Bracing for the Canadian Armada - The Last Hunters - Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World - Mark Kurlansky

Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World - Mark Kurlansky (1999)

Part III. The Last Hunters

Chapter 14. Bracing for the Canadian Armada


—Henry David Thoreau, Cape Cod, 1851

Today, Gloucester has as much in common with its neighbor on Cape Ann, Rockport, as Newlyn has with Mousehole. Rockport is a pretty little town with a pretty little harbor full of expensive yachts. The waterfront shops sell crafts and snacks for “New Englanders who really wish to visit the sea-side.” Gloucester could have been Newlyn’s sister. It is a rough, downhill fishing town. Fine old wooden merchant’s houses view the sea from up on the hills, while nineteenth- and twentieth-century brick buildings—the look of old blue-collar New England—dominate the lower part of town around a well-sheltered and busy waterfront. Bottom draggers, a few longliners, gillnetters, and lobster boats line the docks. In early morning they head out, a few at a time, and from four o‘clock on they come back, trailed by gulls as they make their way with their catches toward the landing docks of the seafood companies. The companies are small. Birdseye’s old company, which became Postum, which became General Foods, was then sold to O’Donnell Usen, which left for Florida. Seafood companies didn’t need to be in fishing ports anymore. Their fish arrives in freezer containers, often from other oceans. Gorton’s is still in Gloucester, the largest plant with the biggest sign, but the company hasn’t bought a fish from a Gloucester fisherman in years. Gorton’s buys no Atlantic cod from anyone anymore. In 1933, with the invention of the filleting machine, redfish, which had always been tossed overboard, became a major catch, and by 1951 represented 70 percent of all fish landed in Gloucester. But in 1966, Gorton’s bought its last Gloucester redfish too, closing down the plant on what had been called “redfish wharf.”

By the mid-1990s, the town had about 400 working fishermen left, down from 2,000 forty years before. Gloucester’s fleet had the fatal flaw of being picturesque. There were too many old wooden hulled trawlers, which insurance companies won’t even cover anymore, or rusting old steel ones and too many little low-built gillnetters. They gave a wonderful look to the old harbor, but it meant that the Gloucester fleet was not modern. But maybe not modernizing was the way of the future.

The New England Fishery Management Council was charged with the task of holding back the fleet from scooping up the last of the groundfish in New England waters. The Magnuson Fisheries Conservation and Management Act of 1976 had extended the exclusive U.S. fishing zone to 200 miles offshore and set up as regulators regional fishery management councils dominated by fishing interests. Fishermen never had been good regulators, but they were virtually encouraged not to be by loan guarantees and other financial incentives that led to a massive growth in the U.S. fishing fleet. In 1994, when the National Marine Fisheries Service counted fish stocks, it concluded that the fleet was about twice as large as the fish stocks could sustain. The assessment showed that the cod stock on Georges Bank was about 40 percent of what had been found in 1990. That sharp a decline had never before been measured on Georges Bank. “This really got the attention of the New England Fishery Commission, and that is how tougher measures got through,” said Ralph Mayo of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Each vessel was restricted to 139 days of groundfishing annually. The goal was to take only 15 percent of the stock in a year of fishing. But in 1996, when it was calculated that in those 139 days fishermen had taken 55 percent of the stock, restrictions were further tightened to 88 days. This system of conservation greatly favors small boats over the large trawlers. The owner of a large bottom-dragging trawler has enormous maintenance costs, such as $30,000 or more per year for insurance, and cannot afford to have his vessel sit idle 277 days each year. Most fishermen said that even in the winter, when the groundfishing was good, they would still rather crew on a small gillnetter than on a big trawler, because the catch wasn’t enough to split among a six- or seven-man trawler crew. If fishery management could actually force out larger boats, it would greatly reduce the capacity of the fleet, and this could be part of a solution.

Georges Bank was the one bank that still had cod fishing. Canada had won rights to a part of what is called the Northeast Peak, which Canadians fished from June to December. After 1994, the United States closed its part of the Northeast Peak, but the western part of Georges Bank was still fished with some success. Since they were severely limited in the number of days they could go groundfishing, Gloucester fishermen began asking the government for financial help—the same kind they had gotten to build their bottom-dragging fleet after the 200-mile limit was established—to convert their vessels to midwater trawlers.

The seas seemed suddenly full of pelagic fish—midwater species such as herring, mackerel, and menhaden. Since these fish were normally eaten by the now-vanishing cod, the two phenomena might have been related. Ralph Mayo rejected this theory, pointing out that the herring boom began in the late 1980s, before the cod decline. Or at least before the cod decline was perceived.

