Cover Story Excerpt: Haddock hunter
By eliminating cod and flounder bycatch, the Ruhle trawl enables New Englanders to target more abundant stocks
By John Lee
Carl Bouchard has a haddock tow in mind: deeper water on the edge of Jeffreys Ledge. "We'll start there," Bouchard says, pointing at his plotter. "If we don't find 'em there we'll move up shallower." Bouchard, 68, has been trawling and lobstering the western Gulf of Maine for long enough to know some things: "There are no guarantees about finding haddock," he notes, "especially when nobody's been out in three months."
Bouchard's boat, the Stormy Weather, is a classic Novi, 45 feet long and 20 feet wide — beamy, stable and slow. As we steam south toward Jeffreys Ledge off Cape Ann, Mass., another boat steams alongside us. The Lady Victoria, captained by Charlie Felch, out of Hampton Beach, N.H., is going to be our partner, our significant other for the next three days. She has a similar look, dimensions and horsepower, nearly an exact match for the Stormy.
Similarity is critical when one is conducting side-by-side research tows. It acts as a variance control. This experiment is simply one net against another, not in competition, but in the collection of numbers — bycatch numbers. "Our goal's to prove to NMFS that we can tow an experimental trawl for haddock in the spring and not catch a lot of codfish or flounder," Bouchard says. "We want to be able to use this net from April into May. Right now we can't — that bottom is closed then."
The game plan for the next three days is straightforward: One boat will tow the test trawl (called the Eliminator during trials and later renamed for the late Phil Ruhle Sr.) and the other boat will use a regular two-seam groundfish net with a 90-foot sweep. The following day, the boats will trade nets. All the tows will be inside a pair of closed areas known as blocks 132 and 133, which were closed to trawling and gillnetting for three months beginning last March.
On the first day aboard the Stormy, it's a full house — Bouchard, deckhand Paul Kuncho, a Sea Grant writer, a researcher, and me. The wheelhouse bustles on the ride out. One question hangs on everyone's mind: Will the new trawl reduce codfish bycatch in an area that has more than a few codfish around?
Having a lot of people milling around the wheelhouse isn't for every captain. A couple of writers asking simultaneous, rapid-fire questions about "biomass" and "ecosystem-based management," and many captains would've turned the boat around. Yet Bouchard, a man at ease, a true graybeard, sits in the helm chair chewing a blue toothpick and discussing, happily and eloquently, the cod and haddock situation from Provincetown on Cape Cod to the Isle of Shoals off southernmost Maine and New Hampshire.
Kuncho, 37, is down below in his bunk, catching a catnap. Bouchard has been active in cooperative research for a decade. The University of New Hampshire knows him well. "A lot can be learned when information is shared. Science to fisherman, fisherman to science," Bouchard says. "At this point, I'd say it's essential."