A Yankee Notebook

January 25, 2016


STONINGTON, MAINE – The best place to get a feel for a small town is at the diner where the old guys gather early in the morning. There are few options to the Harbor Cafe in wintertime Stonington; so when I learned it opened at 6:30 for breakfast, I figured that was the place.

I was right. As I climbed the granite steps to the front door, I could see four or five men in baseball caps sitting at separate tables or booths, hollering back and forth at each other. They gave me a quick once-over, nodded, and went back to their conversation – unselfconsciously, I was delighted to notice. They were fishermen, but on the beach for the winter, mending gear, drinking coffee, and keeping up on the gossip.

A woman came in, sat with one of the men, and got a cup of coffee and some toast. When the man left, she got up and kind of trolled past my table on the way to the kitchen to pay. I bit, and during the next ten minutes got Julie’s fascinating life story: high school on another island I knew well; college; military; application for state police academy spoiled by a car crash that left her in a coma; lobster fishing license; marriage to an older divorcé with four kids; now has 19 great-grandchildren, and will take delivery of a new boat this winter – a 38-footer with a Cummins diesel that’s “gonna be fast as hell.” Was she entering the lobster boat races in Jonesport next summer? :”You bet!” Then the TV crew came stomping in from the harbor, where they’d been filming with a drone whose batteries were complaining about the cold, and we were shortly back to work.

Stonington, situated at the south end of Deer Isle, is – if you live in western New England – a place you really have to want to be in order to get there. My log puts it at 310 miles and 6 1/2 hours. I finessed that this time by driving to the station in Durham (3 hours) and riding with the crew. Touristy in the summer, Stonington sort of hibernates between November and May. The windjammers are off getting spruced up for next summer; the lobster traps are piled up and getting overhauled, as well; the Friendship sloops are hauled out; many fishermen are off to Hilton Head or Treasure Island for a few weeks during the coldest weather.

There’ve been people here on the island for at least 6000 years. Then Europe came calling, and never went home. Portuguese, French, British; one followed another. For years the dominant native accent here was almost pure Cornish Fisherman (check out Bert and I), but the ubiquity of television and Netflix is slowly strangling it – much to my regret. Immigrants came here originally to farm, and managed all right until the thin glacial drift soil became impoverished. Sheep made the situation even worse. And there was the sea, all around. The settlers turned to fishing, and later lobstering. Just after the Civil War Deer Isle, along with several other nearby islands, opened highly profitable granite quarries; so-called Deer Isle Granite, a creamy grayish-pink with almost no impurities, was popular for public works projects all down the East Coast, from Boston to New York City and even down to New Orleans. It got there by barge. But with the increasing use of reinforced concrete, granite lost favor, largely because of its cost. (One enterprising granite quarry owner found a rich limestone quarry ashore and opened a cement plant that still operates.)

So for the locals it was back to fishing. But there was an elephant in the room. With the improvement of technology to locate fish, harvest them, and process them, the traditional fishery suffered. Everybody who could took advantage in any way he could of the abundance of codfish, until at length the unsurprising result was reached: The stocks were gone, and weren’t returning.

A couple of months ago the crew and I were in Newfoundland, where we went out with fishermen during the short and carefully regulated recreational season. Except for those brief weeks, open to hand-lining only, Canada’s fishery has been shut down completely since 1992. In talking with the boys in the boats (doubly delightful because, unlike the Deer Islanders, they haven’t lost their Irish), and seeing the catches we were getting, it appears the cod are returning to Canadian waters. The fishermen have turned to other prey – snow crabs, prawns, shrimp, scallops – and are making a go of it, but there’s not much for their sons, who’ve pretty much all gone off to the oil fields of Alberta or the offshore rigs on the Grand Banks. But as one of the sixtyish fishermen told me, “We’re keeping our boats up to the mark so they’ll be ready for our grandsons if they want to go into the fishing.”

Here in the States, the decision to close the fishery is still hotly debated in councils of “managers” – government scientists – and fishermen. We’ve come down to Stonington to interview a very lucid and well-informed fisherman who has degrees and experience in fisheries biology. I spent about two hours talking with Ted Ames with the cameras going. We swapped sea stories and youthful adventures, his early fishing days, and his gradual development as an advocate for responsive and responsible fisheries management. It helps that he’s married to Robin Alden, the Executive Director of the Penobscot East Resource Center, a nonprofit whose mission is “to secure a diversified fishing future for the communities of Eastern Maine and beyond.”

In interviewing anyone, I always try to ferret out not just the facts and the data on the subject, but how the speaker feels about what he’s doing or what’s going on around him. Ted’s able to assert cautiously that the fishery may in some form return – the sudden warming of the Gulf of Maine is the latest fly in the ointment – and right at the end of our session offered the opinion that the people involved, from fishermen to scientists to politicians would probably reach better conclusions if they listened better to each other and credited each other’s experiences.

Photo by Willem lange