|The troubled waters off Stonington, Maine
By MOLLY ONEILL
From the New York Times
January 17, 2007
DICK BRIDGES has big, calloused hands, hands that have been thickened by half a century of fishing, hands that can build a life and shape a community. They are not the sort of hands you expect to see mincing onions in a church kitchen. But on a recent Saturday evening Mr. Bridges grasped a flimsy knife, reached for a sack of yellow onions and launched into a soliloquy about fishing in America and the dish that tells the story: chowder.
The endlessly varied mélange that can banish chilblains and restore survivors of storms has never been merely a soup. Early Colonial versions called for fish to be layered along with onions, biscuits and water in a caldron; by the time Ishmael and Queequeg feasted on steaming bowls of the stuff, milk, cream and salt pork had found their way into the pot. Otherwise, the dish that helped Melvilles whalers tell time chowder for breakfast, and chowder for dinner, and chowder for supper changed very little for nearly 200 years.
Down Easters said that the more variety of fish in the pot, the deepah the flavah. Like most sons of sons of Maine fishermen, Mr. Bridges, 61, grew up eating fish stews that were as diverse and densely packed as the local waters.
Cod, haddock, white hake, halibut, cusk and dozens of other groundfish, fish that live near the ocean bottom, mingled with clams, shrimp, lobster and mussels under the creamy surface of the stew, cresting a puddle of yellow butter here, a slick of smoky pork fat there.
Today there is nothing but lobster to be fished commercially near Stonington. Lobster floats alone in the local chowder, pinking the cream and, in the mind of food lovers, perhaps elevating Everymans dish to luxury status. But when Mr. Bridges looks at a single species stew he sees a dangerously impoverished fishery.
The only stable fishery is a diverse fishery, he said. No place in the world is richer in lobster than the waters around Stonington today, but the population explosion was caused, in part, by the vanishing of the groundfish. They fed on the young lobsters, the spats, he said, but the large fin fish are also part of an ecosystem that actually protects the lobster. Even with good management, he said, the lobster, too, could disappear.
And when they go, he added, grasping one of the crustaceans from the counter of the church kitchen and in a single flourish twisting off its claws and tail, the last of Americas Colonial industries will go with them.
What chowder eater, nourished on soups rich with many kinds of fish, could listen to the scientists who began to worry in the 1970s about the effects of river damming, pollution and overfishing? Like most, Mr. Bridges continued to lower his metal-link scallop nets to the bottom of the ocean. He continued to plot his own course and to keep his whereabouts to himself. He continued to haul thousands of pounds of fish every few hours and he continued to ravage the ocean floor.
In 1985 fishermen landed seven million pounds of groundfish in Stonington alone. Ten years later those fish disappeared from Penobscot Bay, and for the first time in nearly two centuries, chowder changed.
Mr. Bridges was, he said, worried so sick that in 2003 he and three others broke the fishermens traditional code of silence and began sharing their knowledge about feeding and spawning grounds.
Along with their wives they founded Penobscot East Resource Center, an advocacy group that helps fishermen to restock and manage the fisheries through science, lobbying efforts and education. They built an alliance among fishermen to create a single voice for managing the local fisheries. They created the nations first fishermen-funded lobster hatchery. They even learned how to cook.
In fact, in this town where chowder is a way of life and the measure of a cook, Mr. Bridges is the Chowdah King. To him and to the other activists who join him to chop and shuck and stir, building a chowder is more than making dinner. It is performance art, an epic, a confession and a plea.
STONINGTON is a cluster of shingled houses, picket fences, widows walks and church spires that rises up a hillside from a shallow, natural harbor. Unlike the fleets of deeper ports like New Bedfords and Portlands, from which large boats sail far offshore for days at a time, Stoningtons fleets have long been made up of day boats, small craft that fish close to home and support an all but antiquated American lifestyle.
Fishing here was a wave-riding exercise in rugged individualism. The men went out before dawn and came home in midafternoon generally clanging a pail of fish ready to tuck into a bowl of the chowder that their wives had made from the contents of the previous days bucket.
They could go to the Little League games, join the school board, volunteer at the fire department, Ted Hoskins said.
Before retiring, Mr. Hoskins was a boat minister with the Maine Sea Coast Mission. His pastoral suite, a 75-foot houseboat, was mobile. When the groundfish were vanishing, he chugged from Stonington to the islands on the far side of Penobscot Bay, watching as the changes in the sea affected life on land.
As the groundfish began to diminish, he said, his congregants problems depression, drinking and family trouble grew. At the same time, state and federal efforts to protect the fisheries limited a fishermans catch as well as the number of days he could work. And as the fishing stock in the bay was depleted, fishermen had to move farther offshore. The 40-foot trawlers that they had bought for under $40,000 and used to pursue groundfish throughout the 1980s could not withstand waves up to 100 feet offshore. They needed 80-foot boats equipped with radar, onboard computers, sonar, sonic gear and G.P.S. systems, boats that now cost half a million dollars.
The math didnt work: it cost more, there were fewer fish and they were allowed to take less of them, Mr. Hoskins said. They got second jobs. Their wives went to work. They started selling their boats.
