Fishing for winter cod in the Atlantic
Sunrise over the Atlantic before a day of cod fishing. (Jonah Flicker)
On a late January morning, chilly darkness enveloped the quiet harbour at Point Judith in Narragansett, Rhode Island. At 5 am, the inky water was indistinguishable from the black sky above it, except for a few brightly lit fishing boats tied to the dock. A group of recreational fishermen gathered in the main cabin of the Lady Frances, yawning and sipping coffee, as the crew prepared the vessel to travel about 15 miles offshore in search of winter cod.
Some of the crew readied the boat for departure while others untangled fishing line and cut up gooey chunks of clam for bait. The 105ft-long diesel-powered vessel, part of the Frances Fleet, was built for function, not fashion. Though relatively clean and comfortable, the boat is a bare-bones operation. Tables and benches line the main cabin, and the open galley offers beer, chips, burgers, and egg and sausage sandwiches for purchase, though it was not immediately evident who should be cooking. But those aboard were not looking for a luxury harbour yacht cruise; they were there to fish for the next 10 hours. By the day’s end, most of the dozen or so passengers caught at least two fat winter cod.
Cod fishing in the northeastern United States has been an important source of revenue and nourishment for hundreds of years. Cape Cod, a peninsula that juts out from the state of Massachusetts, was named after the fish, which was abundant when the Pilgrims first arrived there in the 17th Century. A wooden “Sacred Cod” even hangs in the Massachusetts State House. However, the fish’s population has declined in recent years. In a 2011 report, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration listed the Atlantic cod as “overfished stock”, and there are threats of strict federal regulations on quotas and the revamping of fishing practices.
But local fishermen tend to disagree with the studies, often angrily, saying that they have been catching more cod over the past few years than ever before. On a recent night at the Hammerhead Grill in Narragansett, not far from the harbour, a stocky and slightly tipsy fisherman-turned-house painter animatedly made his anti-regulatory feelings known after overhearing a conversation about the next morning’s voyage. “The government won’t be happy until [the cod] are crawling up the beach!” he exclaimed, before drifting away to join his buddies for a game of pool. It seems that everyone in this coastal community has strong feelings about the cod fishing industry, a historically vital part of their economy and culture.
Passengers napped as the Lady Frances headed about one-and-a-half hours off the coast, travelling just a few miles past Block Island, which could be seen in the distance as the sun rose over the horizon. The weather was warm for January, as it has been most of the winter, but the seas were just short of roiling, with swells of about four to six feet. Even after taking anti-motion sickness medication, some passengers battled seasickness, lying down on cabin benches with eyes shut as the boat cut through the chop. When the engines slowed and the ruddy captain gave the order to “Drop them!” in a strong New England accent, everyone came alive.
Cod are bottom-feeders, so fishing for them at a depth of about 100ft is relatively easy. You bait your hook with a piece of clam, making sure to double-snag it to keep it from falling off, and drop the weighted line into the depths below. When you feel the hook hit the bottom, you lock your reel and the drifting boat drags the bait along, an enticing meal for the hungry fish lurking beneath the whitecaps.
Unfortunately, a good portion of those hungry fish happen to be dogfish, a type of small shark which seems to travel in the same circles as cod. The large dogfish population is actually the result of federal regulations put in place in 2000, when they were considered to be overfished. Now the levels are high enough that many fishermen consider them to be pests. Every time someone pulled up a thrashing dogfish, Chris, one of the boat’s helpful crewmembers, came around to remove the hook from its razor-sharp teeth and drop it back into the water.