Cape Cod – The Harvest Of The Waters

ONE might spend his summers on the Cape for years, and never, unless he sought it, set his eyes on a codfish. Yet no one doubts that the Cape was suitably named, or that John Smith, interested more in whales, found cod-fish, and sixty thousand of them in a single month. “The best mine that the King of Spain hath” would not, according to that thrifty and prophetic old sailor, offer more solid values.

American fisheries were the liveliest thing in the mind of Europe, when that mind turned toward the newly found hemisphere. Thou-sands of fishing voyagers plowed the Atlantic waters before Gosnold, and Pring, and De-Monts, and Smith wrote their names on the continental border. This was the strongest force that impelled the English and the French to plant colonies. They knew the ins and outs of the New England shore long before the Pilgrims sailed. Samoset learned his English from fishermen, and Plymouth was the third name given to that place by explorers from Europe.

The salt waters and the tide flats were an important source of food, for Plymouth and the other early settlements, and this supply was imperative in times of scarcity. But fishing was not a large industry in Plymouth; indeed, some of their ventures were of such ill luck that they said the fishing undertakings of Plymouth were always “fatal.” Sometimes they had to cover their losses in fish by trading in furs.

Such fishing as the Pilgrims accomplished is an example of the force of environment, for the early settlers of Cape Cod had been farmers and artizans. It was their new home that sent them fishing and on commercial voyages. They did not come to use lines and seines. They had no apparatus or supplies for this industry. They did not even plan to settle where the fish were, but would have gone to the banks of the Hudson, it may be, if the sailing had been good. They were apt to fail when they tried the business, even while the Massachusetts and Maine colonists were catching and selling fish to great profit.

The Pilgrims were glad to fish when they were hungry, and it was the cod and other fish, with lobsters, eels and clams, or oysters brought to them by the Indians, that saved them from starvation. The industry was well recognized in the early regulations and statutes. This was true even while the Old Colony kept its identity, and shortly after the union with Massachusetts, or in 1694, the General Court made laws concerning the mackerel and other fisheries. There was a duty prescribed of twelve pence per barrel, recognizing “the providence of God which hath made Cape Cod commodious to us for fishing with seines.” The proceeds were turned over for the support of a free school at Plymouth.

Barrels of fish in no way measure the importance of fishing in the Old Colony. Lines of worldwide trade began to shoot out from the coasts of Barnstable and Plymouth, and it was fishing that was behind them. This was the large factor in starting the round of commercial exchanges. Cape ships carried the fish to the West Indies, and brought back molasses and spirits, which the Cape wanted and Boston wanted.

Here too, was the sailor’s schooling. Sea-men by the hundreds, rather by the thousands, got the stern training which enabled them with small change of habit to pour their experience and their daring into the early navies of America.

Whale fishing came in at an early date, along with the mackerel and the cod, and was in like fashion subject to the restrictions of Colonial law. The first voyagers regretfully saw fortunes slip away from them as the whales frolicked in the Bay and their ships were as innocent of harpoons as they were of small boats, and small hooks for the lesser game of the sea. But they atoned for early unpreparedness, and the history of New England whaling in its later thrills and greatness, began in Truro, developed in Wellfleet and then centered in Provincetown. Thence it extended across Nantucket Sound and Buzzards Bay to Nantucket and New Bedford.

It was a public duty in Plymouth, an obligation resting on every citizen, to watch off-shore for whales. If a whale was sighted a boat was at once launched to attack. A “whaling ground,” or reservation for watching, was set apart on the “North shore,” which was in the northwestern part of the present town of Dennis. As time went on this watching did not bring returns, for the whales were leaving the Old Colony shores, made shy, perhaps, and learning through some sort of animal wisdom, that there was greater safety in the remote and open waters. Only two or three whales were caught near Cape Cod in the year 1746.

Thoreau, like other good travelers, read all he could, before he went. In the scattered literature of the old Cape, the drift whale and the minister’s un-whalelike salary had stirred his ready capacity for the ludicrous, and he gives us an indelible portrait of the poor clergyman eagerly scanning the sea from his perch on the shore. The minister was not the only beneficiary of the stranded whale; the school received its part also, for school and church and minister all moved on a high level of privilege and honor in the Old Colony.

The drift whale was not, however, turned over as a pure gift of God to heavenly uses. Towns had their rights, and private finders had theirs, and human nature being about at its average, there was much controversy. Sandwich had its full share of drift-whale regulations before the town was twenty years old, and Old Colony riparian rights in 1654 took account of shore owners on whose strands whales were cast up. The whale killing in general became profitable, and, so early as 1687, two hundred tons of oil were exported to England; “one of our best returnes.”

