Fishing in New England has a long and rich history. For centuries, fishermen have roamed the fertile fishing grounds right off our shores using different techniques in the name of efficiency, profit, and sustainability. The methods used to harvest the bountiful varieties available here are diverse and have changed greatly with advances in technology, navigation, fish finding devices, and scientific advances that give us greater insight into fish patterns and behavior. Some of the earliest settlers in the region fished from small dory boats using a single line. Gloucester legend Howard Blackburn fished using this technique, where multiple dories were brought to fishing grounds by a larger schooner, and then launched with one or two men on board to fish with simple lines and nets. Read more about the epic story of Howard Blackburn here: http://www.capeannmuseum.org/blackburn/. This technique eventually morphed into lines with multiple hooks (“longliners”) and soon fishing techniques diversified, employing different vessel types, nets, and other gear.
As a whole, the contemporary New England fleet is greatly varied, consisting mostly of small-scale vessels owned by families who have been fishing for generations here in the waters off Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, and Rhode Island. These fishermen carry with them an intimate knowledge of fishing practices as well as a passion and appreciation for protecting and preserving our fishing grounds for future generations. Many have argued that our diversified and mostly small-scale approach to fishing here in New England benefits the environment, as no single fishing technique overwhelms any of the others or takes more than the environment can sustain. One thing is for sure: The historic New England fleet of mixed-use vessels offers a favorable alternative to the larger-scale corporate operations that make larger environmental impacts and are seen in many other regions of the world. Please visit our local partners at the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance for more information on the benefits of preserving and promoting a small-scale diversified fishery (www.namanet.org).
Over the next few weeks we will be covering the basic gear types that are currently active in New England fisheries. This will include an overview and bit of history on bottom trawlers, dredgers, gillnetters, and rod & reel boats/longliners. First up will be the bottom trawlers, or “draggers.”
Bottom Trawlers (or “Draggers”) and Dredgers
Bottom trawl vessels capture fish and other commercially harvested seafood species, including lobster and crab, by towing a net along the ocean floor. As a result of the net’s proximity to the sea floor, this technique is also often referred to as “dragging.” This technique captures a variety of species, including groundfish staples like cod, haddock, pollock, redfish, monkfish, and many species of flounder. Smaller numbers of lobster, crab, and other less common species of groundfish are also caught via this method. An occasional rubber tire or interesting varieties of trash are also often hauled up in trawl nets, while hang-ups on old wreckages or other obstructions on the seafloor are a common and dangerous reality for our local draggers. This technique of bottom trawling is contrasted from its closely related mid-water trawl, which is a method employed by vessels targeting pelagic species that move throughout the water column.
Most of the bottom trawl vessels that fish our local waters are small scale, ranging from roughly 30 to 90 feet. Nets are set out from the bow of the boat from a large wheel-like structure. The far end of the net is referred to as the “cod end” and is where fish are collected once they are trapped by the larger funnel-shaped “body” portion of the net. The mesh size of the cod end of these nets is carefully regulated to ensure smaller fish and young-of-the-year are able to pass through the net unharmed. Two large metal “doors” or “otter boards” are attached to the lead lines of the net. Once in the water, hydrodynamic forces spread these doors apart, holding the mouth of the net open as it moves through the water. Adjustments to the net and the positioning of the doors allow fishermen to target different species of groundfish quite effectively. Also, as these doors move along the bottom of the ocean, they stir fish up out of their hiding places, funneling them into the range of the open net.
From a quality standpoint, dragging is one of the most preferable fishing techniques when it comes to maintaining the integrity of fish and preserving its freshness. Although some of the fish will suffer the fate of the “bends” due to changes in pressure as they are hauled back to the boat, many are still alive and flopping when pulled aboard. This means that they are packed freshly on board and delivered to shore in the best possible quality. The small-scale day-boat draggers that make up most of the fleet in local ports like Gloucester are also landing these fish within hours of catching them, ensuring the highest quality and freshness. Also, dragging is one of the only techniques that allows fishermen to target the many species of flounder available here in our local waters. Because of the quality and variety of fish caught by local draggers, Turner’s sources much of its seafood from the local inshore bottom trawl fleet.
A fishing technique closely related to dragging is dredging, where a “dredge” (a machine or structure used to excavate material from the sea floor) is used to harvest a specifically targeted, usually somewhat stationary species from the bottom of the ocean. In the New England Fishery, dredging is the technique most widely used to harvest scallops, as well as oysters and certain species of clams. New Bedford — which often ranks as the top grossing port in the United States — has a formidable number of dredging boats that target the rich scallop beds off the coast of Massachusetts’ South Shore. Fishing dredges are usually constructed with a steel frame in the shape of a scoop, which is covered with a heavy mesh of chain that is left open on one side, forming a deep pocket that acts like a net. The steel frame will sometimes have teeth on one side that rake or plough the mud at the bottom of the ocean as the dredge is pulled from the bow of a fishing vessel. In larger fishing operations where vessels have more horsepower, multiple dredges can be attached to a steel beam, which is then dragged behind the boat.
If performed incorrectly, both dragging and dredging can cause damage to the seabed, and can also ruin gear, sink vessels, and in some extreme cases, cost the lives of the fishermen on board. Due to the way in which the nets and dredges are dragged along the ocean floor, hang-ups on trash, shipwrecks, and other unexpected objects can cause thousands of dollars of damage to this expensive gear, and has been the cause of the loss of countless vessels and lives right off our shores. There is also controversy over the potential damage these bottom trawlers and dredgers cause on the seabed even when properly operated. Many studies have been conducted and the results have been mixed, but a common consensus exists that the small-scale operations that are run here in New England have a minimal impact, as made evident that the same portions of the seafloor have been fished by the same families for centuries and continue to produce a diverse variety of life. Also, the fishing technique has often been compared to plowing a field in farming, where turning over some of the loose mud and rocky debris at the bottom of the ocean brings nutrients to the surface while eliminating necrotic plants and animals, allowing new life to take hold. Also, when set properly, the net should hover just above the seafloor while the doors gently bounce along in front. This causes minimal impact during these short and precise tows. What’s more, all of our local fishermen are strictly regulated in the number and size of fish they are allowed to harvest each year, as well as the areas they are allowed to fish. This prevents any extended tows or overuse of any specific portions of the seabed. In contrast, the large-scale corporate draggers that operate in foreign waters sweep up much larger portions of the ocean at a time. These “factory trawlers” are largely unregulated and are a real concern when it comes to overfishing and destruction to the marine environment. Corporations do not have the same values as our local family fishermen when it comes to preserving our oceans for future generations. For these reasons and many more, Turner’s will continue to work to support the small-scale independent fishermen that make up our local fleet.