You won't catch a fish." People like Taylor fish when the fleas are sleeping. And their gentle treatment of the bottom doesn't even wake the mysterious little critters.
The first of the five sets has been out for nearly an hour when Seahound returns to one of its flags. Perry hauls it aboard with a gaff hook. Taylor winds the anchor line around a pedal-operated, hydraulic winch mounted next to Seahound's cabin; fishermen accidentally hooked when lines are being winched aboard are yanked from the pedal and the line stops moving. But the show -- The Main Event -- doesn't start until the anchor comes aboard, until Taylor winds one end of the first 4,500-foot set on the winch and the line starts coming up. What's on it? What's down there?
A sea monster, it turns out, the scaryfaced, snaggle-toothed stuff of nightmares. It's a three-foot-long wolffish (see CM cover), tasty, but capable of chewing a careless hand half off. Taylor gaffs the wolffish and sends it flopping to the deck in front of a thigh-high, vertical cutting board called a checker door that is mounted between the fish box and a gunwale. Perry stands against the board's other side. He bends over and grabs the monster in mid-flop, safely, by the sides of its head. He pins it against the top of the board with his left hand, slices it from head to vent with his right, and in one fluid motion yanks out the entrails and throws them into the sea. Then he sidles quickly to a tub of salt water, constantly freshened by a running salt water hose. He swipes the fish back and forth in the water, to quickly bleed it -- a necessary step in preparing the highest quality fish for human consumption, but one performed only by hook-and-line fishermen.
Perry and the monster was a 10-second mini-drama. Line is coiling into a tub at Taylor's feet, and other fish are piling up on deck. Four cod and a haddock, each about five pounds, get the Perry treatment. Three sub-legal cod (under 18 inches) are instantly released. Taylor uses circular hooks, which nearly always get fish in the corners of their jaws; he runs the gaff around the hooks, and the cod drop off. But one of them begins to struggle on the surface, and Taylor says, "A few small fish that we release don't make it, but a trawler, in one tow, will kill what we kill in a year. It's certainly our contention that hook fishing is sustainable. It doesn't always work, for one thing. There are times you can line up bait in front of the cod, and they won't even open their mouths."
And there are times when many varieties in addition to cod open their mouths. On this day, the winch begins bringing up great numbers of ling and sculpin, two commercially worthless species. Taylor releases them unharmed. At one point, he says, "There's the same amount of marine life on the bottom as always, but as the numbers of commercially desirable species have dwindled, others have taken their place. You can't get a codfish on nearly every hook anymore."
But Taylor can get codfish on a lot of hooks, and big ones. Two of those bounce to the floor, each more than 40 inches long and in the 40-pound class. After Perry bleeds them, the salt water tub is full, so he takes the wolffish, cod, and haddock, and packs them in the fish box, full of ice -- all less than five minutes after the wolffish came flopping aboard.
The transfer from tub to ice is completed in less than 15 seconds, and Perry hears Taylor call out, "Fish." A large cod has fallen back in the ocean. Perry sidles back and retrieves it with a long-handled, three-hooked gaff. Moments
later, bleeding a haddock, he hears another call: "bundle (a word for tub)." The tub beneath the winch is full of line. Perry does a quick scissors over the checker door, shoves an empty tub in place and unclips a sash weight, and then, with another scissors, muscles 50 pounds of tub and line astern.
That's how it goes for nearly four more hours: Perry darting back and forth with heavy loads; and calls of "flag (to be gaffed)," "anchor (to be removed)," "fish," and "bundle," though more often than not Taylor says nothing. Perry always knows what to do. And impressive numbers of fish keep flopping aboard, ultimately totaling 1900 pounds of cod (at least 15 of the cod are over 25 pounds), 281 pounds of haddock, 152 of wolffish, and 47 of pollock.
Outside Harwichport's Wychmere Harbor is a green channel marker. Each fishing day, leaving and returning, as Seahound passes the marker Taylor phones the National Marine Fisheries Service and reports that his trip is either starting or ending. The second call stops the clock at the number of hours he's used on that day. There's a limit of 2,000 pounds of cod per day for all methods of fishing, with a maximum of 88 days' fishing per year, but if you're out for 11 hours, that's only a half day. Last year, Taylor fished on 150 different days.
On his way into the harbor, Taylor is saying that one good thing about his business is that most of the money stays local, except for what he spends on squid. The baiters are local, as is the fish company to which he sells all his fish -- Dennis's Swan River Fish Restaurant and Fish Market. What Swan River doesn't use, it trucks immediately to Boston's Legal Seafoods, Inc., and to other restaurants and fish purveyors that demand a premium product. "You can't get better quality fish," Taylor says. "As little as three hours after being caught, it's unloaded to a refrigerator truck. Fish caught by trawlers stay at sea for five to 10 days."
The Swan River truck is waiting on the pier. Later, at the restaurant, Robert Ahern, who has owned Swan River for nearly 30 years, is saying, "We buy from Peter, and maybe seven other area hook-and-line fishermen. What we can't use, we send elsewhere. Hook-caught fish is one-hundred percent usable. It's the highest quality fish available. It's all we use, and all we've ever used."
Dan Levin is editor of Conservation Matters.
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|Date:||Sep 22, 2001|
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