Their eyes were watching cod
A midcoast Maine longline survey keeps tabs on groundfish
By Paul Molyneaux
An hour before dawn on a late summer morning, wind blowing in from the southwest, I arrive with 42-year-old lobsterman Jason Joyce at Burnt Coat Harbor on Swans Island, Maine. Dim shadows of boats lay on their moorings, and under a light near the end of the Joyce family’s wharf, Jason pauses to talk to his father, Carlton Joyce.
“Going longlining today?” Carlton Joyce asks.
“Yeah, going down to one of the closer spots, see if we can set,” says Jason Joyce.
“Might be a little breezy,” his father replies, as he turns and walks away to tend his lobster gear.
Twenty minutes later Jason Joyce has his 38-foot Calvin Beal boat, the Andanamra, a poetic amalgamation of his four children’s names, in alongside the wharf. His sternman, Andy Haney, a 6-foot-2 New Yorker with family ties to the island, has dragged 16 totes of baited longline — “tub trawl” in the New England parlance — from a walk-in freezer out to the derrick used to lower them aboard the boat.
In the course of loading the bait Joyce asks Haney to secure a line. “Just pass her through that loop that makes up herself,” Joyce offers. Haney looks up, perplexed by Joyce’s phrasing, but he figures it out. Joyce’s family has been living on this island since Col. James Swan, a Revolutionary War hero, bought it in 1806. The islanders have habits of thought and language rooted in their long history as fishing people.
But Maine’s inshore groundfish fishery, which at its height in 1859, provided direct employment for more than 8,000 coastal residents, now employs about 70. One high school student I met on the ferry coming over said his plans were to leave the island as soon as he graduated. “We used to have three fish plants here,” he told me. “Now it’s a retirement community.”
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