From the Spinner Archives
The conclusion of the chapter “Finest Kind: Commercial Fishing in New Bedford” by Michael Sullivan from Spinner People and Culture in Southeastern Massachusetts: Volume I (now available on 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 2 of 2
Today’s Fleet: Stern Trawlers and Steel
In 1910, when Captain Mullins was beam trawling with the Eda. J. Morse, there were perhaps 40 to 50 boats in the entire New Bedford fleet. None of these vessels exceeded 50 feet in length and there were no scallopers. Today the fleet has over 200 boats, most of which exceed 65 feet, and 50 to 65 of these are scallopers. Most of the early boats carried 12 to 40 horsepower gas engines. Engines today are all diesel and run as high as the 1100 horsepower Caterpillar. According to Dennis Main of the U.S. Fishery Statistics in New Bedford, “It is hard to be completely accurate on the boat count because some boats are registered in New Bedford but fish out of here very infrequently, while others are not registered and fish out of here regularly. However, we do know there are about 50 scallopers and another 15 southern boats scalloping also out of the port of New Bedford…There are about 140-150 draggers presently in the fleet.”
Although the otter trawl style of dragging is still used by today’s fishermen, the stern trawler now dominates the scene. Instead of setting and hauling the net from the side of the boat as typical “eastern rigs” would do, stern trawlers are equipped with large spools, placed directly to the stern, that gather in the nets. Doors are still used to sink and spread the net, but there is less manpower involved in hauling the net back. These boats have a reputation for catching more fish but they have their drawbacks.
Billy Boles, cook on the stern trawler the Atlantic Challenger, claims, “When you tear up (the net) you have to reel it off the spool, and after that you only have a limited space to mend. On a side rig the net is easier to mend because there is more room to work.” Michael Bruce, a deck hand on the Challenger, added, “It seems to take much longer to set out (nets) than on a side rig.” Despite these problems, the consensus is that stern trawling is an improved method of dragging.
All of the stern trawlers and most other boats built these days are of steel construction, and this is another major change in the fleet. Many fishermen feel it is not a change for the better. Phil Proctor, skipper and part owner of the scalloper Seacoast I, still favors the wooden built boats. “They just don’t build many wooden boats anymore because the craftsmen aren’t there. Also the steel boats can be made much cheaper and much faster.” The Seacoast I has 3” x 3 ½” oak planking on the outside and 2” x 2 ½” hard pine and oak on the inside. All the beams and timbers are oak also. The Seacoast was built 13 years ago in South Bristol, Maine. The crew on the Seacoast was quick to add that in rough weather a wooden boat holds a definite edge over a steel boat for stability.
Landing the Catch
Probably the greatest difference between today’s fleet and yesterday’s is the ability to land the catch. Today the New Bedford harbor is lined with fish houses where boats are able to sell and unload their fish. Until 1931 there was not a single fish house in New Bedford capable of handling a substantial catch of fish. This posed a serious problem for the New Bedford skippers because they would have to travel all the way to New York City’s Fulton Fish Market to sell their fish. In 1931 Bill Eldridge, with the support and enthusiasm of Captain Dan Mullins, began to buy fish from the New Bedford boats. This step put New Bedford on the map as a commercial fishing market, and people began to take notice. Captain Mullins can best describe what the fishermen had to go through up to that momentous point.
Now we would go to George’s and get a trip and steam back to New York, that’s about 300 miles, see, and then come back to New Bedford and fit out and go back again, all the time because you couldn’t sell the fish here, see. Well Bill Eldridge started with quahogs that he would sell to the Campbell Soup Company to make chowder with, see. Also at that time the State of Mainers started coming in by the South Shoal light ship scalloping. So Bill started using a truck, and it turned out to be the answer to the whole thing, see. We had talked before how some day the boats would be able to land fish in New Bedford, but we never thought the trucks were the answer.
The Captain also points out that taking fish out of New York had its risks.
