Eugene J. LaFrance: The empty sea: A Valley fisherman’s requiem for lost bounty in the Gulf of Maine

Last modified: Thursday, July 02, 2015


If one is at all familiar with Glouster, Massachusetts, any mention of people who go down to the sea would surely be a reference to Gloucester’s commercial fisherman. To acknowledge and commemorate over 300 years of such a demanding and dangerous way of making a living, sculptor Leonard Craske designed an eight-foot bronze statue depicting a rugged helmsman at his vessel’s wheel, his eyes on his ship’s sails, and his focus on staying clear of dangerous rocks.

The Fishermen’s Memorial Statue was dedicated Aug. 23, 1925, to the thousands of commercial fishermen who lost their lives while pursuing their trade in often hazardous waters on the Gulf of Maine, in the years since Gloucester was settled in 1623.

Back in 1925, the statue was an appropriate and symbolic reminder of “THEY THAT GO DOWN TO THE SEA IN SHIPS” — and out to sea in the Gulf of Maine.

That was then. Not now. Today, each year, many tens of thousands of recreational fisherman “go down to the sea” in the Gulf of Maine on board party and charter boats, in private boats or in kayaks. Thousands more recreational fishermen fish off piers, boulder-formed breakwaters and sandy beaches.

Since the New England area was settled by the Pilgrims the Gulf of Maine has been recognized as being a cornucopia of cod, haddock, pollock and giant tuna. Today, few people realize that, back in 1825, 300- and 400-pound halibut were considered worthless pests by the cod fisherman.

As a recreational fisherman, I have been around long enough on this side of the green grass to enjoy years of bountiful fishing on the Gulf of Maine. The Gulf was once a superb ground fishing habitat. Drift back in time to May 17, 1993. I had booked a deep-sea fishing trip on board the “Yankee Capts,” a vessel owned by the Yankee Fleet. It would take over eight hours to motor out to our fishing location, the Georges Bank. In 10 hours of fishing, 44 fisherman landed over 900 fish. A conservative estimate would have put the catch at well over 5,000 pounds of fish. The largest fish of the day was a 40-pound cod. Cod was the fish of the day, followed by pollock. Adam Stradecki of Whitingham, Vermont, and his fishing partner lost count after having caught 65 cod and pollock. They went home with over 150 pounds of cod and pollock fillets.

Flow with an outgoing tide to a more recent date — Feb. 1, 2009. It was 19 degrees Fahrenheit and snowing in Gloucester. A court order had suddenly opened the normally closed cod fishing season on the Gulf. This window was for two or three weeks. I was one of the few recreational fishermen able to take advantage of this “once in a lifetime” opportunity. Our charter left the dock at 6 a.m. Our captain instructed us to start fishing shortly after 8 a.m. My first fish of the day was a 45-pound cod. The man fishing next to me decked a 55-pound fish. Within three hours, six of us landed our limits of cod, totaling over 1,100 pounds. We caught and released over 200 pounds of 5- to 10-pound cod, because such fish were too small to keep. Today, such a cod, on any party or charter boat, would be a pool fish contender. In less than three hours of fishing time, six fisherman limited out on cod. Each fisherman came off the charter with over 60 pounds of cod fillets. Such an outstanding cod fishing experience will never again be enjoyed by any recreational fisherman here.

With a full moon and a fast tide running, let’s cast forward to the 2012 deep-sea fishing season. From my perspective, the 2012 season began with great hope. Starting in April, my regular outings did not produce any 30- and 40-pound cod, but 4- and 5-year-old cod came over the railings to enable me and my fellow fishermen to come off a charter with a 20- to 30-pound plastic bag of cod and haddock fillets. Between “keeper” cod and haddock, rods were usually bent into regular action, reeling in 2- and 3-year old “shorts,” making for an exciting and exhausting day of fishing.

A Nov. 14, 2012, charter, proved to be my last trip of the season and the most successful one. With the cod season closed, our charter captain concentrated on pollock. We may not have found the mother lode of pollock, but our charter did fill the totes on board the boat with decent fish. This charter has a policy of sharing the boat’s catch equally among six fishermen on board. I came off the boat with over 40 pounds of pollock fillets.

