The Last of the Offshore Fishermen -August 2014
by: Kimberly Nolan
photography by: Jim Powers
It’s dawn. The sun is just starting to wake up. The bow of a 65-foot steel fishing boat parts the waters 40 miles south of Nantucket. The fishing boat launches a harpoon aimed at a swordfish. It strikes. Trying to escape, the swordfish reels out 100 fathoms of rope attached to the harpoon. The boat follows the fighting fish, towing a dory with two passengers. Eventually, the fish gives up the fight. An 8-year-old boy, together with an older teenager, lash its tail to the side of the dory. A blockand-tackle pulley system hauls the fish out of the water and onto the deck of the fishing boat.
During the next five years the boy matures into a 13-year-old fisherman. Bill Blount said he remembers proving himself by working alone in the dory as a teenager in 1957.
Blount’s father was a shipbuilder. At Blount Marine boatyard, the father and son jointly designed the first American stern trawler, Blount said. In the summer of 1963, Blount captained the Narragansett, a 65-foot steel fishing boat, to trawl for groundfish off Martha’s Vineyard and Block Island. He temporarily left the trade to attend the University of Maine where he received a degree in engineering. After graduation, he joined the Army. Fishing lured him back. Now, at age 69, it remains an occupation and an avocation for the Nantucket offshore fisherman.
“It’s hard being away from home a lot,” Blount said. “It’s really dangerous but also really fascinating. People ask me ‘Why risk your life and not make money?’ There are the challenges of fixing things and bringing men home safely. It ends up being a kind of mission impossible.”
Commercial fishing remains one of the most dangerous jobs in America, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which reported an annual average of 46 commercial-fishing-related deaths occurring between 2000 and 2010. According to the report, 545 commercial fishermen died while fishing in U.S. waters.
The job entails susceptibility to harsh weather, long work hours and working with heavy, dangerous equipment while in constant motion. There are also challenges in the marketplace due to government-imposed fish quotas and the fluctuating price of fish.
Blount said he thrives on the challenges of commercial fishing, but this season’s challenges have left his vessel tied to the dock since last November. The Ruthie B is due for an audio gauge, necessary maintenance that measures the thickness of the hull. The International Marine Underwriters insurance company told Blount his boat could not leave the dock until the maintenance was completed.
Blount said he could not afford an audio gauge on top of insurance.
“They told me I needed an audio gauge at the end of the scallop season, right before I was about to start fishing,” Blount said. “It costs me $30,000 for one guy to have insurance for seven months. My other choice is to fish alone. There is tremendous liability to bring someone along who is not insured. I’ve fished alone before and if I do it again I have a good chance of getting killed.”
Since her launch in 1979, Blount captained the Ruthie B north of Cassius’ Ledge, beyond Brown’s Bank, to Georges Bank and as far south as Delaware. Now the Ruthie B sits in New Bedford, Mass. She is docked due to a Catch-22 situation, Blount said. He cannot afford insurance along with the necessary maintenance to go fishing, but he needs to go fishing in order to earn money for those payments.
With the help of Sustainable Nantucket and David Berry, a friend of Blount’s and occasional Ruthie B deckhand, he set out to raise $27,000 through a Kickstarter campaign. To date, backers have donated $34,170 to keep the Ruthie B afloat. The Ruthie B is 77 feet long, 22 feet wide and draws 11 feet of water. Expenses total approximately $1,000 per day to operate the vessel at sea, Blount said.
The Kickstarter money will be used to finance the audio gauge, as a down payment on the insurance, to pay for diesel fuel for the initial trip of the season and to paint the hull, he said.
Blount sells his catch at a fish auction in New Bedford, to restaurants and fish markets on Nantucket and through a local community supported fishery (CSF) program. The CSF offers members weekly shares of fresh seafood for a pre-paid membership.
The CSF is a personal, direct way to purchase fish from Blount,
Berry said. Members receive a phone call or e-mail when Blount leaves for a fishing trip. A few days later they are updated about when he will be coming back with the catch. Their final e-mail or phone call lets them know their share is ready for pickup. On that designated day, a fishing tote sits outside of Blount’s house. Inside the tote are CSF members’ names hand-written on a bag, with an assortment of whole fish inside. Blount’s permit restricts him from fileting the fish, he said.
“The CSF is a win-win-win situation,” Berry said. “You, as a consumer, are getting the freshest fish available if you yourself don’t catch it, you support a local fishermen and you’re getting a better price than if you were to buy it at a retail shop. You also help (Blount) sell more fish on-island. He is getting a better price than he would receive from the wholesaler. This year, we are also launching a separate lobster CSF.”
Berry said the CSF introduces consumers to new fish they might not otherwise purchase. It’s ideal for someone who likes to cook. The bones and head, referred to as the “rack,” can easily be made into a fish stock, he said.
