Living Off The Sea A FISH STORY

On maps Cape Cod appears as a gigantic arm grabbing the surrounding waters, pulling them in to itself with a clenched fist. That isn't far from the truth. The people who live here aren't merely surrounded by the sea, they are intrinsically connected to it in a relationship both real and mythic.

The Cape's sandy soil could never transform it into an agricultural powerhouse like the midwest or California's heavily-watered valleys. Far from it. We have small local farms that grow heirloom tomatoes and kale and encourage us to eat local. Hydrangeas, roses, and cranberries do well here, but we don't put many vegetables on America's plates. To their credit, the people who settled here quickly realized their livelihood would come from the sea.

They harvested everything from fish and shellfish to whales in these waters. They shipped food to markets in Boston and New York and whale oil to wherever people wanted to light up the night. They built wooden ships, twisted fibers into rope, and crafted tough canvas sails. They extracted sea salt along the coastline and shipped it to the West Indies and elsewhere. In winter they cut huge blocks of ice, packed them in sawdust, and delivered them to India. They sailed America's great clipper ships around the globe, their holds bulging with goods to trade with in ports as far away as China. And they helped develop commerce on a global scale, tranforming America into a maritime power in the process. In the 1800s, during the golden age of sail, no town in America produced more sea captains than the one we now call home.

Today, the saintly cod are mostly gone. Electricity lights our lamps and the whales are now protected; People pay to go out on boats and meet them. Visitors from all over the world dot our beaches and fill our B&Bs, hotels, and restaurants. Tourists are harvested here now.

But people still head out in boats here each day to earn a living from the sea. There are easier ways to make a buck. Much to the dismay of the Chamber of Commerce, the weather doesn't always cooperate and neither do the fish, lobsters or any of the other species fishermen depend on. The people with calloused hands and an iron grip who man those boats don't expect the life to be easy. They know better. Fish aren't exactly waiting to jump into their boats. In fact, here in southern New England waters, the fishery isn't what it used to be.

Take the Atlantic Cod, once so ridiculously abundant around the Cape that it became the namesake for this peninsula. Their stocks are now considered depleted. They're strangers in these waters and may never return in their once-great numbers. The cod you find in your local fish market was most likely frozen and shipped in from Alaskan waters.

Big Atlantic Bluefin Tuna are highly-prized commercially, especially by Japanese buyers who purchase them for sushi and sashimi. The great commercial value of these sleek giants inevitably led to heavy overfishing. One of the tradesmen who did some work for us—a plumber with two boats—claimed to have earned $100,000 fishing for tuna one season, thanks to high prices. Those days are over and the fish are no longer as numerous in these parts.

For many others who derive their living from the sea here, lobster is their catch of choice, their livelihood. Lobstermen set out baited traps tied to floats that identify their owners. But like many other species in these waters, Homarus americanus—better known as the American lobster, or more affectionately in these precincts, as "lobstah"—is under stress.

Water temperatures have climbed to levels that make life difficult for these crustaceans who prefer cold water and temperatures well below 68º. Warmer temperatures can slow growth and make the lobsters more vulnerable to disease and predation. Whatever the cause, these are life-threatening issues for the lobsters whose stocks in our waters are rated as depleted and have fallen to the lowest levels on record. And that threatens an entire way of life for those who seek them.

The color blind need not apply: Lobster floats are identified by color with the combinations carefully recorded and often passing within a family from generation to generation. Heaven help the person who poaches a lobsterman's traps.

In search of preferred water temperatures, some lobsters may amble farther out into the ocean and the colder water they prefer. Unfortunately, their fry are poorly equipped to survive in these ocean depths, which leads to further depletion in the stock. An entire generation of lobsters could be lost.

Warmer temperatures have also brought in greater numbers of Black Sea Bass, a predatory species that devours immature lobsters with gusto.

Lobstering here is more than an industry, it's a part of New England culture. In southern New England, the industry is worth perhaps $8-10 million dollars a year. Its loss would have costly economic and social impacts. Just north of here in the Gulf of Maine, the lobster industry is many times larger, conservatively valued at half-a-billion dollars a year. If water temperatures rise there, the cost would be incalculable to Maine and New England itself.

Scientists at the Atlantic States Marine Fishery Commission (ASMFC) who study these fish populations do more than deliver bad news. They also employ various means to manage the fisheries, taking into consideration not just the species populations and their connection to one another but the socio-economic impact of management decisions on the human communities affected—always a balancing act. Faced with environmental conditions over which humans have no control, ASMFC will be making critical decisions in the coming months in order to rebuild lobster stocks and a number of other depleted species to sustainable levels without destroying the communities that are dependent on them.

Not your typical daily commute. And while you're working, do remember to watch out for those unexploded depth charges.

Working in concert with area lobstermen, ASMFC will announce the necessary steps to reduce the lobster harvest giving the lobsters a chance to recover and rebuild their numbers. This might also include increasing the allowable catch of the encroaching Black Sea Bass, both commercially and recreationally. Lobstermen know they will need to curtail their own fishing in order to save their livelihood. They don't yet know by how much. Fishery management isn't precise because so many factors are out of everyone's control. But it's that or nothing and doing nothing is unacceptable.

Lobstermen have cut back before—voluntarily. Back in 2012 these southern New England lobstermen voluntarily reduced their catch by 10%. Some reduced their traps by more than half. Yet stocks have not rebounded. Now the industry is facing another perhaps more severe reduction mandated by the ASMFC as it attempts to achieve sustainable levels by 2022.

Beached: Fishery management may impose seasonal or geographic closures of the fishery, a change in minimum and maximum sizes, trap limits or a combination of all these. One lobsterman told me that "one or two clicks up in minimum legal size" could put many like him out of business, forcing him to sell his boat and gear.

It's easy to think of fishermen as among the last of the truly independent entrepreneurs, proud masters of their own fate, individuals marching to their own drummer, creating a livelihood out of their own sweat and toil. But you might be surprised at the reality. Commercial fishermen spend almost as much time keeping up with almost constant changes in federal and state regulations, licensing, permitting, and reporting requirements as they spend on the water actually fishing and caring for their gear. Their activities are heavily regulated and monitored. Their boats are heavily mortgaged. And their life insurance premiums are usually paid on time. Few professions are more dangerous.

Yet each day, rain or shine, they fuel their boats and head out to the open sea in search of a prey that is, much like them, quietly struggling to survive. God bless them.

Not quite endangered species.



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