With another New England winter behind me, and over four and a half months since I last held a Penn jigging stick in my hands on board a recreational fishing boat, I looked forward to the 2013 deep-sea fishing season in the Gulf of Maine. For the first week of April 2013, I was able to sign on board a shared charter with five fishermen from New York state. The charter’s captain touted our scheduled fishing trip as a “Haddock Special.”

That trip arrived on a cool, but otherwise bright day, with calm seas. Motoring two hours out of Gloucester, it was a most welcome relief to respond to the captain’s order to “go fish.” Six weighted lines, hooks, baited with clams, headed for the ocean floor 235 feet below the boat.

Minutes passed into 10, then 20, before any of the six fisherman on board even had a bite. Then, the resulting catch was a 10-inch, one-year class, haddock. Time and time again, our captain moved his boat from one location to another, seeking fish. The captain’s efforts were in vain. After several hours of fishing, the small one- and two-year class fish the six fishermen had caught could be counted on the fingers of ones hand.

That trip turned out to be one of the worst deep-sea fishing experiences of my life. Near the end of the day, in desperation, the boat’s captain put us into some redfish. There were no happy fishermen on board. Each fisherman had paid $250 to come on board looking forward to leaving the boat with many pounds of fresh haddock fillets. Near the end of the day, not a single legal-sized haddock had been caught. I managed to catch 13 red fish, none larger than the average yellow perch or large bluegill. Some of the fishermen never bothered to keep the few redfish they caught, giving their fish to me and one of their fishing companions. For the six of us on this expensive charter, our trip was a total disaster and a waste of time, effort and money. For the first time in our lives, the six of us had not caught one single legal-size cod, haddock, or pollock in a full day of deep-sea fishing.

After licking my wounds for several weeks, I signed up for a shared charter. Again the captain could not put us into any legal-size cod, haddock or pollock. Nine out of 10 fish the six of us caught that day were 1- and 2-year-old fish. The few legal-size cod and haddock we did catch were all small.

This charter has a practice of dividing the day’s catch of fish, equally. I had nine pounds of cod and haddock fillets to show for my second trip of 2013. For a $350 investment, the nine pounds of fillets proved to be expensive table fare.

With seven and a half months of the 2013 fishing season having slipped away, with several charter and party boats fishing experiences under my belt, and the experiences of many of my fellow fishermen to fall back on, it had become obvious to me that the cornucopia of plenty that had once been the Gulf of Maine cod, haddock and pollock fishery was no more.

Still, if nothing else, most fishermen are optimists.

In August 2013, I booked another shared trip with a charter boat. Again the captain could not put us into any fish. All day long, it was a slow pick of any fish at all, with most of the fish caught being 1- and 2-year-old class fish. My shared catch of cod and haddock on this trip came to less than five pounds of fillets. Realistically, any way I did the math, I could no longer justify nearly 300 miles of turnpike driving, spending nine hours out at sea, investing $350 and at the end of the fishing day only having five to nine pounds of cod and haddock fillets to show for it.

I cancelled all my standing reservations with all the charter and party boats I had been doing business for over the years. Practical experience had stripped the facade of wishful thinking, leaving me with nothing more than the skeleton rack of reality. For all practical purposes, the recreational deep-sea fishing in the Gulf of Maine, as it may have been enjoyed by countless thousands of people in the past, was now a fishing option going through its final death spasms.

Soon the Gulf of Maine recreational fishing industry would take its place alongside the withered and decaying corpse of the Gulf’s commercial fishing industry.

I had to acknowledge that what at one time was believed to be impossible, had finally taken place. The Gulf of Maine had now been reduced to nothing more than a pale version of its historic self.

The captain and owner of the last shared charter I had gone on was considerate enough to reply to my message of cancellation. The captain admitted, the days of “meat” fishermen were now over. He prophesied that the charter and party boat recreational fishermen should expect nothing more than to enjoy a day out at sea, with the possibility of catching a few small cod, haddock, and pollock for a meal or two at home. He suggested buying frozen cod imported from Iceland. I have attended funerals that ended on a more positive note.

