Weir fishing still endures as a sustainable practice, thanks to a few hardy Cape Cod fishermen.
The period from 1870 to 1930 was the heyday of weir fishing on Cape Cod, when weir-caught fish accounted for around a quarter of all New England seafood that went to market. In those days, earthen colored nets hanging from hickory poles poked from the surface of the water all over Nantucket Sound and Cape Cod Bay. The catch was split up into baitfish for the big schooners that plied the Grand Banks, fishing for cod and halibut, and the rest was put on railway cars and shipped to consumer markets in Boston and New York City. To store the quantities being shipped, freezer houses sprung up from Truro to the Cape Cod Canal.
Today, Ernie Eldredge, his wife, Shareen Davis, and his brother John oversee one of the last weir fishing businesses on Cape Cod, Chatham Fisheries and the Monomoy Trap Company.
“This is probably the most sustainable fishery in the world,” says Davis of the ancient technique that involves corralling fish with a stationary structure comprised of wooden poles, ropes, and nets. “It’s a method of gathering, rather than targeting, fish.”
Weir fishing is also antiquated and labor-intensive, and the season can be as short as 10 days. But even after a lifetime spent fishing this way, Eldredge is still as enthusiastic as ever. “It’s the excitement of not knowing what’s going to be there when you get out to the nets,” he says.
Weir fishing runs deep in Davis’s family as well–her family has fished weirs for generations. The practice itself stretches to antiquity: Proto fishermen from Vikings to the ancient Japanese used weirs as a way to increase their yield. The Wampanoag and Algonquin practiced it in local waters. It is a low-impact fishery that takes only targeted species and allows for the unharmed release of bycatch. Davis, who is also a photographer and co-owner of the Nickerson Art Gallery in Chatham, says the methods her family uses today are a hybrid of the ancient European techniques combined with practices originating in local waters around the end of the 1880s.
Eldredge’s father bought a weir fishing business in the late 1940s. At the time, structural changes to the fishing business—the simultaneous decline of both the mackerel fishery and the railways, among other challenges—meant the big New York and Boston companies that dominated the fishing business sold out to independent locals. The company still uses a private dock on Stage Harbor that came with the purchase.
Each spring, Davis and Eldredge place three sets of weirs, one each off Chatham, Harwich, and Dennis. Nets connect the weirs into three sections—the leader, the heart, and the bowl—which together form a giant keyhole to funnel fish from the leader into the bowl where they are harvested. Chatham Fisheries sets weirs each year to coincide with the running of the fish, which usually starts around late April. The season runs anywhere from 10 days to three months, depending on weather conditions, fish activity, and predation. As water temperatures rise, mackerel appear first, then squid and scup. As the season goes on, bonito and black sea bass also mix in.
With summer, predator fish—primarily bluefish and striped bass (which are always released)—arrive in full force, usually driving out the spooky squid. This usually signals the end of the weir fishing season as bait becomes more scarce in Nantucket Sound.
Each day during the season, Davis and the Eldredges head out in open boats and pull right into the bowl to harvest the fish with dip nets and bailers. It’s just a matter of lifting the big nets and scooping the fish out—a large-scale aquarium rescue.
“We pull over to one side of the net and shut the engines off,” says Davis. “Then it’s just you with the wind and the tide.”
Weir fishing is a physically demanding enterprise with a revolving cast of natural challenges. Weather, wind, tide, and bait patterns all affect each harvest. It can be as unpredictable as the schooling patterns of large numbers of fish—some simply swim right past the weir. And the ever-expanding seal population has been a big problem: Seals not only get in the bowl end and wreak havoc on the stock, but have even begun to drive the fish out, reducing yields. Some mornings the fishermen might go out to find the bowl completely wiped out, the seals having come in the night.
The company has been working with biologist Owen Nichols, Director of Marine Fisheries Research at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, for several years. Nichols and other fishermen log daily catch data by hand. Temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, and tide heights are recorded every 15 minutes using battery-powered data loggers attached directly to the weirs. Nichols is hoping to determine the environmental effects on the catch rate of squid and what that means for fishery management as part of his dissertation work with the School for Marine Science and Technology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
Since he started doing research on the weirs in 2007, Nichols estimates that the number of weir fishing operations have been at least halved. Today, the only remaining operations on the Cape are the three Eldredge/Davis weirs and a single weir strung by Nantucket Sound Fish Weirs, run by commercial fisherman Kurt Martin of Orleans, who has been working fish weirs since he was a teenager.
Between seals and mid-water trawlers, Martin says weir fishing is far from the days when he would catch 40,000 pounds of fish across 11 different species. “I bought this business in 2011, thinking it would be getting better. I was about 180 degrees wrong,” Martin says with a chuckle.
In addition to a wholesale operation, Eldredge and Davis now sell fish directly to consumers. In 2009, the family started a community supported fishery (CSF). Based on the same concept as community supported agriculture programs, the CSF allows customers to pledge money to the fishery in exchange for an allotment of the harvest.
Shareholders meet at Stage Harbor to collect their bounty. Davis says the CSF has grown in popularity, but still accounts for only about five percent of the fish sold, with the rest going to wholesalers and shipped to Boston, Rhode Island, and New York.
It is May on Cape Cod, the fish are running, and like time immemorial, weir fishermen are out there, catching fish in modern times with ancient methods, feeding the Cape community with bounty from the sea.
“As a kid, I’d be fishing after school, on weekends, then all summer long,” Eldredge says. “It’s in my blood.”
Through it all, these fishermen control what they can and then cast hope to the horizon, subject to the whims of wind and water, just as it’s been for 5,000 years.
Rob Conery is a frequent contributor to Cape Cod Life Publications.
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