When you open a talk with, “What’s the weirdest thing you have ever caught?” and the answer is, “A human head,” it’s fair to wonder how the rest of the evening might go.
That’s what happened at a recent New Bedford Fishing Heritage Center event exploring a day in the life of veteran scallop boat captain Chris Wright.
After the crowd’s initial silence, Wright explained — very business-like — that during this particular trip, he had known of a boat that sank with three crewmembers from New Jersey. Once the dredge was brought aboard and the head was spotted mixed in with the catch, he notified the Coast Guard. They declared almost immediately that it was from the sunken vessel. A rescue helicopter was dispatched to collect the remains to be returned to the family.
It was a somber opening that unintentionally brought attention to a simple fact: Commercial fishing can be a dangerous business.
Afterward, a bit of levity returned to the room when a retired tradesman from Connecticut asked about how they shuck scallops, with a hard pronunciation on the first syllable: skal-lup.
The captain joked, “You’re not from around here, are you? In New Bedford, we say, ‘scallop’” — emphasizing a certain way of saying the word (skawl-up) that I guess you can only experience if you have ever traveled to the South Coast of Massachusetts. This issue has been debated before. (In full disclosure, I’m a guilty Connecticut native who says "scallop" with a hard "A” and full-stop.)
Tongue-in-cheek jokes aside, scallops are the lifeblood of New Bedford at the moment and to bring the experience of that industry into the community is an important achievement.
The audience for Wright’s talk was diverse — from industry veterans, to interested community members and, oddly enough, travelers on a cruise ship making a call in port. Questions on life at sea were plentiful. What does a crew eat? How do you navigate the boat? Some inquired about and technical details on stability and dredge operation.
With a commercial fleet that operates only (on average) 75 days a year, the boats can appear unused to the average passerby, leading to an interesting discussion on regulations. As the operator of two 100-foot boats for two different owners — the Huntress out of Fairhaven and the Nordic Pride across the harbor in New Bedford — Wright is well-versed on the subject.
Giving a history of scalloping since 1994, when regulations and changes in the industry realigned the business, Wright also talked of how he works with teams from various marine sciences divisions on estimating scallop seabed populations.
“My kids are scallopers with me. I want it to be there for them, too,” explains Wright.