The blackfish is a small whale which runs in schools in the Bay. A hundred or more of these creatures may strand themselves on the beach, and in the older days there was a rush of men and boats, if a school was sighted, to drive them to shore, for the valuable oil that their heads, or some part of their heads, afforded. They are not sought now, and their coming uninvited imposes the burden of towing their cumbersome carcasses out to sea, lest their decomposition make existence intolerable on the strand. Blackfish Creek in Well-fleet has received such a visit in recent years, and the sands at the approach to Province-town, where seventy-five of these unwieldy bodies lay on the beach, ranging in length from six to twenty feet or more.

Sharks are not unknown on Cape Cod shores, though none were seen there during the season not long past when some lives were lost on the shores not far to the south. Free-man records the existence of shark-fishing at Race Point, where as many as two hundred were taken in a single year.

The last two centuries have seen each a great development in fishing in the Old Colony. The earlier growth reached its height about the opening of the Revolution when more than a thousand ships swept the waters and more than ten thousand men were engaged. These ships and these men took a great part in driving the French power from the American continent, and then, smarting under measures of repression, they took their part in the victory over Great Britain.

At the time of the Revolution, Marblehead was the foremost fishing town and Gloucester followed in its wake. Plymouth and Chatham were the Old Colony centers, Plymouth having sixty vessels and over four hundred men, and Chatham about half as many of each. In 1783, however, at the close of the war, Chat-ham had only four or five fishing craft, but of sorrowing mothers and lonely widows the town was full.

The Plymouth fisheries likewise were small at the time of peace, but by the year 1800, seventeen years later, there was a good measure of revival. Cod, mackerel, and herring were caught, two miles of the Plymouth shore were lined with marks of the enterprise, while Spain, Portugal, and the Atlantic Islands afforded the markets.

Provincetown had more than thirty vessels in 18o2, and the sailings reached as far as Newfoundland and Labrador. At the same time Wellfleet had a goodly fleet in the cod, mackerel and oyster trade. Duxbury also was engaged in codfishing and in building ships.

In the recovery of fishing after the Revolution, Plymouth held third place from 1786 to 1790, Marblehead and Gloucester being in the lead.

The future of fishing on these shores was, however, by no means assured in those years, for in 1789, Fisher Ames found it necessary to champion this industry of New England, lest it go down to ruin. Answering the hypothetical question—” Why, if the business is so bad, do they not quit it? ” he quoted words often said in the East in those days, of the people of the Cape, ” They are too poor to live there, and are too poor to remove.”

That the Cape fishermen did not stick to their nets and hooks is asserted over and over by McFarland in his history of the New England fisheries. There was little movement among this class to lands beyond the Alleghenies. Rather did they hug the sea, and seek out the recesses of the fioirded coasts of Maine, of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and of Labrador.

The next great expansion and decline took place in the nineteenth century, and it went together with the wide distribution of shipping among the New England seaports, both great and small. The Plymouth district, which took in not only Plymouth, but Kingston, Duxbury, and Scituate, averaged almost seventy ships engaged in codfishing after 1816, and this condition endured for half a century, or until about 1866. Plymouth had her mackerel trade also, but for a lesser time. Thousands of barrels were taken in 183o, but the business had subsided by 185o.

Wellfleet had a large mackerel fleet, beginning in 1826, and employing seventy-five schooners as late as 1860, continuing also for years after that date. During a similar period, there were large interests in whale, cod and mackerel in Provincetown. All through the middle of the century, Chatham, Dennis and Harwich developed in mackerel as the cod fell off. Chatham lost her codfishing when her harbor became shallowed with silt. The larger ships could not use the port, but the smaller mackerel boats continued to come and go. Mackerel were first caught for salting in 1818, having previously been mainly used for bait.

There was great decline in New England fisheries in the quarter of a century following 1850, especially in offshore fishing. With this decline was largely lost the nursery of our earlier navy and the foundation of our merchant marine. There were various causes of the falling off in New England. Middle Atlantic oysters were going to the Mississippi valley. The Great Lakes had to be reckoned with for they were putting large supplies of fish on the markets of the interior. Salt fish from New England could not hold their place on the Pacific Coast when the western home waters abounded in halibut, and ran red with salmon. The railroads and cold cars at first helped the New England industry but later overwhelmed it with the competition of remote waters. Sardines and canning factories on the Maine coast did their part in cutting away the market for cod and mackerel.

No small influence in the waning of fishing was the upgrowth of summer life on the shore. Who knows now that Bar Harbor in older days was just a fishing station? The fishing hut has surrendered to the summer home, while the fisherman serves the visitor, gives himself to inshore fishing, and watches his lobster traps. He is content to leave the deep seas, for rowing a dory or driving a motorboat on sunshiny afternoons.

An elderly gentleman of a quarter of a century ago, long absent from the Cape but never losing his love of it or his devotion to his native Wellfleet, has given other reasons for the changed life of Cape Cod. According to him, one element in the change was the breaking-up of the old salt industry. The decline of mackerel fishing was hastened by the desertion of the coast on the part of these shy fish. Seines were introduced, and this had the interesting result that only men could be employed. There was little further use for boys, who can handle lines but not nets, hence the boys left the Cape.

