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A look back at King Cod

Travel back to the early days of commercial fishing in New England, when schooners plied the banks, and cod and other species were plentiful beyond imagination

“Dories over!”

Typical dorymen hard at work.

It’s the call Asa Allard and Harland Guidry have been waiting for, and the men hurriedly prepare their little boat. Thwarts are shipped, and the bilge plug is jammed in. Oars, pen boards, water jug, bailer, bucket, gaff, bait knife, sail, mast and three tubs of hooks and tarred-cotton line are hastily stowed.

The 20-foot dory is lifted by means of a block and tackle secured to the schooner’s shrouds, swung overboard and lowered into the chilly Atlantic.

The two fishermen jump in and the dory drifts astern. Its painter, attached to a pin in the ship’s taffrail, comes tight and the little craft is towed effortlessly over the gentle swells. Seven more dories, each manned by a pair of fishermen, are lowered into the sea. Soon all eight are towing in a string, looking for all the world like a line of orderly ducklings following their mother.

Forty-one-year-old Capt. Jonas Walford swings the bow of the 116-foot Gloucester, Mass.-based banker Lillian Emmons due east. He likes the water depth he has found with his lead-line, as well as the coarse gravel embedded in the tallow on the bottom of the weight. After a few minutes he makes the signal for the trailing dory to let go. The remaining seven are distributed at equal distances over a stretch of nearly 4 miles. The schooner heaves-to as Walford keeps one watchful eye on the weather and the other on those of his charges within view.

Allard ships the dory’s oars and begins rowing while Guidry secures the end line of the first tub of gear to a small iron anchor. Another line runs from the anchor to a sturdy wooden keg that marks the end of the ground line. Guidry heaves the anchor overboard and stands in the stern, whirling the coils of line and hooks, each baited with a chunk of herring, out of the tub with his short heaving stick. All three tubs, their lines tied together, are finally emptied, and more than a mile of ground line festooned with 1,500 40-inch snoods and 1,500 hooks settles to the sea floor 32 fathoms below.

Two hours creep by, and it’s time to haul the line aboard. Allard inserts a lignum-vitae roller in the gunwale and pulls the anchor and keg buoy into the dory. He detaches the end line, then stands in the bow and retrieves it, hand over hand. Guidry positions himself behind Allard and coils the line in the tubs, knocking off any untouched baits. Each fish that comes over the roller is unhooked with a circular motion of Allard’s arm and tossed into the skiff. Those that have taken the bait deep are passed to Guidry, who frees the hook by taking a few turns of the snood around his wooden gob stick and twisting it sharply.

And what fish they are! Most are cod weighing between 6 and 25 pounds, well-proportioned and handsome, with mottled olive-brown backs, pale lateral lines and pearlescent bellies. The occasional 30- or 40-pounder makes an appearance at the roller, along with a smattering of other groundfish. Undesirables, such as skates, sculpins and the hated dogfish, are knocked off the hook with a spirited slap against the dory’s gunwale.

The hauling process takes several hours, and when the lines are finally in and the gear stowed, Guidry ships the oars and pulls for the waiting schooner. The painter is caught, and the two men hand up their tubs of line and bare hooks and proceed to pitch their catch — nearly 1,500 pounds of cod, plus a handful of haddock, hake and wolfish — into pens on the schooner’s deck.

But their day is far from over. Allard and Guidry will join the other 14 dorymen in splitting, gutting, washing and icing down the day’s catch, which totals more than 6 tons of groundfish. After that, the hooks must be rebaited. Cold, damp and tired, the men are finally done at midnight but will be back in their dories before dawn. Sleep is a scarce commodity aboard the Lillian Emmons when seas are calm, the cod are biting and there’s money to be made.

Time travel

Fast-forward 106 years. Chuck Wilts, Mark Wasserman and I are 4 miles southwest of Maine’s Monhegan Island — an area that once held one of the highest concentrations of cod in the world — in my 28-foot center console. It’s a beautiful, calm July morning, and I alternately scrutinize the screen of the Furuno FCV-585 with its 1,000-watt transducer and that of the Garmin 4212 chart plotter. The bottom contours look vaguely familiar, as do the ridges and valleys displayed on the color sounder, but what I can’t find are the distinctive scratches of cod that used to appear so regularly in the 1970s, etched onto paper by the stylus of my old Ray Jefferson depth recorder.

Perhaps the fish are simply hiding, so we send our 10-ounce Vike-E jigs and soft-plastic paddletail teasers to the bottom 210 feet below. We work the jigs. Nothing. We make a move to the northeast and try again over a lump in 186 feet of water where a charter party of mine once took more than 300 pounds of cod on a single drift. The spot is easy to find with the plotter, but there’s nothing there. Frustrated, I move another mile to the south and stop over a spire in 230 feet. Chuck brings in a 9-inch redfish, and Mark foul-hooks a cunner of about the same size.

Finally, on the edge of a ridge several miles to the north in 160 feet of water, Mark boats a cod. But it’s only 11 inches long, so he carefully removes the hook and drops the fish overboard. It floats belly-up, and minutes later two seagulls swoop down and squabble over the tiny prize.

