‘They that go down to the sea in ships’

For centuries, New England fishermen have provided much of the seafood for the world’s dinner tables. In 1623, the nation’s first fishing port was started in Gloucester, which became synonymous with the industry, and its iconic fisherman statue stands as a stark reminder of the dangers of farming the seas.

While many have romanticized the fishing industry and its place in New England history, we once again add two more names to the thousands who have lost their lives in the risky profession. The Coast Guard has suspended its search for two fishermen lost Monday when the 69-foot clammer Misty Blue out of Fairhaven sunk about 10 miles off Nantucket. The captain and one of the other three crew members were rescued by a nearby fishing boat while two others are lost and presumed drowned.

Since colonists first started taking their nets out to sea in Gloucester, more than 10,000 fishermen have died on the job from that city’s port and at least 3,000 more from the New Bedford and Fairhaven ports have lost their lives since 1900. Those numbers don’t include other smaller working ports along the coast in Boston, Hyannis, Scituate, and Plymouth as well as Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, where the legacy of fishing is a family tradition.

The job of commercial fisherman is regularly ranked as the first or second most dangerous job in the country by federal labor officials. In 2016, there were 55 deaths for every 100,000 fishermen, ranking second only to logging for the year. One of the most famous fishing tragedies was the Andrea Gail, lost in 1991 and memorialized in a Pulitzer Prize-winning book and blockbuster movie entitled The Perfect Storm.

But what fishermen in the area will tell you is the dangers have been gradually – and exponentially – increased with the implementation of catch quotas by the federal government over the last few decades. The rules themselves are not to blame but the residual effects and economic impact have winnowed the number of experienced mates and forced reduction of crew size on many boats.

No one yet knows the reason the Misty Blue sank, though there are reports that the boat had issues with its water pumps four times in the last month. But in pre-quota days, a 69-footer such as the Misty Blue would have accommodated a larger crew, perhaps as many as eight or 10. And the tight revenues make maintenance and repairs of the aging fleet more sporadic.

The shrinking economics of a catch have forced a reduction of crews in order to keep the shares at a livable wage. The number of boats has decreased, which helps keep the industry afloat, but the reduced numbers of “sites” for crewmembers have pushed experienced fishermen out of the business. In their place, less-experienced – and cheaper – workers have taken their spots. But the inexperience carries risks. One of the missing Misty Blue deckhands did not know how to swim, a fact the boat owner said “surprised” him when he learned of it this week.

The quotas and the subsequent reduction in crews also raise the risks while at sea. Though the length and the number of trips have been cut back for boats because of the catch limits, the shifts get longer while out at sea. It’s not uncommon for crews to work 16- to 20-hour shifts on a 10-day steam, increasing the exhaustion level that, coupled with the lack of experience and fewer hands to share the workload, can result in lapses of attention and reaction.

Many of the recent incidents of fishermen lost at sea involve singular crew members falling overboard without the immediate knowledge of other crew. Most weren’t wearing life jackets or survival suits as urged by federal safety officials.

The money and demand for fish are still there and the lure of the sea will continue to draw fishermen. New Bedford continues to rank as the number one port in the country in terms of value of fish landing for 17 straight years. In 2016, New Bedford landed $327 million in seafood, primarily scallops, dwarfing the second-highest port, Dutch Harbor in Alaska, which landed $198 million worth of fish, according to federal data.

And with that, there will continue to be those who defy the risks, some often drawn by the dangers. The Gloucester fisherman plaque, nearly a century old now, acknowledges that lure – and that danger.

“They that go down to the sea in ships.”



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