Just as a codfish would do, the fishermen simply turned toward the available food source. In the 1960s, skate was sold to lobstermen as bait for one dollar a bushel, herring was cheap bait for longlines, and dogfish were the curse of gillnetters. The rough skin of dogfish was hard on fishermen’s hands and so difficult to get disentangled from the nets, fishermen would hack them out with knives and hose the gory mess overboard. By the 1990s, herring, skate, and dogfish were all target species.

In the 1990s, dogfish, marketed under its new name, cape shark, though still low-priced, was selling well, especially for export to Europe and Asia. In fact, by the mid- 1990s, it no longer seemed likely that the dogfish would take over the cod’s niche in the food chain, because these little sharks themselves were being somewhat overfished. A shark is not a fish, and instead of laying millions of eggs every year, a dogfish gives birth to five or six “pups” every other year. It is not biologically capable of withstanding the siege cod has faced.

Truck drivers, repairmen, dockworkers, and captains of tour boats—all over town there are ex-fishermen. All the men who work on the dock for Old Port Seafoods are former fishermen. Dave Molloy, a small fit Gloucester native in his forties, had grown up fishing with his father. In 1988, he gave up. “I knew it was over. I fished for seventeen years, but the last three years I starved.”

The concrete pier of Old Port Seafoods has two unloading cranes, small rope-and-pulley affairs with a motorized drum to give a lift to the rope. Inside, a man and some women stand at a stainless steel counter, filleting small cod into scrod. The man wears a Red Sox baseball cap. Cod and the Red Sox—Massachusetts’s beloved losers. At either end of the pier, rusting steel-hulled trawlers are tied up, their nets rolled up high off the stern, waiting for a better day.


Schooners in Gloucester harbor, early twentieth century. (Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts)

Instead, small boats come in with the strange new catches. A gillnetter arrives with a small load of herring, quickly shoveled up, unloaded, weighed, and iced. The next boat in, Russell Sherman’s seventy-foot trawler, has its story told by the birds that do not even bother to follow the vessel. Even they are not interested in a few flatfish and some monkfish, another species New Englanders recently learned to keep. “Just scraps, but at least my boat leaves the dock,” Russell says. “I’m not going to use up my days with these fish. I’m fishing three-inch mesh. I’ll wait until winter and then put on six-inch mesh and go after them [cod]. It’s not worthwhile to change until winter.”

Such sad tales turn fishermen’s talk toward cod. Dave Molloy, operating the forklift, says, “You want to know about cod, I’ll tell you.” He puts up his hand and pretends to whisper. “There ain’t no more.”

“It’s coming back,” Russell insists. “They should have done this twenty years ago. We’d have cod out our assholes by now. We should have used six-inch mesh twenty years ago. Like Iceland did.”

“I said that years ago before the magnimity imported” (translation: before the importance was realized), another fishermen asserts in that language which is found only along the southern New England coast. While Russell Sherman gets into a conversation with an older Sicilian fisherman about his struggle to lose weight, Nicki Avelas, another former fisherman, who is a part owner in the seafood company, tallies up the small catch. Nicki’s big blond dog follows the action closely and finds good bits to eat. After Russell finishes unloading and gets his receipt, he hoses down his deck and shoves off.

“See you tomorrow,” says Dave Molloy, tossing him his bowline. As the boat putters out of Gloucester harbor disappearing behind a row of idle bottom draggers, Dave shakes his head and says, “That guy hasn’t made a dime all summer.” It is September.

Waiting for the next boat, they grumble, as everyone in Gloucester is doing this week, about a large Russian factory ship in the harbor. It is no longer allowed to fish U.S. waters, but it came in to buy from fishermen. For all their complaining, the fishermen always sell to them. One fisherman accuses the ship of flying the red flag higher than that of the United States, even while in port. He insists he has seen this and does not seem to know that Russia doesn’t use a red flag anymore.

A fifty-foot three-man gillnetter comes in. The captain, Cecil, is almost as wide as he is tall, his blond hair lighter than his weatherbeaten face. One of the three crewmen is his son, a young man with the same build. They have been out following the tuna boats, which throw over chum. The dogfish chase the chum, and they, having set their nets overnight in the tuna grounds, are now coming in with their deck packed with bleeding little sharks. Dogfish pay only thirteen cents a pound, seventeen for the larger ones, and most of this catch is small. As Cecil works the ropes and a huge crate of the slimy catch swings over the pier, someone jokingly shouts, “There it is, fish-and-chips for London.”