We end the day with two cusk and four legal-size redfish. On the way home from the marina, I stop at a supermarket to pick up something for supper. I peer into the seafood case at the back of the store. Some grayish-looking, frozen-at-sea haddock marked “product of Iceland,” two “jet fresh” South American swordfish steaks that look like they’d abandoned all hope of ever seeing the inside of a gas grill, big shrimp from Thailand, crab from Canada, a few farm-raised salmon steaks and a stack of fresh cod fillets at $11.95 a pound compete for space in their bed of crushed ice. I grab a package of chicken and head for the checkout counter.

Big business

The Atlantic cod was, and still is, one of the most commercially important fish in the world. Although these nutritious and tasty bottom dwellers range throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere, nowhere is their value more revered than in the northwest Atlantic. Portuguese, Spanish, French and English fishermen sailed to the Grand Banks off Newfoundland beginning in the early 1500s to load up on cod, which they dried or salted and brought home to be sold for a tidy profit.

In the early 1600s, Capt. John Smith launched several expeditions from England to map the east coast of North America from Chesapeake Bay to Penobscot Bay — and became rich from the cod he brought back. Smith’s fishing ventures off New England helped enhance the region’s early popularity, and soon British fishing colonies were established on and around Cape Ann, Mass., and Maine’s Monhegan and Damariscove islands. When explorer Bartholomew Gosnold landed in New England in 1602 during an attempt to find a passage to Asia, he officially changed the name of the spit of land known as Pallavasino to Cape Cod because his ships were continually “pestered” by these fish.

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The Pilgrims, who arrived in 1620, had virtually no experience with fishing or even a taste for fish, but in time they learned the business and soon established fishing stations along the Massachusetts coast to take advantage of the abundance of easily caught cod. Most of these fish were salted and “cured” by drying them on long racks, which preserved them for shipment around the world. By the early 1700s, fast and able fishing schooners were being built in Gloucester — the very first schooner was built in 1713-14 — and the fleet soon swelled to 400 vessels. These boats worked the Grand Banks, Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine on trips that sometimes lasted for weeks on end.

Copious amounts of fish were landed, and “cod trade” routes involving the exchange of salted and dried cod for salt, sugar, tobacco, molasses and rum were established, connecting New England with Europe, the Caribbean and Africa. Cheap salt cod became the chief staple of slaves who labored on the Caribbean sugar-cane plantations.

Commerce flourished and people prospered, and soon New Englanders — then British colonists — began to believe that they no longer needed the supervision of the royal crown. The catching and trading of virtually unlimited amounts of cod, which triggered numerous political and economic skirmishes, built fortunes for the so-called “codfish aristocracy” of the 1700s. A “sacred cod” was even hung from the ceiling of Boston Town Hall in 1747, a testament to the fish’s importance in New England.

Fishing life

Gloucester in the mid-to-late 1800s was the largest commercial fishing port in North America, and its most valuable catch by far was cod. It was a bustling and prosperous place, home to hundreds of dory schooners and filled with the aromas of salted and dried fish and oakum, a tar used to caulk boats and preserve ropes and fishing lines.

Scores of businesses flourished on the wharves and in the city — J.S. Tappan & Son Clothing for Fishermen, which sold oilskin outerwear, boots, woolen jumpers, socks and mittens; J.T. Donnell & Co., manufacturer of marine cordage; Tarr & Johnson’s Copper Vessel Bottom Paint; F.S. Thompson’s Watch, Clock and Jewelry Store; Fritz Babson Jr., Dealer in Lumber; Benjamin P. Chaswell’s Bakery, which specialized in Vienna bread, cake and pastry; Howard F. Ingersoll, Dealer in Beef, Pork, Mutton and Poultry; numerous wholesale fish dealers; and even John Lloyd’s Undertaker’s Wareroom on Western Avenue, which provided “Coffins, Caskets, and Robes — Children’s Dresses Made to Order.” Whatever the need, it could be fulfilled along the Gloucester waterfront.

Dory schooners were owned by individuals, partnerships or companies — some firms owned upward of a dozen — that hoped to make a small profit on each trip to pay off the vessels’ mortgages. Few were owner-operated; most were run by hired captains and crews. Some of these fast, graceful fishing schooners were built in Gloucester, but others originated in such shipbuilding centers as Waldoboro, Maine, Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, and Essex, Mass., which turned out more two-masted schooners than any other place in the world — 254 were launched there between 1849 and 1853.

The schooner fishermen had the opportunity to make a good living, but their “share” — the amount each crewman made, based on pounds of fish landed — varied widely from trip to trip, depending on the vessel’s success. “Broker” trips, where few if any fish were caught, yielded virtually nothing. But successful voyages to the Grand Banks, which ranged from one to three or more months in duration, could pay out as much as $300 per fisherman for a haul of 300,000 pounds of cod and halibut, a fairly handsome sum in the 1870s.

An old Maine gaffer and the fish that made him a living.

Shorter trips to Georges Bank, ranging from seven to 20 days, might bring a respectable $50 to $170 per man. The ship’s cook normally garnered a 50 percent bonus for his culinary efforts and the captain’s share was even better, but it was often cloaked in some measure of secrecy.

