Fishermen’s Hope and Other Certainties
by Dennis Damon
He sat, elbows on the table, his grey-stubbled face nested in his gnarled, sea-swollen hands, looking somewhere far off with his mind far from this supper table. Somewhere with waves and horizons, no land. Someplace he could find again with a compass, a pocket watch and a sounding lead. He shrugged a full body shiver as if taken by a chill that come out of nowhere, suddenly, and left as quickly, leaving only a body movement as evidence of its presence. Grasping the table edge he pushed himself and the straight-back chair backward over the linoleum kitchen floor.
He picked up his supper dishes and walked to the sink, slid the scraps into the ort dish and rinsed his plate. Smiling at his wife, he thanked her for another fine supper and took her dishes too so she could still sit. Then he walked to the coal hod resting beside the end heater. A trip to the cellar for coal to bank the night fire and his chores would be done.
Descending the narrow, noisy stairs in the dark, he found the pull string to the light. As his eyes struggled to accept the harsh bulb light in the dark basement he saw on his work bench the trawl wheel. His mind slipped sideways as it had during supper to his five tubs of halibut gear, fishing silently now well off shore on some good piece of halibut bottom.
His dream — the thrill of tomorrow, hope and success — fill his coal hod now. Tonight will be the same as countless nights have been, filled with a fisherman’s hope. Before dawn he will be steaming to his gear, anticipation of his catch filling his thoughts. Tomorrow will be the day! He knows that. In his heart…he always knows that!
That fisherman, full of hope, was my dad, Llewellyn Damon. He was born on the shores of Eggemoggin Reach, Deer Isle, Maine in 1902. He left school after eighth grade to go clamming. At the time, clams had soared to 25 cents a bushel. He was the best fisherman I ever met, not because he was a highliner or anything like that, but because he believed way back then that we could catch the last fish.
Sounds funny doesn’t it? Think how funny it sounded back then. We didn’t have nearly the regulations in place that we do now. Draggers weren’t allotted permits to fish. Days at sea, catch shares and all the other means designed to ensure that fishermen can keep fishing in the future did not exist. Nobody had heard of traps limits, limited entry or apprenticeships. You could scratch out a day’s pay scalloping with a hand drag or a 6-foot chain sweep. After all, they were selling for $6 a gallon. Nobody even considered having scallop protected areas where you couldn'’ fish. And nobody in their right mind would have even considered eating a sea urchin. Eating a soused mussel was a novelty you did once or twice a year and maybe that was on a dare. Who would have thought you could sell glass eels for $450 a pound. “Trash fish”— who would buy them? It was unthinkable. It was crazy!
But it happened. Trash turned to treasure overnight and we overfished. Just like Dad told me: “Someday we will have to have laws to make sure there are fish for you and your kids to catch.”
In his day, a fisherman’s catch was limited by how hard he worked, how skillful or lucky he was, and the weather. There never seemed to be the possibility that somehow we could overfish the stocks. How things have changed!
A fisherman’s success does still involve hard work but it seems the innate skills I saw in fishermen of old have been trumped by reliance on new electronics and sophisticated machinery. Gone is navigation by compass, pocket watch and sounding lead. We can return to fishing grounds now by inputting the correct numbers into the plotter. Gone are the Eastern-rigged dragger and the wooden 32-foot Jonesport lobster boat. Steel stern trawlers and 44-foot fiberglass lobster boats capable of fishing in weather unimagined a few decades ago are the norm now. These technological advancements and the demands of today’s economy combined with elements of human nature that include competitive spirit and simple greed have not only overtaken some of the traditional skills of fishermen, but on occasion have even overtaken poor weather conditions. It must be clear to all of us then, fishermen and non-fishermen alike, that today at the very least we can overfish our existing stocks and in the worst case, we can catch the last fish.
As onerous as regulations and restrictions are, as intrusive on our ‘rights’ as they seem, we must continue to find the balance to help provide a sustainable fishery for us and for our children.