From the Spinner Archives
Today’s selection comes from Spinner People and Culture in Southeastern Massachusetts: Volume I ‘s chapter “Finest Kind: Commercial Fishing in New Bedford” by Michael Sullivan. Read Spinner: Volume I in its entirety by downloading from iBooks.
Commercial Fishing in New Bedford
by Michael Sullivan
Illustrations by Elizabeth Rososky
photos by Joe Thomas
interview with Captain Mullins by Phillip Purrington
Part 1 of 2
“Finest Kind!” The words sing out the quality of the men, the work and the produce of the New Bedford fishing industry. The expression is the fishermen’s affirmation that everything is right, stemming from their pride in the fruits of their labor.
The business of fishing has been a thriving and integral part of New England culture and a rich heritage for local people. There is the jargon of the fishermen, phrases like “rim-racked” and “High-liner,” like “finest kind” and “Breezin’ up a gale,” that can be heard in everyday language on the New Bedford wharfs. There are tales of wild imagination and sad stories of fishing vessels, shipwrecked and lost at sea.
The hard work of this rigorous business is a source of endless interest, as is the technology of the industry and the men who advanced it. By looking back to the origins of commercial fishing in New Bedford, we can begin to appreciate the improvements in fishing equipment over the years and the changing styles of fishing boats.
There is, of course, a distinct difference between commercial fishing and the whaling industry in New Bedford. After the discovery of petroleum in 1859, the whaling industry declined dramatically. At the turn of the century there were only a few whalers still operating out of the city. These ships no longer sought sperm oil but were after the bones, teeth and skin of the great mammal. In 1909 a small fleet of boats were fitted out in a way that enabled them to catch and sell a substantial quantity of fish for profit. This was the beginning of the commercial fishing industry.
Captain Dan Mullins
Captain Daniel F. Mullins is the undisputed “father” of commercial fishing in New Bedford. In 1885 he immigrated from Berehaven, Ireland with his family when he was four years old. Between the years of 1898 and 1905, young Dan sailed on every imaginable type of vessel, from a Scottish three-masted full-rig ship to an American steam barque chasing whales in the Bering Sea. He traded skins and whalebones in return for tobacco and alcohol with natives in Siberia, and he unloaded lumber with Chinese women in the port of Shanghai off the four-masted schooner Mahukona from Hawaii. In 1905 Dan Mullins returned to New Bedford and began his fishing career. He began hand-lining for cod in a 24 foot “catboat” off Nomansland, and he ended with a fleet of nine modern draggers, an equipment supply business and the Mullins freezer, which is still in use today.
Captain Mullins, more than any other individual, is the man who took the chances. He was innovative and never shy about experimenting. His desire to update the fishing techniques being used in New Bedford brought changes in every aspect of commercial fishing. The size of boats, the gear used to catch fish, the waters fished in, and the handling of fish were all improved through the efforts of Captain Mullins and a small handful of men.
In 1909 Captain Dan introduced beam trawling to New Bedford when he fitted his boat, the Eda J. Morse, a 36-foot sloop, with the necessary equipment. Trawling is the method of fishing in which a large net bag is towed through the water on or near the ocean floor. Beam trawling gear consisted of a net up to 100 feet in length, basically the same as nets used today except that the cotton used in Mullin’s day has since been replaced by synthetics. The net was spread by an elm beam about a foot thick, fitted on each end with trawl heads. Trawl heads were curved in the same manner as sleigh runners, and they slid along the ocean floor just as sleigh runners to on snow.
At this time gas engines had just recently come into use, and the Eda was equipped with a 12 horsepower Lathrop. Winches with drums had not yet been used; therefore manila rope had to be used for everything because of its flexibility. Captain Mullins did well with his new rig, and four or five other New Bedford skippers followed his example. This was the beginning of large scale commercial flounder fishing out of New Bedford.
In the summer of 1910 New Bedford fishermen discovered a new style of dragging called otter trawling. The word “otter” is believed to have come from the boards used to make the doors, which were called “otter boards.” Another theory is that when a net is being spread by the doors and dragged, it takes the shape of a sea otter. It is believed that otter gear was first used in the 1860s in England where a man named Hearden designed it.
Fishing for fluke off Long Island, the New Bedford skippers came in contact with a group of Scandinavians who had brought from Europe the principles of using otter “doors” instead of beams. Seeing some worth to this way of fishing, Captain Mullins managed to cozy up to a Danish skipper with a bottle of straight rye whiskey in order to uncover the intricacies of using this equipment correctly. The New Bedford fishermen got the better of the trade as otter trawling became so popular that nearly every boat in the fleet adopted it at once.
The advantages of otter trawling were that the otter doors were less awkward and more easily stored than the cumbersome beam trawling gear. At that time the New Bedford boats used 150-pound doors and were fishing in up to 15 fathoms. Today doors may weigh as much at 1500 pounds with fishing being done in 40-70 fathoms.
Although otter trawling was a big step forward, there was still much room for improvement. All of the boats in the fleet were 20 to 50 foot sloops with 12 to 40 horsepower gas engines. As the fleet and their catches grew larger, the boats were required to go into deeper water. Once again Captain Mullins took the initiative.
In 1919 the Captain had a schooner built by W.A. and J.D. Morse of Friendship Maine. It was 81 feet in length and built exclusively for dragging. Captain Mullins named her Mary, and she had the first oil engine ever used in the fleet, a 60 horse C-O. The Mary was also fitted with the first winch to have a head on each end of the shaft. This arrangement allowed stronger and heavier gear to be used and was a major development in dragging. Before this the winch had one head and could only haul a limited weight. The Mary was also the first dragger to use gallows frames, which are large iron structures set just on the inside of the rail, fore and aft, to hook up the doors when they are hauled back. On the Mary they were made of flat iron, though today a much stronger I-beam construction is used.
The Mary only cost Captain Mullins $22,000, but he was constantly replacing parts and experimenting with equipment. Along with Chester Hathaway, who fitted out the Mary and developed the two-headed winch, Captain Mullins labored to find the right gear to do the job. The Mary had been using wooden frames on her winch, and wire cable could not be used because there were no drums, only small heads on the winch. Innovation was through trial and error, but Captain Mullins was equal to the task.
The Hathaway Winch and the Mary R. Mullins
The very next year, 1920, the first winch for dragging was made by Hathaway. It had metal frames and was a double drum set-up. The large drums on this winch could use steel cable, instead of manila, which required less manpower and meant much easier operation. Captain Mullins gave all the credit to Chester Hathaway. “Chester Hathaway perfected the winch. He was the man with the know-how, and he had the machine shop. His winch was a real boon for New Bedford. Without him we could never have moved along the way we did.”
The next major breakthrough for the New Bedford fishing fleet came in 1924. Once again Captain Dan came to the fore by building the Mary R. Mullins, considered to be the first “baby trawler” in the industry. The Mary R. was 84 feet long and weighed 77 tons. It was described as a “baby trawler” only because its power, a 100-horse C-O engine, was as great as the beam trawlers in proportion to its tonnage. Most of the beam trawlers out of Boston and Gloucester were equipped with 450 to 600 horsepower and weighed between 240 and 250 tons. By being able to fish in hard weather, the Mary R. made it more profitable to use the smaller boat with its smaller crews and smaller fuel expense.