Dory fishing was certainly not without its perils. In the 1870s and ’80s, an average of five to 30 sailing vessels were lost each year, many with all hands. From 1830 to 1900, 3,800 Gloucester fishermen were lost at sea. Schooners, which were designed for speed to bring the catch home quickly and garner the best price, were especially vulnerable to storms and ice, especially when laden with a full load of fish. The infamous Portland Gale of 1898 accounted for the loss of 150 vessels off New England, many of them fishing schooners, and nearly wiped out the entire Gloucester fleet.

Storms in the North Atlantic were responsible for a good percentage of the losses, but what dory fishermen feared most was fog, which could prevent them from finding their schooner on their return or put them at risk of being run down by another ship. (Many dorymen carried horns to alert other vessels.) A quote from the 1882 edition of the Fishermen’s Own Book, a handbook for commercial schooner fishermen, speaks of this danger:

Eternal vigilance is as clearly the price of safety at sea as it is of liberty elsewhere. Undoubtedly many of the fishing vessels which disappear so mysteriously, with no heavy gale to account for their loss, are run down by steamers or other large vessels while at anchor on the Banks.

Mark Kurlansky, author of “Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World,” also writes about the dangers of 19th century cod fishing:

Being competitive with each other, dorymen sometimes secretly took off to grounds they had discovered. Many dorymen drowned or starved to death or died of thirst while lost in the fog, sifting through a blank sea for the mother ship. They tried to fish until their boat was filled with fish. The more fish that were caught, the less seaworthy the dory. Sometimes a dory would become so overloaded that a small amount of water from a wave lapping the side was all it took for the small boat to sink straight down with fish and fishermen.

The fall of cod

Despite the risks, fishermen kept returning to the sea. Such were the profits that could be made from the apparently inexhaustible shoals of fish offshore. The good times continued right up to the 20th century, when in 1906 the first steam-powered net trawler was introduced. The advent of mechanized net fishing, which had been practiced off England since the late 1800s, would ultimately change everything.

By 1930, it was evident that New England’s groundfish fleet, now made up primarily of mechanized trawlers capable of towing highly efficient nets (the last working schooner in Gloucester fished until 1953), was able to catch more fish than could be replaced by nature. In addition, the small mesh of the nets captured tens of millions of juvenile — and thus unmarketable — cod and haddock annually, all of which were shoveled back overboard dead, and concerns about the health of the groundfish resource were soon raised.

World War II reduced the size of the fleet somewhat, as fishing boats were requisitioned for war duty, but demand for fish by the military and the general citizenry soared. After the war, the return of the vessels to the fishery, coupled with a reduced demand for fish, resulted in lean times for the industry and spawned government subsidy programs that would continue for decades.

The early 1960s heralded a new threat: huge foreign factory trawlers on Georges Bank. These ships, capable of catching and processing fish at sea, hailed from the Soviet Union, East Germany, Spain, Poland and Japan. They scooped up hundreds of thousands of tons of cod and haddock. Some even ventured into the Gulf of Maine, and by the mid-1970s the outcry from the U.S. fleet reached a crescendo.

In 1976, Congress passed the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which gave the United States complete control of its waters out to 200 miles. The act designated this “new American water” as the Fishery Conservation Zone, later renamed the Exclusive Economic Zone, and the foreign factory ships were tossed out on their collective ears.

With the foreigners gone, a rush to build newer, more powerful domestic stern trawlers began, and it wasn’t long before the U.S. fishing effort off New England exceeded that of the displaced foreign fleet. Stocks of cod, haddock and other groundfish began to plummet. In one notable instance, the spring spawning aggregation of a distinct “race” of cod that gathered off the mouth of Maine’s Sheepscot River was wiped out in the 1970s by just two boats engaged in “pair trawling,” a now-illegal ground fishing technique that consists of two vessels towing a huge net between them.

Years later, biologists from Maine’s Department of Marine Resources issued a report concluding that the Sheepscot Bay race of cod, which once populated hundreds of square miles of ocean, would probably never recover. The fish are just plain gone — the very reason Chuck, Mark and I were unable to catch a keeper that morning this past summer.

What lies ahead for the celebrated New England cod? Will stocks ever recover, or has their niche in the ecosystem been usurped by other species? Fishermen remain hopeful, even though drastic efforts to reduce fishing appear to have done little to increase the number of fish. (In Canada, where a complete moratorium on cod fishing has been in place for more than two decades, stocks have yet to bounce back and, according to many scientists, never will.)

One thing is certain: Even if stocks do manage to improve, none of us will ever experience the massive shoals of cod and other fish that once made New England the fishing capital of the world.

Barry Gibson is a licensed charter skipper based in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, and the former editor of Salt Water Sportsman magazine.

See related articles:

- Fishing for perfection

- Going deep

- Acts of cod

- What happened to the halibut?

- Sport fising for groundfish

June 2013 issue



When Cod Was King

Artist Russ Kramer interprets the glory days of the Grand Banks fishermen.