Fishing in the Age of Sail

S/V Roseway,  Photo by Sara Smith

S/V Roseway,
Photo by Sara Smith

Fishing wasn’t always strings of nets and diesel engines, plastic-wrapped cigarettes and fiberglass hulls.  Think before the time of daily vessel trip reports, and the government tracking every harbor departure, noting every landing.  Imagine a time before plotters and depth finders; a time where rather than making the 20 mile steam offshore to the promised fishing grounds, commercial fishermen had waited for the fish to come to them.

Wing on Wing

Wing on Wing

Fishing in the age of sail was an entirely different beast, an activity that required more than just the skill of a fishermen, but rather an esteemed seamen.  It was a time when it was not enough to know at which depth fish hung, and how to best bait a hook.  It was a different game then, a game where fishermen must also have been seasoned sailors, whose landings were at the mercy of their surroundings.  It was fishing in the age of sail that a drop in barometric pressure, swooping fog, changing winds and an increasing swell, could bring a much anticipated trip’s landings to a halt.  A drastic change in surroundings for the worst meant the number of fish being hauled over the rail no longer were the priority, but rather the operation of the vessel and the survival of the crew.  Fishing in the age of sail was a different game altogether.

Roseway

Roseway

This past winter I worked as crew on a 137-foot, historic fishing schooner, S/V Roseway, one of the most beautiful vessels I’ve ever had the honor to step foot on.

At the helm during trip from Bermuda to Boston

At the helm during trip from Bermuda to Boston

Roseway was commissioned to be built by a Harold Hathaway in John James Boatyard in 1925 in Essex, Massachusetts and was quickly put to work setting sail out of Gloucester in search of swordfish.

In 1934 aboard Roseway a crew of 12 set the world record for the most swordfish ever landed in a 24-hour period.  Before I casually state a number quantifying their glorious feat, please keep in mind that in 1934 swordfish weighed anywhere from 500-1,000 pounds and there was no machinery to be heard of.

Main Sail

Main Sail

At the helm

At the helm

Sunrise Watch

Sunrise Watch

 In 1934, they would have a crew member climb aloft to the top of the main mast, approximately 110 feet above deck.  From there they would keep a lookout for swordfish rising to the surface to warm their blood before they would dive down deep to hunt.  As the person aloft spotted the prey, they would holler to the crew on deck below.  Someone at the bow would then harpoon the swordfish as it surfaced and they then in turn as a group would haul in the massive catch by hand, reeling it to the surface, and then up and over the rail.  They would then gut the fish, pack it with ice, and store it in the fish hold at midship.

On said day in 1934, Roseway and her crew of 12 landed 74 swordfish in a period of 24 hours, setting the world record for the most swordfish hand-hauled in a day, and the record stands to this very day.  There was a time when fishermen and those around them believed the sea would provide forever, and at times such as these, there was no reason to believe otherwise.

At our mooring

At our mooring

 

Sir Francis Drake Channel

Sir Francis Drake Channel

To this day, Roseway sails along the coast of New England each Summer as one of only six remaining original Grand Banks fishing schooners.  While crewing aboard Roseway in the Caribbean this past winter, I couldn’t help but imagine fishing in the age of sail.  A time of gaffed rigging, sail-furling, hand-hauling, line-coiling, hours aloft, tacking and jibing, all in pursuit of the catch of a lifetime.  All in the age of sail.

Climbing Aloft

Climbing Aloft

 

Suggester Reading:  

“The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail,” W. Jeffrey Bolster 

Elizabeth Ann, Portsmouth Harbor

PETER KENDALL, “PK”

Fisherman:  Dragger

NE Council Member

Northern Shrimp Advisory Panel 

Peter Kendall aboard Elizabeth Ann

Peter Kendall aboard Elizabeth Ann

“I started fishing because of the lure of it.  I just wanted to be out on the water and make money, back when it was good, and it has been good up until a few years ago,” shares fisherman, Peter Kendall of Rye, New Hampshire where he lives with his wife and 2 kids.  Peter fishes for groundfish off of his 50 foot stern dragger, one of five, uniquely molded from an old school bus in 1976 in South Carolina.  Peter has been fishing for 15 years now, and had worked 10 years on the docks at Portsmouth Harbor before that, previously managing Portsmouth Fishermen Cooperative before it was closed down.  Like most fishermen, making the most of his permits and the seasons, Peter targets different fisheries depending on the time of year.  Currently he is targeting cod, but is considering switching over to dragging for herring in the coming weeks, followed by shrimping in the winter.  He mentions he used to spend part of the year scalloping, but over time was squeezed out of the fishery.

