October 19, 2015
JEFFREYS LEDGE, NH – The captain informed us this morning, just before we left Seabrook Harbor, that it would be “a little crappy” out here today. If this is what he calls a little crappy, I’d hate to be out here when it’s rough. The Lady Tracey Ann II is a lovely 65-foot party boat that has its own Facebook page to keep its friends up to date. At the moment she’s at anchor over Jeffreys Ledge in pretty heavy swells from the southwest, shaking her head like a horse trying to get free of its halter. The bow, besides going up and down several feet, veers unpredictably from side to side and rolls left and right. The motion requires some concentration and conscious diversions by anyone in the saloon to avoid that age-old bane of sea travelers, motion sickness, mal de mer.
Moving about the cabin – even only about five feet from the starboard settee to the port – is a challenging exercise for an old guy whose balance is long gone. Death, dismemberment, fractures, and at the very least, embarrassment, await the unsuccessful.
Things are a bit quieter on the open stern, which still pitches a bit, but is partly out of the wind. Four of us are fishing with stiff, heavy rods and saltwater reels for what seems like a never-ending supply of fish far below. Now and then, when the bow, behind us, rises especially high, sea water pours aboard through the aft scuppers and sloshes around underfoot. Almost all of us are wearing sneakers, and jump around a little to avoid the moving puddles.
Jeffreys Ledge itself is pretty interesting. “Ledge” implies a spine of rock, as anywhere in interior New England. But this is glacial material, an esker or a terminal moraine from the last continental glaciation, when the seas were much lower. About 25 miles off the New Hampshire coast, it stretches sinuously about 33 miles from just off Rockport, Massachusetts, to near Cape Elizabeth, Maine, and its depth is quite a bit less than that of the waters all around it.
I’ve long noticed that irregularities in the bottom of almost any body of water are attractive to aquatic life, and this ledge is no exception. We steamed out here at a pretty good clip, bouncing up and down and quartering into the biggest waves; but now that we’re here, standing still but lurching every which way, I get the impression that the sea beneath us is teeming with life.
Sea birds hover, scream, and paddle all around us – herring and blackbacked gulls, shearwaters, and gannets. Every so often they gather in wheeling masses over patches of disturbed water, and the captain and mate exchange a look and the remark, “Tuna.” Sure enough, if you look sharp at the closer disturbances, you see knife-sharp curved dorsal fins above the water, where packs of speedy tuna are chasing schools of mackerel near the surface. Porpoises kept pace with us on our way out, and now and then a humpback whale surfaces not far away.
I’m here with a videographer and a still photographer to record the routine of a recreational fishing boat. Commercial fishing for cod, thanks to a government fisheries move that’s still roundly condemned by fishermen, was effectively shut down a few years ago in an attempt to save the vastly diminished stocks. Recreational fishing, mostly from party boats, survives, though the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has just this year eliminated altogether keeping any cod caught from these boats. Notwithstanding, we’re pulling up quite a few of them, though I can’t help but notice they run to only a fraction of the size of the cod we caught a couple of months ago off Newfoundland. We’re catch-and-release only today; none of us feels like taking home a few pollock, haddock, whiting, mackerel, or redfish.
The point of our record will be to document the past, present, and future (if any) of the Atlantic cod fishery. I’ve found it interesting to contrast the experiences and opinions of the fishermen themselves with the conclusions of the scientists studying the fishery. To that end, we have with us a biologist from UNH (just by coincidence a contemporary of my kids at Hanover High) and a Senior Policy Analyst from NOAA. There’s clearly a difference between their opinions and those of our captain, but the three of them seem to get along pretty peaceably.
One reason may be that they’re all, at heart, avid fishermen. As soon as the anchor was down and holding, all of them flocked to the taffrail, grabbed deep-sea rods, baited their two hooks with sea clams, and went at it, as happy and absorbed as a bunch of kids at a fishing pond. Every cast came up with a fish from the bottom. I tried one drop myself, and came up with a haddock; but I’d been spoiled the day before by fly fishing for rainbow with the Professor on a trout pond, and gave the rod back to the scientist who’d kindly proffered it.
Meanwhile, we’ve discovered one of the hazards of video- and photography in rough seas: Looking through a viewfinder while everything around you is moving unpredictably can induce acute motion sickness. Which it has; we’ve lost both of them. So we’ve decided to conduct our necessary interviews back in the calmer waters of Seabrook Harbor.
Both the captain and his crackerjack mate have been tried in the fires of recreational fishing. Many folks think the term, “party boat,” means a different kind of party; so the crew occasionally must simultaneously operate the boat, clean up messes, teach people to fish, and diplomatically restrain any over-enthusiastic tipplers. Now we pull the hook, open the throttle, and roar toward the concrete dome of the distant Seabrook nuclear power station. I brace myself against anything solid and reflect that, if it doesn’t kill you, a life on the bounding sea is perfect core muscle exercise.