A voyage down and back sometimes occupied nine months. In time this commerce increased until it gave employment to hordes of rough and hardy men; rude, uneducated, brave, suffering terrific hardships with sailor-like stoicism; heavy drinkers,….heavy fighters, reckless fellows, every one, elephantinely jolly, foul-witted, profane, prodigal of their money, bankrupt at the end of the trip, fond of barbaric finery, prodigious braggarts; yet in the main, honest, trustworthy, faithful to promise and duty, and often picturesquely magnanimous.
—Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi
This sounds like a few guys I know. Most people who’ve spent time on and around fishing ports can translate Mark Twain’s passage about a 1880’s Mississippi riverboat to a longliner, scalloper, dragger, lobsterboat, gillnetter, tuna boat, clammer. For every port in this country still attracts characters. Every boat out there fishing has a hand on board who fits one of Twain’s descriptions; some have more than one; some have all.
And from these characters sea stories are born, and the stories circulate from the deck to the wheelhouse. Then they orbit from the boat to the dock to the bar, and back again. Some stories stay local—Matinicus Island, Maine; New Bedford, Massachusetts. Others travel through regions, through whole oceans, the North Atlantic, the South Pacific, Kodiak and the Aleutians, the Caribbean Sea. Then a storyteller comes along and puts the story on paper. I think the work is essential. It’s about preserving a way of life. It’s about being human.
I enjoy spending time on the dock, sitting and talking. I like to listen, but lately—the past decade or more– the stories have changed. Now it isn’t so much about big trips, putting weight down fast, where the money couldn’t be easier; where everyone on board is actually happy to be fishing, the sunsets, the corn beef cooking in the oven, the pay check.
It isn’t, either, so much about the world class fuck-set, where the entire trip goes to hell—crossed doors, twisted wings, busted traveler chain, blown out bellies. And this always seems to happen when the fishing is good, all the other boats in the area filling up. So the crew and captain work through the night sorting the mess out. In the morning they set in and start towing, only to blow the PTO on the main engine.
Then there are the times when I get a phone call. A friend just in from a trip. “John, get this. We were out fishing Hudson’s. Shitty out. We tow up a bomb, something left over from the Second World War. It’s covered in seaweed. Tommy comes onto deck shouting that he wants to bring it home and put it in his garden next to the old anchor he towed up off Shinocock. So the bomb—big four-foot thing—is rolling around in a pile of squid. I’m thinking boom! we’re dead. Tommy’s thinking about rose bushes and forget-me-nots.”
What you tend to hear now is different. Every fish is part of a resource and a biomass. Science and technology are the spearhead of decision. People listen. People absorb. Every fish that swims is part of an allocation, even if the allocation hasn’t been determined yet. What this means is that the resource is owned or will be owned. Each fisherman tries to understand his allocation in the overall allocation grab. People get confused. People get angry. The language becomes more jargon filled as more disciplines and subdisciplines are born. Jargon stacks upon jargon. The fishing industry has become so complex that hundreds of experts are needed. Then more experts. . . The tower of Babel can be seen 100s of miles from shore.
I still listen, though the words I hear are more abstract, less vivid. The language, frankly, has gone dull. It’s all about overfishing limits (OL), and the acceptable biological catch (ABC) of say codfish or monkfish or sea scallops. It’s about the annual catch limit (ACL) and the annual catch target (ACT) of each species. A panel of experts named the Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) reviews all the stock data and then makes decisions about the annual catch limits (ACL). The SSC makes sure that ACL does not exceed the ABC. They set the TAC—or the total allowable catch. And all of this is changing with individual fishing quotas (ITQs) and sectors. Nonetheless, the SSC works with the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC), who in turn works with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), who in turn works with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
All of this has changed the traditions of fishing. The dory is dead. The captains read the documents, amendments, and frameworks that the NEFMC and NMFS give them. The captains then pass the words down to the crew. It’s become the common language of the fleet. It’d be a stretch to say that the policy makers are taking the soul out of the industry. But how much of a stretch? And if it’s true, how many of us care? Most of us know we won’t be making fo’c’sle songs out of fishery management plans (FMP).
Then I hear a tale. The tale saves me. Reminds me that there is still fishing going on. A story about a crazed deckhand on a long scallop trip, eyes lit up like a complete lunatic, little beady rat eyes, eyes so distant they aren’t even there. And the captain is on the radio talking to another boat, “Well, he’s saying he’s got a heart condition and wants an airlift.” The Coast Guard is on the radio too, asking him questions about the deckhand’s condition. “His condition is he’s lying,” he tells the Coast Guard. “Heart condition my ass. All he wants is to head in.” And the Coast Guard keeps telling him to use appropriate language, to keep checking the condition of his deckhand, to keep a finger on his pulse. END