Our daughter Alex – a senior at UMass Amherst – wrote a terrific piece about commercial fishing and conservation. It was an assignment to show how two seemingly conflicting things aren’t actually in conflict at all. It’s based on her experience working with the sea life at the Gloucester Maritime Heritage Center (now Maritime Gloucester) where she worked a couple of summers and then lobstering one year with Tony. We thought you might like it for GMG.
Commercial Fishing & Conservation
By Alex Gross
When my father offered me a well paid job at the age of 14, I gladly accepted. The appeal of the challenging physical work, early hours and convenient commute outweighed the aspects of the work that came into conflict with my idealistic values. Sure, I was to work harvesting lobsters for profit and consumption – I could still be an avid environmentalist, right?
Lobstering requires a certain toughness. You have to haul trawls of eight 40-pound lobster traps from the sea, wrangle lobsters without getting your hand caught by their skin-shredding claws, tolerate the smell and feel of pounds upon pounds of bait fish (usually greasy herring and sometimes gnarly-toothed whiting) and, on top of it all, my meticulous father insisted on being at the dock by 4:00am. I relished the challenge.
The summer before I became the first mate on a lobster boat, I took what I saw as the first step on my path to becoming a world renowned marine biologist. My first job, working at a local aquarium, was surely a sign from the Universe that I was destined to be an environmental crusader, protecting Earth’s oceans and discovering new species in the black depths of the Marianas Trench. I knew that I was on my way to a life of investigating the seas and protecting the wellbeing of every fish and anemone therein.
I was enamored with the work. I spent hours happily scrubbing the tanks, dissecting squid to feed to the animals in the exhibits, and sharing my knowledge and passion for marine life as a guide to visitors to the aquarium.
Before we opened, after we closed and in the down time during the day, I would do that extra bit of cleaning in the back corner of a tank or spend a few extra minutes on feeding the creatures in each exhibit. The skates were my favorite. You had to hand-feed them because the silversides in their exhibit would devour any floating piece of squid before it reached the skates at the bottom of the shallow tank. I adored each fish, sea star, spider crab and periwinkle in those exhibits.
My relationship with marine life had always been one of affection and protection. I had grown up fishing recreationally and was always comfortable with (and fascinated by) catching and killing fish for my own culinary purposes, but was unsure what lay in store for me as a first mate on a commercial lobstering vessel. Was I really to be responsible for the sale and ultimate consumption of thousands of lobsters each week?
My father was a skilled teacher and I was a fast learner. By week three I had fallen into the rhythm of hauling gear, sizing lobsters to see if they were legal to keep and sell, banding the keepers, stuffing fistfuls of herring into bait bags, tossing any shorts, hitchhiking crabs or fish back into the water, and keeping my feet from becoming tangled in the ropes that could so easily pull me to an early watery grave.
Although I was in my element, this fast-paced job allowed me little time to examine the tiny lumpfish that may have loosened its suction grip on the trap and fallen to the deck, or the intriguing slug whose feathery adornments flow gracefully underwater but look like a pink lump of phlegm in the dry air.
As I became a brutal and efficient master of crustaceans’ fates on my father’s boat, I began to develop a greater understanding of the world beneath the waves. I unflinchingly skewered invasive green crabs on the protruding spike of the trap that holds the bait bag, protecting my beloved ecosystem from these invaders from the East. As a fourteen year old in love with marine life, I would have been incapable of stabbing these poor crabs to death; as a conscientious environmentalist working for a responsible and careful lobsterman, I felt some sense of empowerment in doing my part to eliminate a tiny minority of this invasive population.
As it turns out, commercial lobstering helped me understand more about conservation than I may have had the opportunity to learn had I only worked in the aquarium. I was able to enrich the aquarium by bringing in specimens that came up in the traps and adding variety to each exhibit. We were even lucky enough to find a triggerfish that had lost its way in the cold North Atlantic waters one winter, bringing it to a warm tank on the brink of death and helping it to regain its strength.
I did not end up a marine biologist or an independent lobsterwoman, but I do continue to draw strength and inspiration from those pungent, early-morning, hard-working summers.