New Englands Embattled Men of The Sea

Against the Tide: The Fate of the New England Fisherman
By Richard Adams Carey
Houghton Mifflin, Boston, New York, 1999, 381 pages.

Many people hold two simultaneous images of the New England fishing industry. There is the romantic view, with pictures of beautiful fishing schooners like the Gertrude L. Thebaud and Canada’s famous Bluenose. This view, tinged with nostalgia, goes back at least to Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous, the classic novel of Gloucester fishermen. There is also the unsentimental consumer’s-eye view: slices of raw fish gleaming behind the glass at the supermarket fish counter.

But lurking behind both the romance of the open sea and the banality of what’s for supper? is the reality of the turbulent and ever-dangerous Atlantic Ocean. Sometimes the real price of a seafood dinner can be death.

Lurking behind the romance of the open sea is danger: Sometimes the real price of a seafood dinner can be death.
The dangers, both natural and man-made, threatening New England’s fishermen are at the heart of Richard Adams Carey’s book Against the Tide. Carey spent a year working with fishermen and lobstermen in the waters around Cape Cod. In the book, he brings both the colorful and practical views to life through his own firsthand experiences: the routine, often back-breaking labor; the dollars-and-cents realities of commercial fishing. The exigencies of business flow in and out of the equally real life-and-death struggles that sometimes erupt “between fish and fish.”

One such struggle claimed the fishing boat Patricia Marie. The tragedy occurred 23 years ago but still haunts the minds of Cape Cod fishermen. On October 24, 1976, the Patricia Marie was heading home to Provincetown in 10-foot following seas and a 25-knot wind. Her crew had caught such a full load that the scallops may have blocked drainage through her scuppers. The skipper was talking on the radio to other boats when the sea swallowed him up like Jonah’s whale. “He stopped in midsentence to tell a friend that he needed to check on something,” Carey relates. “Then the Patricia Marie disappeared, her blip vanishing as though vaporized from the radar screens of other vessels.”

The fishing-boat crew closest to Patricia Marie heard men screaming for help in the cold October water, but by the time the rescuers arrived the men and the fishing boat had vanished. The captain’s body was discovered late the next day clinging to a buoy. He had died of exposure. Other bodies were found one by one over the next several weeks, caught in fishermen’s nets.

Most of the book is devoted to the day-to-day lives and work of the fishermen. The incidents of danger and drama flash like sudden lightning strikes to remind the reader that these are not placid shore-bound occupations. The book is written with a sense of the poetry of wind and weather and an admiration for the men who do the fishing. For anybody who has lived or spent time in Cape Cod villages such as Chatham, Harwich, and Orleans with its Rock Harbor, the scenes, the boats, the names, and the people are all familiar. But they take on a three-dimensional reality here that the tourist or casual visitor almost never sees.

The book’s subtitle is The Fate of the New England Fisherman. That fate is always in doubt because of economics, bureaucracy, and politics, both federal and local. Central to these issues is the reality that even the seemingly boundless bounty of the sea has limits. The commercial fishery, US and foreign, may be pushing those limits to the edge. Cod, lob- ster, and other seafood mainstays may be moving slowly, with a deceptive on-again, off-again motion, toward extinction. New England’s share of the world market in fish has slipped from 23 percent in the mid-1970s to scarcely 3 percent today, the author reports.

Carey makes clear that none of these dangers, physical or economic, is entirely new. A sudden storm over the Georges Bank fishing grounds, 150 miles offshore, “devoured fifteen schooners at once in 1879,” Carey reminds us. So, too, has over-fishing repeatedly threatened the major fish stocks over the years.

A large factor in the plunder of the seas during the first decades after World War II was the appearance of huge, foreign factory ships off the New England coast. These vessels scoured the bottom with enormous nets, catching and destroying far more fish and other sea life than the small-boat New Englanders ever could. During a single year in the mid-1970s more than a thousand European and Soviet-bloc fishing vessels worked the north Atlantic waters and took 2.2 million tons of fish, 10 times the catch that New England fisherman were able to land.

Since so much of this fishing was from Soviet-bloc ships, these commercial incursions became an issue in the Cold War. This led to the 1976 passage of the Magnuson Act, which extended US control 200 miles beyond our coast. Though this measure freed the New England fleet from European competition, it hardly prevented over-fishing. New England fishermen were growing in scale, both in numbers and in the size and efficiency of their boats. In the first three years after the Magnuson Act became law the number of New England fishing vessels grew from 825 to 1,423. Federal and state governments stepped in, attempting through regulation to achieve a balance in which New England’s fish and fishermen could both survive.

But no such recourse to control ever works smoothly. After decades of coping with the competition of foreign ships, the New Englanders had to cope with American bureaucrats; the small-scale hook-fishermen had to cope with large-scale American draggers. Carey devotes chapters to the committee-room wars and their deep-water consequences. It isn’t a matter of good guys vs. bad guys; the author makes it clear that there are some of each on both sides. But the fighting takes the fishermen away from fishing. “… [W]hat the hell are we going to meetings for? They’ve already got our destiny fixed,” one frustrated participant complains.

From his year’s experience with fishermen and the sea, Carey clearly developed a deep respect and affection for both. His descriptions of sea and sky in many kinds of weather are so deft that the reader can almost smell the salt spray. And Carey sees the small boat New England fishermen as the kind of intelligent, resourceful, and independent men that Thomas Jefferson considered the best hope and guarantee of American freedom, although Jefferson was thinking mostly of independent farmers. He respects the men who make their living this way. He understands why they carry on in their physically taxing, often dangerous occupation. The book is a hymn of praise to the men who choose this uncommon way of life and for the women who share its anxieties with them.

Meet the Author
His descriptions tell the story:

Brian lingers at the door of the pickup, drinking the morning in, joyful just to be here, content in this truce he has struck, at least for the moment, with the wind and the tide and the weather, if not necessarily with other men or the history that in recent years has cast such a shadow over his and others’ lives. “Once a week, for thirty seconds or so,” he says, “you get to just love it.”

Harold M. Schmeck Jr., who retired after 33 years on the staff of The New York Times, lives in Chatham.