Many of the older watermen, he said, retired and sold their days-at-sea or their quotas to large corporate fishing concerns that operate monster boats that can pull up to a million pounds in a single six-hour tow, denuding a swath of ocean about 600 feet long and up to 10 miles wide. The ocean floor can take 20 years to recover.
Some of the former day fishermen who did not retire went to work on those vessels, often driving hours to meet the boat and staying on it for up to two weeks at sea.
The men were no longer independent, no longer free, Mr. Hoskins said. They were employees. The women and children were home alone. I was watching an entire way of life slip away.
The fishermen who persevered switched to lobstering. Their lives, too, were altered. The industry is closely regulated. Lobstermen are told when and where they can fish. They must report their whereabouts and provide detailed accounting of their catches. Moreover, the wisdom once gained by a lifetime on the water can, Mr. Bridges said, now be acquired quickly.
Using the technology available today, a guy can learn what I know in a month, he said. You dont have to use a compass, read a map or remember where the lobster are. You dont even have to steer a decent course.
Mr. Bridges began reaching for the mouthpiece of his on-deck radio more and more. Come in Mary Elizabeth, he would call to Ted Ames. Come in, Sea Flea he would signal to his friend Wayne Grindle. Then he grasped the small black microphone in his large hands and began to wax eloquent about the meal he intended to cook as soon as he got home.
FISHERMEN have always cooked on their boats, Mr. Ames said as he shrugged out of his slicker. We just didnt admit it at home. He smiled then, toward the four burly fishermen crowding the small electric stove in the church basement.
Aprons wrapped around their flannel shirts, they watched as Mr. Bridges explained the importance of sautéing lobster meat in butter before adding it to the simmering onions, potatoes and cream. It brings out the color and the sweetness. This and a sprinkle of basil are the secrets of his champion chowder. Graying heads huddled together, the men nodded intently; they could have been examining a map, charting a course through dangerous shoals.
Earlier that day Mr. Ames, 67, sat looking out at the bay, explaining how fishermen study the surface in order to read the bottom, to locate the shallow shoals, the rocky outcroppings, the spots that are littered with sunken boats or other trash that can destroy their nets. They read the bottom to know where the fish feed, where they spawn and to locate the nursery areas for young fish. This information, which is critical if the local fishery is to be replenished, cannot be detected by sophisticated sounding devices. Rather, it lives in a fishermans eyes and hands, like an instinct.
Mr. Ames, who has a masters degree in biochemistry and was a commercial fisherman for half a century before retiring last year, spent the past decade using the memories of retired fishermen to create maps of the spawning and nursery grounds of cod, the areas that must be strictly protected if the groundfish are to regenerate. His efforts earned him a MacArthur Foundation grant in 2005. The recognition has contributed to the discussion on how to best manage and protect Maines fishery.
The only ones who can restore these fisheries are us, the fishermen who worked them and broke them, he said. Pointing to the success of Maines closely controlled and peer-enforced lobster industry, he added, We learned our lesson.
The Penobscot East Resource Center has helped give men like Mr. Bridges a voice with lawmakers.
When members of the group meet with regulators, they argue that the fisheries are a massive collection of tiny and particular habitats that can be tended only by those who know them. If fishing regulations reflect the knowledge and the needs of the Stonington lobstermen, smaller day boats like theirs will have a fighting chance against the enormous commercial vessels. And so will the fish.
We cant turn the clock back on technology, he said. We can only regulate it, the way we regulate the size and speed of vehicles on the highway.
He and his group plan to ask federal regulators to allow them to manage the local fisheries and to limit technology. Without a change in the rules, he said, the small, owner-operated day boats will continue their steady demise and the large fishing crews will be the only ones left.
We are in the final stage of a natural, national resource being converted into a private, corporately-owned resource.
The implications of this shift on the nations table are huge. Seafood markets that offer a variety of wild fish now need to import, so fish reaches the market a day later at a much higher price. In 1975 I got 25 cents a pound for groundfish, Mr. Bridges said. If you can find it you can get $2 to $4 a pound today. Consumers, he noted, pay about three times what the fisherman receives.
And perhaps it is this change, along with the fear of losing the possibility of a self-made life, that called the elder statesmen of Stonington from their homes on a blustery winter night and prompted them to take up lobster crackers, knives and wooden spoons and to discuss the chowder they had known, the chowder of today, the chowder that could, with a single predator or a few degrees rise in the temperature of the water, disappear entirely.
Already the lobster catch is shifting away from Stonington, said Carl Wilson, the lobster biologist for Maines Department of Marine Resources. If the trend continues, the lobstermen who borrowed heavily to buy high-tech boats younger men, mostly, who have known only gold-rush times stand to lose much more than a means of puttering around the harbor.
After several hours of impassioned discussion there was, after all, a reverent sort of silence among the fishermen when they gathered around the reddening lobster in the skillet on the stove. And for a moment, as they hovered tentatively over the small aluminum frying pan, their thick fingers looked like the hands of giants arranging a smaller, entirely manageable world.