Small draggers live off whiting in summer
Maine Coast is center of N.E. fishery
By Lyman Owen
To do a story on whiling dragging, I needed a skipper who is time-tested fisherman and who knows his stuff with a well equipped boat, nothing fancy but all the necessary gear and accessories. After some search I was lucky to find such a man in Capt. Bob McLellan of the Lucille B out of Boothbay Harbor. Maine.
Bob, 41, was born and brought up in Bath, Maine, the “cradle of ships,” but has lived for 21 years in the Boothbay Harbor area, now residing on Sunset Road. He is married and the father of an 18-year-old son. He has been fishing for 18 years, and on his own for the last 14.
He started line trawling off Monhegan Island, then went to redfishing and whiting. After a year out of Gloucester and some mackerel seining, he bought his own boat nine years ago: the Lucille B, built by the Lash Bros. of Friendship. Maine and previously owned as a mackerel seiner by Portland Brackett of New Harbor.
At 5 a.m. on 11 Friday morning last summer I sailed out of Boothbay Harbor with Capt. Bob and his brother and lone crew member, Myron, formerly with the Bath Iron Works, but teamed up with Bob for the last four years. Since the Lucille B is 55′ overall and can carry 56,000 lbs. of fish in her hold, and since experts recommend that a dragger of this size should carry a crew of half a dozen, I was eager to see just how this team of two would handle their machinery and gear. It didn’t take long to learn that this was a precision operation.
The sky was overcast and there was a steady swell with hardly a breath of air.
HAVE TO LIKE IT
“Fishing is long hours,” commented Bob at the wheel while I was picking a few fish scales off my camera. “But, like everything else, if you like what you’re doing it’s all right. Some say a fisherman is his own boss, but he really isn’t … he’s the slave of supply and demand.
“This is near the end of the season for whiting. We had 19,000 lbs. yesterday. The freezer plant set a limit on us of 50.000 lbs. The other two boats, Isabelle J II and Santa Lucia had 12,000 so we were 1000 over and that 1000 went into fish meal. The employment problem at the plant is tough, hard to get enough workers.
“Whiting are bringing 2 1/2¢ minus 20% now, and that price has been pretty steady all summmer. Mink food out of surplus is bringing 3/4¢ and fish meal 1/2¢.”
“How does that compare with other years?” I asked.
“Well, last year we had a good market and kept the price up to about 4¢. The entire New England catch last year was about 90 million lbs, which was about 20 million lbs. over the year before. one thing went wrong, though. Argentina put a lot of hake on the market as whiting. At normal price they can’t afford to send in hake from other countries… last year they could at 4¢. i guess there’s more than one species of hake, but as far as New England fishermen are concerned there’s only one whiting and that’s the one in our waters.”
“What’ll you do after the season’s over, Bob?”
“Probably do a little painting and repairs and then wait for the shrimp season which I hope will open in December. You know shrimp could be chased the whole year round up here if there was a market for them. Oh, I might do a little purse seining for herring with some of the boys offshore. Can’t tell.”
In the wheelhouse I had a chance to look over Capt. Bob’s equipment. We were over a fish channel with Monhegan Island dead ahead and Pemaquid Light astern. The Kelvin Hughes white line recorder, a 500-fathom machine, was in operation and showing a slender fish line on the bottom. Next to it was a decca 24-mile-range radar. Opposite the Kelvin Hughes recorder was a German-made gray line recorder, both instruments representing about $5500 worth of fishfinding equipment.
Bob’s radiotelephone is a Konel 132, putting out 75 watts. Then there was a loran to take bearings with offshore and used mostly for locating and dodging wrecks. In addition Bob uses a CB 23′-channel radio. particularly when the marine telephone gets crowded.
During this time Myron had been checking the trawl and mending some mesh. He had also tied the cod end of the trawl, where the fish collect, and had secured the quarter ropes.
Capt. Bob. observing a. fairly heavy fish line on the recorder, then decided to set the trawl from the starboard side. He brought the Lucille B around so that the starboard side was to the windward and turned the wheel hard to starboard.
The cod end of the net and the net belly (larger part of the cone-shaped trawl) were hoisted overboard and the foot or sweep rope (bottom of trawl) cleared. Capt. Bob held the lead rope at the becket on the railing to allow overhauling of the quarter rope, after which the head rope was released and the net spread out as the Lucille B, broadside to the wind, drifted away. The foot rope was submerged and the head rope was held up by its buoys.
Myron then released the brakes on the winch allowing the towing legs and ground wires to pay out, while Capt. Bob checked the swivel on each ground wire to see that it passed through a very important holding ring known as Kelly’s eye. Myron then payed out the ground wires the desired length while Bob saw that the stopper or figure-eight link was caught in the Kelly’s eye. At this point both men connected the trawl doors to the towing warps and saw to it that towing chains were slacked enough to avoid the upper-ballard sheaves.
SET TO SHOOT
When this was done, Capt. Bob put the Lucille B full speed ahead proceeding in a wide circle until he reached about four points on the compass to the desired course, after which he stopped the engine, set the wheel amidships. and was ready to “shoot the trawl.” This means that the trawl winch brakes are released dropping first the foredoom and then the afterdoor.
