The Endurance of New England Fishermen

Aug 29, 2017

Credit Alecia Orsini

March, 1981. A large blue dragger, The Little Infant, is moored nearby on my side of the Harbor, which is deepest just inside the curve of the spit. The entire crew of seven or eight are standing in a line on her port side, shucking sea scallops and throwing the gurry over the rail to the raucous delight of the gulls swarming below on the surface of the water.

A U.S. flag, which is usually not run at all, is at half-mast in the rigging, a tribute to the crew of the scalloper Cap’n Bill, which went down with all hands lost a few weeks earlier.

The men stand at the rail in large yellow rubber overalls and shirtsleeves, with the intermittent winter sun beaming down on them and small flocks of eiders scudding by as they deftly slip their knives into the yielding shells and flip out the large “eyes” or adductor muscles. There is a rhythmic competency and camaraderie to their work, almost as if they are a band performing out there for their own pleasure.

Watching them, I can understand, in part, what has been called the “irrational adherence” of New England fisherman to their ancient and (in the world’s eyes) unprofitable profession and inefficient methods. Despite a lot of big talk, mundane concerns, and a current of righteous grievance, most fishermen exhibit a genuine pride and independence in their trade. They share—indeed, seem to have innovated—the best of many other vocations. The rotating work schedule, so touted now as an innovation to relieve monotony in the life of both students and employees, has always been part of the fisherman’s life. He lives and moves by the tides still, which are at pleasant odds with our twenty-four-hour schedule and twelve-month year. He is always meeting the day at a new angle.

Sometimes, watching these beat-up, rusty old hulks at sea, I think that our local fishing boats are like the endangered species whose habitat we are continuing to destroy. Of course it’s easy to say that they are destroying their own habitat, because they are the ones catching the fish, but it’s much more complex than that. It’s the whole structure that has them do it. At any rate, they keep doing it. They are like animals that people have given up on, but who nonetheless continue to breed and migrate and hunt and eat as if everything were just as it has always been, and these fishermen and their boats strike me that way, too.

Maybe it’s the way these boats move on the ocean. They’re never hurried or anxious or panicked. They assume that kind of grace and deliberateness from the ocean while they are out there, however the individuals aboard them may think and act when they return to land. But I think it must affect them, that it’s got to give them a certain stability or centeredness, the sense of being where they ought to be, at least when they’re out there. They have outlasted this country’s explorers, its hunters and pioneers, its cowboys and most of its farmers. And if they survive the oil spills, climate change, growing government regulations, and their own increasing pressure on fish populations, they may just outlast the astronauts as well.