Gloucestermen claim that bluefin tuna had been running well and that all the talk about it being rare was a ploy by sports fishermen. “Environmentalists and sports fishermen. It’s a highbrow thing.” Enough tuna is getting landed so that it serves as the logo for Old Port Seafood. As long as fishermen can catch a fish, they resist the idea that the species is in trouble. But with cod, they all recognize that there is a problem. Except Nicki, who argues, “There’s lots of cod out there. If you used a three-inch net, you would get lots of legal cod. A twenty-inch fish escapes a six-inch net. If they just kept the regulations in place, the fish would come back. If they keep adding restrictions, the fish will be back but the fishermen will be gone.”

In Gloucester, it is a commonly held belief that the damage from overfishing is only temporary but that the restrictions are doing permanent damage to the community. Soon, it is believed, the cod will be back, and the fishermen will be gone, their boats turned into scrap. And then—and this is the maddeningly unjust part—according to this scenario, the Canadians, their historic competitors, are going to come down and take all their fish.

Bad blood between Canadian and New England fishermen dates back to the French and Indian War when French fishermen from Cape Breton had menaced New Englanders and Gloucestermen fought with the troops who took the garrisoned French fishing station at Louisbourg. Nova Scotians and Quebecers had refused to side with New England in the Revolution. In 1866, both the British and the Canadians had excluded New Englanders from the Canadian three-mile limit. In 1870, five Gloucester schooners had been seized by Canada, and the Gloucester citizenry had petitioned Congress to cut relations with Canada. The Edward A. Horton, the Gloucester schooner forced into Guysborough, Nova Scotia, and stripped of its sails, is part of Gloucester lore. Six New Englanders broke into a warehouse at night, took the impounded gear, rerigged the schooner, and slipped away on the flood tide.

Of course, during most of this history, the ancestors of most of the present-day Gloucester fishermen were jigging off of Sicily, along the Greek islands, or off the Azores. But more recently, when Gorton’s had closed its redfish operation in Gloucester, the company had moved it to Canada. And when the 200-mile limits were established, New Englanders had fought to keep Nova Scotians off Georges Bank, while Nova Scotians had fought to keep them off the Grand Banks. This fear of Canadian competition is part of Gloucester culture, the same way fear of Spaniards is somehow in the brick walls of Newlyn.

It is true that fishing policy is forcing fishermen out. Angela Sanfilippo, a leader in the activist group Fishermen’s Wives of Gloucester, organized a program to retrain fishermen for other jobs. After two years, she has found new jobs for twenty-nine fishermen—as marina workers, truck drivers, mechanics, plus a few jobs in the computer field. But her own husband, John Sanfilippo, told her, “No one is ever going to stop me from fishing.”

Like many Gloucester fishermen in the late twentieth century, the Sanfilippos are from Sicily, where catches were meager and boats small. John, born in 1945, the ninth child of a fishing family, began in a little dory with his father. They gillnetted, longlined, jigged, purse seined, and survived in the postwar years of poverty. He moved to the United States when he was twenty-two. Angela came in 1963 as a seventeen-year-old. The men in her family also had been fishermen for generations. She had relatives salmon fishing in Alaska, and tuna fishing out of San Diego. Her parents took her to Milwaukee, where cousins were fishing the Great Lakes. But the fish were dying from pollution, and the experience left Angela with a keen sense that polluters were the enemy of fishermen. Her father got a job in a foundry to support the family, but unable to give up fishing, he went out on weekends. Deeply unhappy, the family was about to return to Sicily when friends told them about Gloucester.

When John came to Gloucester, he abandoned all other forms of fishing for bottom dragging. Groundfish were the prize, though each Sunday, his day off, he fished for bass on the State Pier. Most fishermen cannot stop fishing. Lobstermen will take a rod and reel and try some trolling while waiting for tides. When fishermen of the Portuguese White Fleet had a full hold of cod, and put in at St. John’s for supplies for the return journey, they would come ashore to catch trout in the streams. When Angela was pregnant with their daughter, John became restless and bought bait from a Russian factory ship to go longlining for swordfish with buoys made of chlorine bottles. On August 3, 1975, the night their daughter was born, he caught sixty-five swordfish in the deep water beyond 200 miles known as the Canyons. Once their children were grown, the Sanfilippos finally took a vacation to Bermuda. John went fishing with two poles off the pier of the Princess Hotel. Using french fries for bait, he caught tropical fish that resembled the rockfish in Sicily. He advised the kitchen on how to prepare them.

