“We Don’t Need the Rest” A Lesson in Not Taking More Than the Ocean Can Give

“Bonito!” Ernie calls out with excitement. As we move the boat across the purse net we gather the rope, cinching it closed, herding the fish together. A larger striped silvery fish swims in and out of sight between lots of pogies and a few small squid and butterfish. The first bonito gets stuck on the net right below Mo who grabs it, wriggles it loose from the net, and tosses it into the boat. Yes! Bonito!

Owen Nichols holding our first bonito
Owen Nichols holding our first bonito
Shannon takes a minute to stitch up a hole in the net that’s big enough for a bonito to escape through. Water splashes my arms and I just keep giggling – feeling so happy to be with friends learning about their way of fishing. I pause to take a breath of fresh salty air when a pogie flops out of Owen’s dip net and onto my back and I burst out laughing again. The sun is shining on calm water all around us and it’s a perfect temperature with just t-shirts under our oil skins on a morning in late June. Owen, Russell, and Ernie, fill dip nets with pogies, scooping them out of the trap’s purse and into bins Shannon is stacking. Mo and I splash around in the bottom of the boat retrieving escaped pogies off the floor and back into the bins and tossing butterfish outside of the trap.

Almost all the pogies are in the bins when Shannon says, “We don’t need the rest.” What? After all this we’re going to release the rest? We’re not taking everything? As Owen, Shannon and Ernie lift up the net and fling the rest back out to sea I notice my instinct to take everything we could. That instinct to hoard fish, permits and quota is driving our fisheries and fishing communities to the brink. Instead of saying “we don’t need the rest” industrial fishing operations, corporate ownership and privatization policies reward those who take more than the ocean can give. Shannon’s generational connection to the ocean goes beyond immediate financial gain and values the next generation’s ability to feed people.
Mo, Shannon and Ernie release the extra fish
On the way back to shore Russell gestures to the vast ocean horizon, “however many fish are coming through, we’ll always only catch the very very small fraction of whatever happens to pass into our nets. If there’s a lot of fish swimming around we’ll probably catch more and if there aren’t as many, we’ll catch less.” The traps  naturally catch a healthy amount of fish relative to what’s swimming any day or year or decade or century. Weir traps have been used in North America for thousands of years. 65,000 stakes of ancient weirs were discovered by workers digging Boston’s Back Bay subway in 1913. Archaeologists say that between 3,700 and 4,700 years ago, native peoples captured tomcod, flounder, eels and herring in an ancient bay. Now weir fishing is extremely rare. SlowFish 2016 gathered community based fishermen from across North America in New Orleans, LA for three days of sharing stories, their catch, and strategizing about policy. Shannon and Russell attended along with Erica Porter who fishes her family’s weir in Nova Scotia, Canada. They run a low tide fishing weir, one of the last weirs in Nova Scotia. Erica’s been fishing the weir with her dad since she was 17.
Russell Kingman and I talk on the way back to the trap dock
Ernie Eldredge has been fishing the weirs full time since he graduated high school. Ernie’s father fished the weirs before him and now Ernie fishes with his daughter Shannon Eldredge, NAMA Board President, and her partner Russell Kingman. Back at the dock, Ernie hauls up the bins of pogies and takes a look at the three bonito in the bucket. Ernie thought it would be the last day of fishing but now that there were a few bonito in there, he might have to test his luck. Maybe the bonito will start showing up in greater numbers.
Ernie hauling the bins up to the Stage Harbor trap dock