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We’re Fishing

Weir fishing still endures as a sustainable practice, thanks to a few hardy Cape Cod fishermen

Photo by Chris Seufert

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.

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