By Richard Conniff
Plenty of fishermen, on the other hand, are prepared to argue just as stubbornly (but not so happily) about what’s been lost. At dawn on a late spring morning, Ernie Eldridge sits back on the engine housing of his 28-foot open boat, hands folded across his stomach, the right hand now and then casually reaching down to tweak his course seaward out of Chatham’s Stage Harbor. He’s 63 years old, with hanks of white hair flying out from under his cap, over sea-bleached blue eyes, weathered cheeks, and a yellowing beard. He started fishing these waters with his father at the age of 10, using a technology that dates back to the Cape’s original Wampanoag inhabitants. He is now the last weir fisherman still working on the Cape, for reasons that quickly become apparent.
A weir is a structure set up in the balmy winds of a New England March, a mile or so offshore, by driving 125 or so hickory poles, each about 40-feet long, 10-feet deep into the sandy bottom. They form a long straight line, called the leader, and when rigged with nets, they steer fish along their length into a heart-shaped pen, and then through a narrow gate into “the bowl,” which has a net strung across the bottom. Or that is what they would do, says Eldridge, if there were more fish and fewer seals.
As the boat pulls up to the first weir, the seals poke their heads up out of the water on either side of the leader and stare curiously, almost gratefully, as if to welcome their provider. A few years ago, a graduate student did a sonar study at one of Eldridge’s weirs and recorded 290 seal crossings at the gate in a day. Now Eldridge keeps the gate fenced off and has a birdcage of nets rigged high around the perimeter, to keep seals from clambering over the top.
“But they still intercept the fish as they’re coming up the leader and they scatter them,” he says. When the sonar was in place, he could actually watch as a school of squid, his target species, moved up along the leader. Then the seals appeared and the squid spun around in the opposite direction. “They break up the whole school of fish,” he says.
Eldridge, his daughter Shannon, and two other crewmen spend 45 minutes cinching in the net on the first of four weirs. It’s heavy hand-over-hand work, made harder by several tons of brown algal crud, a byproduct of excess nitrogen from too many houses and too many fertilized lawns along the shoreline. For their trouble, they come up with a mess of inedible spider crabs, a fish skeleton stripped bare, and a solitary squid. “That’s fishing in the twenty-first century,” says Eldridge. “And that’s why we don’t have a lot of competition.” He’s thinking about switching over to mussel farming, where the seals might pose less of a problem.
Other, angrier fishermen just want to take matters into their own hands, if only symbolically for now: At his home on the Cape, one commercial fisherman sometimes serves canned seal meat on Ritz crackers, “like pate,” he says. He also keeps a bottle of omega three pills made from seal oil. You can buy either at the grocery in Canada’s Maritime Provinces, where harvesting seals is a venerable, if controversial, tradition. In this country, even owning such products is a federal crime. But that only makes them more appetizing.
“I don’t want an all-out slaughter of seals,” he says. What he wants is to modify the Marine Mammal Protection Act to arrive at “a better balance between seals and people.” That could mean permission to harass seals to keep them away from fishing gear, he suggests. It could mean birth control for seals. Or it might mean an annual cull: “What are the alternative uses for a dead seal? Is there a meat market, a fur market, an oil market? And it turns out there is a market for all these things. Maybe we could have a fishery that targets seals, with a quota attached to it?”
Then, in the next breath, he recalls why such a thing will almost certainly never come to pass. It’s not the law. It’s not the bipolar Cape Cod personality, half cooing, half cursing. It’s human nature. When you look at a month-old human baby, he says, “The first thing you see are the big round eyes and the bald head, and your heart melts. This is an evolved trait. It happens to you without you knowing it.” By coincidence, seals elicit the same emotional response, he says. “You see the big eyes, the bald, round head, and the cute-ish look that it gives you, and you automatically become its protector.” He feels it himself. “You can’t help but feel it. The difference is that I can identify it.” Other people, he suggests, are too caught up in their anthropomorphic notion that seals are almost human.
Recreational fishermen also generally manage to set aside any sentimental feelings, particularly because the contest with seals can seem so individual, so mano à mano. A surfcaster will pack up the car, drop the tire pressure down to 15 pounds for beach driving, wend his way out several miles to a favorite fishing spot, take his rod off the rack–and immediately a seal will pop up in the water directly in front of him. This business of floating upright and watching is called “bottling,” and sometimes 10 or 12 seals will show up and bottle together. Even if they can’t catch a striped bass or a bluefish on their own, they have become adept at stealing one off the end of a fisherman’s line.
If the fisherman moves down the beach, the seals often follow. Their great glossy eyes are widely separated, with the browline turned down anxiously at the outsides, making them look like Mr. Wimpy, or a dozen Mr. Wimpies, all meekly offering to pay the fisherman Tuesday for a striped bass today. Not so meekly, a seal will sometimes come hammering up out of the surf to snatch away a fish just as the fisherman is about to bag it.
“When people see the seal steal a fish off the line two or three times, they don’t try a fourth time. They just stop,” says the proprietor of a local sporting goods shop. The seals form a “gray wall” in the surf, and schools of fish that used to run the beaches take the hint and move offshore. As a result, he says, the whole culture of spring and fall fishing on the beaches has gone away. Or rather, “it’s turned into rich man’s fishing. You have to buy a boat, or charter one.”
Out on Nantucket, where merely breathing can be a rich man’s sport, recreational fishermen have formed a Seal Abatement Coalition (SAC) to amend the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Peter Krogh, a courtly, high-browed figure in khaki slacks and a perfectly fitted tweed jacket, spent his career as a professor at Georgetown. He and a neighbor who is a former Citibank executive both retired to Nantucket for the beach fishing, only, as they see it, to have the seals take it away from them. “We sometimes wonder why we’re doing this,” says Krogh, about the SAC campaign. “We could just be playing golf. But if something isn’t done, the seals are going to overwhelm us and take over the island.” A lobbyist who has a house on Nantucket is pushing the cause for them on a pro bono basis in Washington, D.C.
This idea makes some other Nantucket residents seethe. “What gets me about SAC is the sense of entitlement,” says Blair Perkins, who grew up on the island and now runs Shearwater Excursions, a whale watching business. “They’re entitled to the fish and the seals aren’t. They’re recreational fishermen, and it’s interfering with their playtime. I don’t understand that at all.” The seals, he says, “need to haul out somewhere. They’re at sea sometimes for days or weeks at a time. They just want to survive as they have for thousands of years. To say that they’re interfering with my recreation is just arrogant.” Video.