In New York it was some tough, I’ll tell ya. The Coast Guard would stop you all the time looking for rumrunners, but I wasn’t doing that stuff anyway. But they had a lot of that, and there was an organization already there because of the rum-rumnning, see. Well what the hell could we do? A skipper was just lucky to get his fish out, and if you didn’t go along with it, the next thing ya know they’d use the stuff on ya (threats of violence). They would get so much from the boats and the dealers, and I had about six boats going to N.Y. at that time…then they had the investigation and that stopped the rackets for a while. The mounted cops would come down and if the racketeers got sassy, they’d take care of them. One cop came down one day and beat up the lot of them or anybody that was around, but it wasn’t long before they got back in there. Once Bill Eldridge started buying, that made the whole thing. In New York they’d hold back on the money sometimes, but they had to pay him because they still had to get fish.
Today the Captain would be proud to know there are 17 large fish houses in New Bedford and Fairhaven. In 1979 they landed 86,034,000 pounds of seafood; 10,724,000 of that total was scallops. New Bedford, in terms of dollars, is considered the fifth largest fishing port in the United States and the number one port for scallops.
Tariff on Twine
Aside from equipment problems and where to land the fish, there were political troubles for fishermen back in the ’30s as there are today. In 1933 the Ways and Means Committee in Washington proposed a tariff on all English twine being imported into the United States. This tariff would have put a strain on New England fishermen because they used only English twine. The English were otter trawling decades before this country and consequently had a handmade twine that could withstand hard bottom much better than the American twine. But the Linen Thread Company, the largest maker of cotton twine in this country, was putting pressure on the Senate Ways and Means Committee to impose a tariff on foreign twine.
Realizing their livelihood was being threatened, representatives of fishermen from Boston, Gloucester, and Dan Mullins, who was then president of the Fish Producers of New Bedford, decided to take a trip to Washington D.C. Captain Mullins here describes what happened after his group had reached the Capitol and was in front of the Committee, headed by Senator John Garner of Texas.
So then we all had to speak before the Ways and Means Committee in Washington. John Garner was the Chairman there, and he was a tough egg too, I’ll tell ya. He was sarcastic as hell about us from the north here wanting our way, because there was something about the cotton business wanting a tariff, they wanted it see, and we were asking for none.
So I had a piece of twine knit by hand, and I also had a piece made by the Linen Thread Company. Their twine was a beautiful twine and texture and everything, but it was knit by a machine, and they hadn’t yet discovered the means to hold the knots taut. When you knit with a needle every time you come down after making the mesh, you secure that knot, see.
I was only allowed to speak supposedly for five minutes. So when I got there, there was a great big long horseshoe table, you see, and Garner was up at the head of it. They started asking me questions and I found out they didn’t know a damn thing about what they were talking about, but I did, being a fisherman and knowing twine.
So when I was telling them, they would ask me and they were very respectable (respectful), these were the facts, see. And they would say, “Now Captain, what do you mean by a ‘hang-up?’” I said – there was a big desk and a smaller one – “These are like rocks on the bottom.” I got so I could talk. I wasn’t scared at all, I wasn’t scared about any Congressman or anything else.
They let me talk about 25 minutes about dragging. I pulled the twine out of my pocket and told them, “This is what we get from England.” I talked about otter trawling and England being far ahead of us on otter trawling, and then I showed them how when you come down with the needle you set that knot on the mesh fine. Then I showed them the American twine and how the American company’s knots would open up and come apart. They wouldn’t open up altogether but they would surely come apart if you got hung-up. Then the fellow from the Linen Thread Company got up there. He was the light-heavy weight champion of the world you know, but he was all right.
So they did put a tariff on, but they didn’t make it too bad. We could still buy it, and then afterwards the American company started making it better so that the knots were good and taut.
In 1964, in the twilight of Captain Mullin’s life he lamented, “…why any young man wants to stay ashore and twiddle his thumbs in any office when there’s good money to be made fishing, I don’t understand. But today men seem to prefer an easier job ashore.” There would be no need for the Captain to fret about that situation today. Hundreds of young men have recently turned to scalloping as a livelihood. You may even see a fishing boat steaming in or out of the New Bedford harbor with the name Dan Mullins inscribed on her bow. The owner and skipper of the Dan Mullins is Danny Ferguson, who makes his living as an inshore fisherman and quahoger. Danny is the grandson of Captain Dan Mullins. So we know the industry has survived at least three generations, and is probably safe to bet it will survive many more.