By use of a messenger hook, Bob secured the towing warps in the towing block. Warp markers on each of the two warps aided in keeping them even and in balance.
After a fishing period of about 90 minutes, Capt. Bob maneuvered the Lucille B into a downwind position for hauling in the net. In this process the doors a redisconnected and suspended from the gallows, after which the quarter ropes are used to heave in the net booms.
Since this first haul was about 8,000 lbs. and Bob’s boom and tackle was able to lift only about 3,000 lbs., splitting straps were used to divide the catch into two split bags and a hoist bag as the cod end of the net was emptied into the fish pens on deck. Bob and Myron then sorted out trash and ground fish and after shoving a portion of the catch into the hold prepared to set the trawl for another tow.
Capt. Bob uses a standard 50-70 net, meaning that the head rope is 50′ and the sweep or bottom rope 70′. Floats on the head rope keep it about 8′ above the bottom while trawling. Bob’s sweep rope is weighted with chain to keep it on the bottom, but there are some equipped with rollers for the same purpose.
The fore-and-aft trawl doors previously mentioned keep the wing tips of the net spread and the mouth of the net, leading into the net belly and the cod end open.
Three other draggers besides the Lucille B were working for the Boothbay Harbor Freezer Inc., owned by George I. Lewis of Portland, Me., and his sons Bernard J. and David N. Their operation is known as the Lewis Industries.
The boats were Santa Lucia, skippered by
Tony Bernolino and crew member Jack of Gloucester; Onward The Third, skippered by Capt. Alexander and crew member Nick Ranco, and tbe Isabel J II, owned by Bob York of West Point, Me., and skippered by Oscar Gilliam.
During the 1967 season for whiting, all boats hauling to the freezer were “on limits,” meaning that their catches were specified in advance; and it is to their credit that they worked together via radio to balance their catches and stay within limits for the daily haul.
In this operation a few words ought to be said about the Freezer itself. Manager is Earl (Junie) Dunton, raised in the fish business in Portland. “Junie”, now 55, went into the business at 18 when it was just herring and mackerel, flaked and frozen. After being manager of the Mid-Central Fish Co., in Portland, he came to Boothbay Harbor and has been manager of the Freezer for 18 years.
Foreman of the plant is Jim Hanna, originally of New Harbor and now of Boothbay Harbor. Before becoming foreman 3 years ago, Jim had experience in lobstering and herring seining. Jim is 40 and likes his job very much. The process at the Freezer is the usual one, fish unloaded at the end of the dock where they are weighed and put on a conveyor to run them up into the fish bin. The whiting are washed before they go into the bin, while they are in it, and after they come out.
In the bin a man shovels the whiting onto a conveyor to the cutting table where they are put on tracks for cutting heads off. After passing through the cutter they arc washed again and placed on a conveyor which runs them onto a rubber belt running along a long table where workers take them off and pull the spawns out of them.
Here they are thrown into a sluice trough with water pressure, onto another conveyor, and onto a belt where they are culled according to specified weight. Fish for the 5 lb. package are run through a scaler and then carried in baskets to the packing table. Junie points out that the whiting are in the freezer within 12 hours after they are caught.
Average catch during peak of the season is 100,000 lbs. a day, and the employment quota around 65 to 70.
WHAT IS A WHITING?
Since there’s a lot of discussion as to what a whiting really is, I’ll give you some choices on which to base a decision. ‘”The Fisherman’s Encyclopedia,” edited by Gabrielson and LaMonte, classifies all whitings under the broad heading of croakers in the genus “menticirrhus.” It adds, however, that since the whiting has no air bladder it never croaks. These editors call the Atlantic whiting ‘menticirrhus saxatilis,” said to be found from Maine to Florida. According to them the fish averages 1/2 lb. and may run to 3 lbs. They feed on small fish, crabs. squids and shrimp and are said to inhabit sandy bottoms and surf.
The “Encyclopedia Britannica” places the whiting in the genus “gadus merlangus” and describes it as a silvery fish ranging from Norway to the Mediterranean. According to its description, the whiting differs from the cod in having no barbel under the mouth. It is described as a valuable food fish running to 3 lbs.
“Colliers” aggress with “Britannica,” describing the whiting as similar to the cod, a shoal water fish sometimes called silversides. running about 21″ and weighing 3 to 4 lbs.
The “Illustrated World Encyclopedia” classifies the whiting under the name of ‘hake” and says it is sometimes called a “codling” and similar to cod and haddock. It describes the whiting as a deep water fish, feeding on other small fish and found along the Atlantic Coast north of Virginia.
The “People’s Natural History” places the whiting in the cod family along with haddock, pollack, coal-fish, hake, ling and rocklings, and distinguishes it from the cod by absence of barbel on chin.
As for me, I’ll just agree with Capt. Bob McLellan who says, “I guess there’s more than one species of hake, but as far as New England fishermen are concerned, there’s only one whiting and that’s the one in our waters.”
Photo: Dustin McLellan in the fish hold of his dad’s boat, Adventurer, showing some of the catch in 1988. Dustin is the grandson of Myron McLellan.