“It used to be real wild around here. Fishermen had bars to celebrate in and small grocery stores where you could buy supplies on credit. That’s all gone now. Now it’s all regulated and full of tourists. Fishermen don’t matter that much anymore.”
Fishing is on my mind.
Well, it’s partly professional; I’m writing a mystery novel that revolves around the Blessing of the Fleet in Provincetown. And I just went to see Boundless at Cape Rep (and, honestly, you should, too!), which gave me a lot to think about. Each of the characters in the play is based on a real-life person, ranging from scientists to fishermen and their families, and it brings home some of the issues that those of us who go down MacMillan just for fun don’t often think about.
A week or so ago I drove out to Herring Cove to sit and look at the water on a perfect sun-and-blue-sky afternoon. The view was somewhat marred on that day by the presence of the Kimberly Ann, a fishing boat out of New Bedford, dredging for sea scallops close enough to the beach for its name to be easily read without binoculars. Illegal, of course, but impossible to enforce.
It felt like what it was, though: a violation. Of “our” space.
And it isn’t just fish we’re losing to New Bedford: a report out of MIT’s Sea Grant program chronicles how many of the more successful Provincetown fishermen relocated to New Bedford.
Another disadvantage of P-Town is its geographic location. Although it has the second deepest natural harbor in the world, its location at the northernmost tip of Cape Cod has made it distant from major fish markets and thus less competitive with ports having better access to ground transportation such as New Bedford and Gloucester. In the summer time, the one road going into and out of Cape Cod is regularly clogged with tourist vehicles on their way to visiting the beaches or traveling to the art and tourists shops that have come to dominate the area’s economic landscape. In the wintertime, bad storms can close down the one road making regular access difficult.
Many of us who chose to live here—who weren’t born into a fishing family—came specifically because of the remoteness of the place, according to this study one of the myriad reasons the industry is limping along (I refuse to say “failing”) in Provincetown. There’s a certain irony in that, on a par with the irony of those who came for the quaintness and immediately destroyed it by building big condos to replace the small rooms that were part of the picturesque houses.
Provincetown epitomizes what can go wrong in a port highly reliant on one fishery, albeit a multispecies fishery. There has been a steady decline and no diversification in the local commercial fishery since the 1996 groundfish study, and the lost human capital is not being replaced as fishermen retrain out of the industry or move to different ports such as New Bedford, Gloucester and Chatham. Overall importance of the fishery to the community today is noted as “slightly important.” Nevertheless, there are innovative individuals who remain strongly committed to the industry and who seek ways to make their efforts profitable and sustainable.
Sometimes I sit out looking at Herring Cove—or even just across the harbor to Long Point—and it literally takes my breath away. The idea that this is where I live, that I belong here, is still new, even after a decade. It’s not my view, though, or even yours. It’s “ours”—that amalgamation of past, present, and future that makes up any town. Ours has to do with the heritage of a given industry that may now be in decline but still—or perhaps even more so—deserves our support. It costs more, these days, to buy local: but isn’t that the least that we can do? We are part of the reason that fishing families don’t live in the houses they grew up in. Buying fresh fish from local fishermen seems a small price to pay.
And go see Boundless before it closes. You’ll understand a great deal more.