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.