When fishing for groundfish, a typical day consists of one long tow from anywhere from 5 to 7 hours and then sorting and gutting fish while heading back to shore.  Typically Peter operates on his own, but today there was an observer onboard.  More often than not, fishermen prefer not to have an observer, an employee of the government, onboard to note fishing practices as well as landings, bycatch, and safety equipment present, to be reported back to the government, an alternate form of fishery  management.  Observers are assigned randomly to fishing vessels daily and often the fishermen don’t know they will be joining them until the day before.  This form of management is generally disliked by local NH fishermen; the idea of having a complete stranger onboard can feel like an invasion of privacy for most, being watched all day as you work to make a living.  However in the case of fishing with Peter Kendall that day, having an observer onboard did him a favor rather than a diservice.  Rather than having a standard estimate of bycatch calculated by the government subtracted from his annual catch quota, he was able to have his true amount of bycatch noted by the observer, a minute total of 6 pounds of discarded fish.  Such a small amount of bycatch just goes to show that Peter is accurately targeting his desired catch, groundfish, while species of little to no value to him were left in the water.  His catch of the day consisted of squid, pollock, cod, flounder and monkfish, the majority of which were all within the legal size.

Pulling in the catch

Pulling in the catch

Pulling in the catch

Pulling in the catch

“I’m not really liking it any more,” shares Peter Kendall with regards to his fishing career.  “It’s been frustrating.  The draw isn’t there anymore because it’s just not enjoyable. The government’s taken all the fun out of it. And it’s the first year that I’ve finally said that.”  Peter Kendall graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a degree in Resource Economics, and had started a swimming pool business of his own while in school.  When he graduated he struggled with the decision to grow his business or to go into the fishing industry.  With regards to his decision he declares, “Damn it.  I chose the wrong one.”

Nearing the cod end

Nearing the cod end of the net

Releasing the catch

Releasing the catch

Peter claims he fishes when it’s good, and that he didn’t fish all of April and May this year for that reason.  He struggles to comment on what a good day fishing looks like these days, sharing that 2 years ago during the days at sea program, when he fished out of Gloucester, Massachusetts, that he would catch a few thousand pounds of fish a day just so he could catch his quota quick, but that with the new system in place, things have changed.  “It’s hard to say.  I used to want to make $1,000 a day, but now you need more than that.  Now I don’t even know what makes a good day fishing.”  He continues, “People just don’t even realize what we have to go through to go fishing each day. It’s so redundant and unnecessary. We have to send an email each morning to let them know what we’re doing each day, and they’re tracking our boat every second of every day with a skymate box; they know where we are at all times.  And on top of that, I  have to give 48 hours notice as to when I’m going to be going fishing.”

Catch of the day (notice no dogfish)

Catch of the day (notice no dogfish)

Sorting fish

Sorting fish

As a New England Fisheries Management Council member, Peter shares that he’s privy to a lot of what is going to be happening within the industry in the future, stating, “It’s not pretty, I’ll tell you that much.”  Peter mentions a NH sector meeting happening later that night with the board of directors and some members from the nature conservancy.  There’s been talk circulating about partnering with them and the possibility of the nature conservancy buying some of the fishermen’s permits.  “If the price is right they might be buying some of my permits,” he suggests.  But this idea seems to be the least of their problems.  There has also been talk of management cutting the cod quota for next year 70-80%, cod being a fishery that the majority of local fishermen rely heavily on to make their money, with cod selling for 4-5 dollars a pound at market currently. With these kinds of cuts, many fishermen are at stake of losing their jobs, or perhaps becoming part-time fishermen; either way they will be forced to look for other work.

Gutting Cod

Gutting Cod

When asked about sustainable fisheries, Peter responds, “As a council member, it has a little bit of a different meaning.  Overall, it’s all about maintaining a robust stock, but it’s just that sometimes the science we go by is so sad.  My livelihood as a fisherman isn’t going to be sustained much longer.”  All of Peter Kendall’s catch is distribued under Jamie Hayward’s dealers license and is offloaded at Portsmouth Harbor, and trucked to different fish markets and auctions around the seacoast by Joe, an employee of Jamie’s.  Peter shares that he doesn’t eat as much seafood at home as one would think because of the hassle of having to report all fish brought home for dinner, but admits he tries to bring lobster and shrimp home for his two kids as much as possible because they love it.  Peter’s hobbies consist of anything related to sports, specifically golfing and going to his children’s sporting events, soccer, football, baseball, etc.

Birds after the fish guts

Birds after the fish guts

From Peter Kendall to New Hampshire seafood consumers:

“Eat as much local cod as you can.  You can find it at the local markets, but I’m sorry that I can’t personally sell it to anybody, including restaurants because I don’t have my dealer’s license.”