I closed out that last four months of the 2013 season on board a party boat relatively new to the Gulf of Maine. The boat’s dock was convenient with free parking. The boat’s rates for its daily trips were reasonable at $59 for myself as a “senior citizen” and its 12-hour marathon trips, I felt, were a bargain at $80. The boat is not as large as some of the old-time party boats plying the waters of the Gulf of Maine, or south of the New England coast; it restricts its 72-foot length to bookings of a maximum of 30 fishermen. In practice, this party boat often leaves its docking area with only 15 to 20 fishermen.

No, this party boat’s captain never put me into large schools of cod or haddock but I always enjoyed the company of serious elder fishermen and always left the boat with at least as many pounds of cod and haddock fillets as I had when fishing on expensive charter boats. The reality of fishing conditions on the Gulf of Maine became obvious when a five-pound cod or cusk becomes the pool winning fish.

The 2014 season began on a sober and disappointing note. The first trip of the season, scheduled for April 18, proved to be a “rock and roll” experience. The seas were running rough. Many of the 30 fishermen came down with sea sickness and were out of action the whole day.

The fishing was as I had come to expect — poor. Few fish were caught, and most were 1- and 2-year-old fish, not big enough to keep.

My day’s catch amounted to five fish, only one of which was a small cod, just big enough to keep. My first trip of the 2014 fishing season was a sobering experience, but did offer me a fresh cod supper.

My May 2 marathon, leaving the dock at 5 a.m., proved to be a great day out at sea, but there were no fish to be caught. Again, nine out of 10 of the few fish being caught were “shorts,” 1- and 2-year-old cod, haddock, and a stray pollock or two. Of the nine fish I brought over the rail that day, only one fish, a haddock, was a keeper.

My third venture out onto the Gulf of Maine on May 30 proved to be another pleasant and enjoyable day at sea. A great day of fishing, but very little “catching.” I only brought three fish over the rail in seven hours of fishing time, including a 21-inch haddock.

I think the pool fish was a five-pound cod. It can be difficult to put a smile on the cold face of reality.

My last trip of the 2014 deep-sea fishing season was a June 20 marathon. Blue skies, a few white fair weather clouds, bright sunshine, and calm seas. What was lacking in fish was made up for, from time to time, by whales breaking the water’s surface within sight. The first of eight fish I caught that day was a beautiful three-foot rock salmon. A nice fish, but this time, I elected not to keep her and the mate tossed her back, Of the eight fish I caught on this trip, only one, a cusk, was big enough to keep. The meat fisherman’s days are now officially over.

The reality of recreational fishing on the Gulf of Maine today is a sobering experience. Yes, a person, a group of friends, even a party representing a business, can still enjoy a day of recreational fishing on the Gulf. But the experience will be more of enjoying a pleasant day at sea, and fishing, not the catching of large numbers of legal-size cod, haddock or pollock.

I have not mentioned the names of the party or charter boats I have been one for I feel it would unfairly cast them in a negative light. The best of captains cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

Neither can any boat’s captain enable his fishermen to catch 20-pound cod or nine-pound haddock, when at best, only 1- and 2-year-old fish, ranging in size from 10 to 17 inches are available.

“Let the buyer beware.” The recreational fishing fleet is struggling to survive. Just as any prudent person should have had doubts about all the claims of “snake oil” salesmen prudent and realistic recreational saltwater fishermen should take claims of 20-pound cod and full totes of fish, with more than just a few grains of salt.

Truth always trumps fiction. When it comes to claims of large cod being harvested in numbers, a wise, cautious and discerning fisherman should let official records speak.

Massachusetts offers awards for official reports of large fish being caught. To qualify for an award in Massachusetts, a cod fish must weigh at least 30 pounds. During the 2013 calendar year, not a single 30-pound cod fish was entered in Massachusetts.

Federal regulations in 2014 increased the size limit on cod and haddock to 21-inches. The daily cod limit per person was restricted to nine fish.

The daily limit on haddock was reduced to only three fish. This was followed by the complete closing of cod and haddock fishing to recreational fishermen as of Sept. 1, 2014.

When it comes to booking a deep-sea fishing trip, I recommend you practice what President Reagan used to preach: Trust, but verify. If a report sounds too good to be true, chances are good it is more an example of some captain’s wishful thinking, rather than the cold, honest truth.

Eugene J. LaFrance lives in Northampton.


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