, Gloucester, MA

December 27, 2008

Ebb & Flow: Empty nets every day means higher pay

Ebb & Flow

The words of the late Gloucester fisherman, John Aiello — "Every dollar made offshore (from fishing) has a blood spot" — now need a revision to also include some of the dollars made inshore, especially from the late fall into the early spring when cod are targeted off Gloucester.

About a half dozen skippers and their crews of small, local gillnetters often fish extreme weather, including the gales out of every compass point.

Yes, most of them were out in last weekend's snow and wind. Three of the captains, Phil Powell of the fishing vessel Foxy Lady II, Mark Byard of the S.S. Melon III, and Jimmy Santapaola, Sr., of the Amanda & Andy II, and their respective crewmen Robert Dion and Craig Walker, Mike Flaherty and Gregg Perry tell how and why they do it.

These fishermen share a fundamental goal, "to get out every day (that they have nets set), get our 800 pounds of cod (daily quota) and get home. The main reason we go every day is to land fresh product," said Powell, 43.

"You don't want to kill fish for nothing," adds Byard, 47. "If you go every day, you don't get any scalers."

"Many of the netted cod are still alive when you haul every day. Those cod netted around the gills often come up dead," adds the 53-year-old Santapaola.

The men's day-old fish usually yields them top dollar. Cod scalers are lesser-grade fish that have gotten beat up in gillnets not hauled every day, and they are worth less money. Low port landings also usually mean higher ex-vessel prices for what fish is landed.

"You go on days like this (Saturday's snow and wind) to also get the price," said Dion. Boat prices for a money fish like cod, which usually are more than $2 per pound for larger-sized fish, have sometimes increased by a $1 per pound or more during days of low landings.

Achieving the primary goal usually requires leaving Gloucester Harbor an hour before sunrise and steaming an hour or two to the grounds and then hauling enough nets to get 800 pounds of cod and lastly re-setting the gear and returning home with the catch cleaned and contained in fish totes. Many of these day trips last less than 6 hours. High winds and waves, especially coupled with bitter cold, does occasionally force the men to take a day off.

The fishermen's bottom gillnetting method, which primarily snags larger cod around 10 pounds each or more this time of year with strings of 300-foot-long, 8-inch mesh, barrier-type nets that are anchored and buoyed at each end, also allows the men to fish in rough weather.

These gillnets are light to work with, more crew- and boat-friendly than dragging gear, and they don't have to be towed on the bottom and subjected to dangerous hang downs. On the grounds, the gillnet captain simultaneously controls the boat and hauls the gear from the side, and his crew does all other associated jobs, including picking fish out of the netting and preparing the cleared gillnet gear for re-setting off the stern.

Furthermore, the gillnetter's daily cod limit has been caught by the time it arrives at the grounds and only needs to be hauled up and taken out of the nets. Cod are plentiful now, and just two to three nets are often needed to snag 800 pounds, which usually translates to about 80 fish or less.

"Clearing meshed fish out of the netting goes quickly. The wind sometimes blows the netting around and makes picking the fish out of the netting harder," said Perry.

Walker added, "We (the crew) are just trying to get the fish out of the nets. The rough weather often makes this job a lot tougher."

Good equipment and seamanship along with knowledge of weather and their boats' capabilities and plenty of self-confidence, determination and opportunity for high earnings further make heading to sea in rough weather easier.

The three captains' 36-foot to 45-foot-long fiberglass vessels can certainly take the weather.

"She (the Foxy Lady II) does the job," said Powell.

"It's a nice boat," Byard added in reference to his S.S. Melon III.

"You're less likely to take a wave aboard these smaller boats because they are more buoyant than the bigger, deeper ones," said Santapaola, who owns the smallest of the three gillnetters.

"Fishing in rough weather is just like any other day except the ocean is a little rougher. If I drive all the way down from Swampscott, then I'm going fishing," said Powell.

"It isn't that bad," said Santapaola, who feels "small craft warnings are for rowboats and canoes."

"There's nothing to it," added Byard.

"After fishing with Brownie (Capt. William G. Brown IV) offshore, this is like a picnic," further stated Flaherty. Yes, Brownie, his son B.G., and Santapaola's son Jimmy Jr., are the other three extreme weather gillnet captains in Gloucester that I am at least aware of.

Speaking of extreme, extreme weather fishermen, Paul Gasek, the Discovery Channel's executive producer and senior science editor, reports that this year's "After the Catch" is going to be shot in San Diego. Gloucester was blessed as the chosen site for last season's "After the Catch II."

"Everyone associated with that series speaks fondly of their memories of Gloucester," Gasek said.

Peter K. Prybot writes about fisheries and marine-related issues for the Times.