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Four Takes

Seaworthy fish tales

John Clarke Russ

This week brings Gloucester’s Blessing of the Fleet, part of St. Peter’s Fiesta, which piously and riotously honors the patron saint of fishermen. The New Testament is full of fishing, of course. Think of the loaves and fishes. Or when Jesus puns he’ll make Peter and his brother “fishers of men.” But one reference really leapt out at me. In John 21, Peter’s crew sails out on the Sea of Galilee, but nets nothing. Jesus suggests they move the net to the starboard side — and they catch so many, the boat almost swamps, being “full of great fishes, a hundred and fifty and three.”

What curious specificity! But back then, the fish count really counted: The Romans taxed each catch, its processing, and its transportation. And just like today, you needed big hauls to withstand that “aggravating, even enraging political element.” Or so writes Nancy Danielson Mendenhall in “Rough Waters: Our North Pacific Small Fishermen’s Battle” (Far Eastern Press, 2015).


Mendenhall, based in Alaska, has worked as a commercial and subsistence salmon fisherman for a half century. In this impassioned, broadly researched book, she plumbs today’s fraught seascape, from the West Coast’s state-managed fisheries, to federal policy, to plights in other regions (see chapter 33, “New England’s Bitter Stew”). Family fishermen are going the way of family farmers, she says; agribusiness supplanted the former, and fleet consolidation and fish farms are crushing the latter.

The government has tossed off many strategies to fight overfishing, the latest a quota system called “catch share.” In Gloucester, they call it “catch share-cropping,” believing the rules favor the corporate, rather than the family fisherman. How to stay in the game, then? Mendenhall notes that small farmers have carved out farm-to-table niches with chefs and suppliers — why can’t fishermen do the same? (Take Sea2Table, which brokers for traditional fishing villages from Alaska to the Gulf of Maine.)


Indeed you’ve got to add some spin to the fin, as I learned in “Hooked: Pirates, Poaching, and the Perfect Fish” (Rodale, 2006). The “perfect fish” is the Patagonian toothfish. Never heard of it? That’s because it has a stage name, dreamed up by a savvy LA fish importer in the 1970s: Chilean sea bass. These fish only started showing up en masse with the advent of the deepwater longline, a span of equipment stretching for a dozen miles, holding 15,000 baited hooks. One longline takes a day to retrieve and can pull in over 20 tons of fish, “making it the marine equivalent of strip mining,” writes the Wall Street Journal’s G. Bruce Knecht.

When halibut, cod, and more became scarce in the northern hemisphere, the southern hemisphere’s Chilean sea bass filled the gap, first tucked into fish sticks, later on posh menus like at Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Grill. It became so trendy, fishermen flouted the law to get it. Thus Knecht’s extended high seas chase scene — going half-way around Antarctica — involving an Australian patrol boat in pursuit of a rogue Uruguayan fishing vessel, illegally loaded down with Patagonian toothfish.

Fisherman are good at telling fish stories, and Captain Sig Hansen (with Mark Sundeen) doesn’t disappoint in the bestseller “North by Northwestern: A Seafaring Family on Deadly Alaskan Waters” (Thomas Dunne, 2010). Hansen’s one of the modern Vikings to gain fame from the Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch.” Or as he puts it: “Almost overnight we went from chopping bait in the freezing sleet to signing autographs at Disney World.” He and his brothers Edgar and Norman work their father’s 125-foot steel crabber “built to withstand the Bering Sea in winter.”


Call it a three-generation adventure memoir: There are boom years and bust years, Viking ancestors, and acknowledgement that to be a good fisherman, you have to be a pilot, welder, painter, mechanic, carpenter, and firefighter. All this for the second most dangerous job in America. (The first is logging).

The wonderful, garrulous travel writer Redmond O’Hanlon also goes to extremes in “Trawler: A Journey Through the North Atlantic” (Vintage, 2006). He embarks with a wild Scottish crew (who colorfully overshare and eat deep-fried Oreos) and one insightful naturalist in “the worst weather, at the worst time of year.” In fact, it’s so forbidding that one crewman waxes nostalgic for his time in prison: “And you willna believe it . . . you were never cold! No cold at all.’ ”

They net fantastical deepwater fish, like sea-bats, snotfish, and hagfish (95 percent of the ocean remains unexplored, as the naturalist reminds). Meanwhile, bad seasickness afflicts O’Hanlon, which only incurs teasing. As the skipper jokes: “[A]t least you’re good for something — you’re cheap to feed.” The whole trawler experience comprises utmost fear, chronic sleep deprivation, painful injuries, and a force 12 hurricane, all to help feed the world. How brave fisherman are. Bless them.


Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore@comcast.net.