There was once an icehouse on the dock
During the summer months, Blount uses 10 tons of ice at a time, he said. That amount typically supplies him for two and a half weeks, depending on the length of a trip. Having access to large quantities of ice is critical for offshore fishermen. Nantucket’s ice plant closed in the mid-1960s. Without it, island fishermen sought infrastructure elsewhere. New Bedford and Gloucester became the notable fishing ports in the state. The meager fleet of fishing boats left Nantucket, said Karsten Reinemo, owner of Topspin, a charter fishing boat.
“I was hanging around the dock since I was 10 years old,” Reinemo said. “There were no retail stores. Fish shanties lined the dock. When the ice plant shut down, the boats moved to New Bedford. A few boats stayed on the island as long as they could. New Bedford had an icehouse and places where guys could haul out their boat and get the mechanics worked on. Everything was in New Bedford.”
Eventually there were only two commercial fishing boats left, along with a few “day” boats, Reinemo said. Summer visitors tied up to the moorings. Along the docks, workers fileted fish and shucked scallops. The marina was not built, yet.
By the early 1970s developer Walter Beinecke had changed the face of the Nantucket waterfront. As retail stores and eateries peppered the area, tourists flocked and the marina boomed. The fishing industry declined due to a lack of infrastructure, Reinemo said.
“Who is going to take 3,000 pounds of squid on Nantucket?” fisherman Tom Dunham asked. “I sell to Island Seafood, Nantucket Seafood and Souza’s Seafood. I can’t unload my whole catch here. Plus, I have to wheel it down the wharf on a cart. There should be a fish plant here.”
Dunham fishes out of Nantucket, although he uses Hyannis as his primary port to unload his catch. While Blount sells some fish through the CSF and to local restaurants, he sells most of it at a fish auction in New Bedford.
Dunham and Blount differ by way of licensing. Dunham has a Massachusetts Coastal Access Permit and is required to stay within state waters. Blount’s license permits him to fish outside of state waters. Dunham said he is required to unload his boat every day.
Between 1995 and 2000 the National Marine Fisheries Service started limiting the number of fishing days allowed and the number of allowable fish caught.
“They told us that if we made the sacrifice the fish stocks would come back,” Blount said. “The quotas started as necessary conservation. In 2002 to 2003 the environmental community changed the goal from bringing the fish population back from 60 percent to 100 percent.”
From 2012 to 2013 the amount of fish allowed to be caught was reduced by 75 percent, Blount said.
“The year before that they cut us by 40 percent,” Blount said. “Guys can’t get enough volume to make ends meet. The fish in the ocean have been privatized and only a portion of them are available to the fishermen.”
“They cut us back to an 88-day average,” Blount said. “They figured it took 120 days for an owner and operator to break even with no boat mortgage. The goal was to remove 70 percent of the boats. The government wanted to reduce the fleet by attrition.”
The quotas were supposed to be introduced gradually, said Marjorie Mooney-Seus, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries communication officer.
“All of it is done with the main intent of making sure we have healthy fish stocks so we can have healthy fisheries,” Mooney-Seus said. “Nobody wants to cut a quota. If you have a stock that is in poor condition from being overfished we have 10 years to replace it. Certain groundfish stocks, determined in the early 1990s, such as cod and haddock, were meant to have a phased approach. As you get farther along in that rebuilding period, if they are not coming back you have to cut quotas more.”
In 2010 and 2012 drastic cuts were made to the codfish quotas in the Gulf of Maine, Mooney-Seus said.
“They weren’t coming back as fast as we had hoped,” she said. “There may have been some environmental factors in play that we didn’t account for, such as the surface temperature in the Gulf of Maine, which has been higher than it was in the past. Cod is a cold-water fish. The only thing we can manage is the amount of fishing pressure.”
Dunham shares Blount’s frustrations.
“Last year we were allowed to take 600 horseshoe crabs a day,” he said of the crustacean used for bait and cancer research. “Now we are only allowed to take 300 a day. Last year, we could take as many conchs as we could get. This year we are only allowed 1,000 pounds of conch.”
Dunham’s passion for fishing trumps the bureaucratic red tape. As a Nantucket native, he started scalloping when he was a teenager. He has also fished out of Portsmouth, N.H. and Portland, Maine.
“I love being on the ocean,” Dunham said. “I love being my own boss. In the summer, when everyone is in that mess on Nantucket, I can go out to sea.”
Blount and Dunham are working to save a long and storied New England tradition. The decline of commercial fishing seems to mimic the pattern of the whaling industry, said Carl Sjolund, a former commercial fisherman.
“You go down the docks now and it is all fiberglass boats,” Sjolund said. “You would think commercial fishing would thrive here, since we’re closest to the stocks. But, there is no place to unload fish. If we had an ice plant today the ice would all go to mixed drinks.” ///
Kimberly Nolan is a staff writer at The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket's newspaper since 1821.