They managed to send their son, Dominic, to Tufts, where he was a political science major. But after two years, he returned to Gloucester saying he wanted to be a fisherman. Angela cried. In Newfoundland, Sam Lee fought with his son because he also dropped out of school and wanted to fish.

“But after a couple of months,” says Angela, “I realized that he is happy. He said he wanted to go to Georges Bank. He couldn’t go before, because it was too far for the small boat with his father. So he crewed on a big dragger and fished the Bank just before it closed. Now he wants to buy a fishing boat. I tell him to keep his money. He will need it for something else. He says, ‘I miss my sunrise and my sunset and the seagulls flying over me.’ ”

Vito Calomo, a Sicilian-born ex-fisherman who now works for the Fisheries Commission in the Gloucester Community Development Department, says, “You buy out a man whose father and grandfather were fishermen, and you are wiping out a hundred years of knowledge. A fisherman is a special person. He is a captain, a navigator, an engineer, a cutter, a gutter, an expert net mender, a market speculator. And he’s a tourist attraction. People want to come to a town where there are men with cigars in their mouth and boots on their feet mending nets. We are going to lose all that.”

At that moment, a pickup truck with a lawn-mowing tractor on the back comes down the coastal road, and Calomo shouts at the driver. “That’s my brother. He was a captain, and now he’s cutting grass. A captain, cutting grass. I saw one washing dishes in a restaurant and one who works as a security guard.”

To Calomo, Sanfilippo, and most of the people in the Gloucester fishing community, their plight is not their fault but the responsibility of government. “What do they do about the Red Sox?” argues Calomo about Boston’s perennially losing baseball team. “They don’t get rid of the Red Sox. They fire the managers.”

Calomo says, “Canada is going to be American, and we are going to be Canada. Because they are subsidizing out-of-work fishermen, they will have them when the fish come back. They are keeping their fishermen. They are going to fill our market. Who’s going to be left to fish here when the fish come back?”

Angela Sanfilippo, who was active in the fight to stop oil exploration on Georges Bank, says, “Who is going to look after the sea if the fishermen are gone?” It is not an unreasonable question. Will it be Unilever, the huge multinational that bought Gorton’s? Will Unilever launch an angry protest when a corporation pollutes the sea?

Is it really all over? Are these last gatherers of food from the wild to be phased out? Is this the last of wild food? Is our last physical tie to untamed nature to become an obscure delicacy like the occasional pheasant? Is Gloucester to become a village of boutiques, labeled “an artist colony,” like Rockport? Will Newlyn one day be only for strolling, like its neighboring towns, or as has already happened to St. Sebastián? Will Gloucester harbor, too, be converted into a yacht basin? Or should it be preserved, as is Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, as a museum to the days of fishing?

Governments understand that there is a social function to having fishermen and having fishing ports. Even while they have programs to reduce the size of their fleets in order to save fish stocks, they are also subsidizing fishing because there is no work available for most ex-fishermen. In the developed world, only Iceland expects fisheries to make a serious contribution to the economy, and even that country is trying to reduce the number of fishermen. A 1989 study by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that it cost about $92 billion to operate the global fishing fleet. Revenue, on the other hand, was only $70 billion; much of the difference was made up by subsidies from governments to fishermen and boat builders. According to the FAO, by the early 1990s, the twelve-nation European Union was spending about $580 million in annual fishing subsidies, while Norway alone paid out about $150 million. The Japanese government was estimated to have extended $19 billion in credit to its troubled fishing industry, much of which credit will never be paid back.

Miles from Gloucester harbor, at the hotels along the rocky New England coastline—rocks once valued for drying cod and now loved as a scenic element—tourists eat their breakfasts and plan their day. In the distance, lobster boats and small trawlers glide by, their diesel engines out of hearing range. Many of the tourists are planning to go “whale watching.” They talk of whales as adorable pets, how they flop and dive and make a real snoring noise. On this rugged coastline where fortunes were once made hunting whales, whale watching has become a prosperous business during the tourism months. The skippers of the whale-watching boats are usually out-of-work fishermen.

There is a big difference between living in a society that hunts whales and living in one that views them. Nature is being reduced to precious demonstrations for entertainment and education, something far less natural than hunting. Are we headed for a world where nothing is left of nature but parks? Whales are mammals, and mammals do not lay a million eggs. We were forced to give up commercial hunting and to raise domestic mammals for meat, preserving the wild ones as best we could. It is harder to kill off fish than mammals. But after 1,000 years of hunting the Atlantic cod, we know that it can be done.