Human beings have devised many methods of catching fish over the years. Most have become obsolete, replaced by the giant nets of ocean-going trawlers. But in Rhode Island, one old way hangs on, barely: trap fishing, in which bands of fishermen hang nets from shore and wait for migrating fish to come their way.
A century ago Rhode Island boasted scores of trap fishermen, but today only four trap fishing concerns remain, and one of those hasn’t set out traps in a few years, leading Markham Starr to speculate that they, too, have given up. Starr is a photographer and author of the new book, “In History’s Wake: The Last Trap Fishermen of Rhode Island.” Starr, who’s previously written books about the barns of Connecticut and the bygone sardine industry, says he chose this subject because he’s drawn to “documenting things that have been disappearing.”
Trap fishing goes at least as far back as Ancient Rome. Fishermen anchor a long net to shore and run it out 1,500 feet or so into the ocean. When schools of fish and other marine species — scup, striped bass, squid — migrating up the coast run into the net, they swim out to sea to try to get around it. But when they do, they encounter a series of funnels that leads them into ever more confined spaces, culminating in the “parlor” — a netted box about 72 feet wide by 90 feet long, anchored to the ocean floor. “Once in this big box of netting, they just swim around, and the trap boats go out every day in the morning” to collect them, Starr says.
Trap fishing requires fishermen to wait for fish to come their way, and it takes a lot of labor, which makes it less efficient than trawling. It does have its advantages, though. Trap fishing takes place just offshore, which spares fishermen multi-day trips up to Georges Bank, where the trawlers go; according to Starr, trap-fished fish are also higher-quality and fresher than fish caught by other means. It’s also a “greener” way to fish: shorter trips mean less diesel fuel consumed, and the method has less of an impact than trawling on the fish it leaves behind. Trawlers yank fish rapidly up from the bottom, bursting their swim bladders, which means many of the nominally living fish trawlers throw back don’t last long. With trap fishing, fish swim naturally to the surface, which better prepares them to be tossed back in.
Still, trap fishing is on its way out: The shore industries that support it are vanishing, and fewer fishermen are willing to plan their years around the short summer trap fishing season. Starr says there was a period, especially when oil prices where high, where he thought trap fishermen might hang on, but now he thinks that window’s closed. “I’m doubtful it will survive,” he says.