There was also much unemployment in the winter and spring. Even good and able young men could not get work, and the consequent loss and unrest turned their steps inland. Not to be forgotten also were the dangers of the sea. The hazards of fishing, and the hundreds of widowed women left prematurely in their lonely struggle, made the young women loth to marry seamen, a reluctance in which their parents fully shared.

Thus we come down to our day, and on the Cape one hears a good deal about mackerel and very little about cod. The mackerel is first in the public eye mainly because of much legislation. About 1911, the mackerel indus-try did not show one tenth the value of twenty-five years previous. Still there were great possibilities, this being the mysterious fish of the sea, coming and going by age-long instinct, causing poverty in one year, and bringing riches in the next.

One who has read Thoreau’s story of Provincetown will doubtless keep the codfish in his memory after all else has been forgotten. The codfish is entwined in the older history of Barnstable County, and is memorialized in the name of the Cape. Our historian of the fisheries has put into a single paragraph an epitaph of the cod which should be denied to no reader of Cape lore.

“Of all the fish of the sea, none is dearer to the heart of the New Englander than the cod-fish. History has claimed it for her own, and thrown a halo about its name. For years the cod held supreme sway over all others of its kind. This was due to no sentiment arising from historic associations. The life of the colonist was staked upon the economic importance of the codfish. The Revolution witnessed a struggle in diplomacy in which the codfish was the central figure. Our war for independence, upon the sea, was won by cod-fishermen from the Capes and Banks. The cod tells ‘of commerce, diplomacy, war; of victories won in all three fields.’ While the cod occupies so completely the foremost place in our fisheries until the second war with Great Britain, there arises in the more recent history, consideration for other fish.”

We are not to suppose that fishing has passed from the Old Colony. There are no ports on the inner or outer shores where one may not find some signs of it. Docks are decaying, boats are small, and fishermen are few, but they are there, and will be there as long as salt water is an abounding home of living things.

But fishing is specialized and localized, and no longer is the chief occupation or the consuming thought of the majority. Looking out from Provincetown or Truro, Wellfleet or Brewster, one sees structures that look like light stockades, in the shallow waters. They are the fish weirs, and one may wade out to the fisherman’s small craft in the early morning and go to the drawing of the net. The catch is large or it is light, but the shining mackerel will be a part of it, with butterfish and hake and other kinds about which the landsman knows little. Pretty surely there will be some squid, which are sold for bait to the offshore fishermen, and some huge flat skates, which rather cruelly will be pitchforked into the Bay for the gulls to quarrel over. The catch is often small, but it may tax belief, as when four hundred barrels of mackerel were snared in a single weir not many years ago.

The weirs at Brewster are shaped like a shepherd’s crook. The fish run out with the tide along the shaft of the crook, and run into the hook. The tide here leaves about two miles of the Bay bottom bare, and the fish rarely find their way out of the weirs. They are carried out in wagons, and sent by train to Boston.

One sees a number of large buildings on the shore at Provincetown, which have been erected in recent years, as the older fishing habits have passed away. They are the refrigerating plants, of which Provincetown has several, and North Truro, Yarmouth, Barnstable and Chatham each one. They may receive the catch of the weirs, or such cargoes of offshore fish as do not go to Gloucester or Boston.

Another sign of the fishing industry has just now appeared. To the apprehension of Provincetown, as it would seem, the selectmen of Truro have permitted the construction of a factory for fish waste on East Harbor, close to the dunes which environ Provincetown. Here the fish waste may be transmuted into fertilizers and oils. Who knows but the factory, proving possibly a better scavenger than the gulls, may turn out a boon rather than a curse to the surfless strand of Provincetown?

The cod and mackerel are at home in the salt waters and they stay there, though they roam widely. The herring has a different notion of existence, and varies its program with incursions along any thin line of fresh water which will conduct it to lake or pond, in the months of May and June. The herring has attached its name to a number of these inland waters on the Cape, and does not allow itself to be forgotten in the routine of the seasons. One would not search far in the records of the towns, or attend many sessions of some town meetings without finding interesting records, now and then of stirring contests over herring rights and privileges.

The outlet of the noble lake of Mashpee is a swift-running brook, narrow enough to jump. Below the road that crosses the brook a short distance from the lake were piled two hundred barrels of salted herring, baking harmlessly they said, in the August sun, while they awaited the sending to market. There was a plat-form with planks on edge for a rim and into that enclosure the net dumped its holding, after spanning the six-foot channel.

So congested is the run that a parallel channel was cut a few feet away to afford a double chance at the throng of herring, hurrying up to the big lake. And a short distance below on this brook, which is Mashpee River, were more hundreds of barrels, a thousand in all on the little stream making a single season’s catch. Any resident of the town has the right to catch the herring, except when, as is not uncommon, the town authorities farm out the herring privilege for the general profit.

When the Cape Cod Canal was put through, it virtually replaced the Monumet River. What is left of the upper stream runs from Great Herring Pond, in Bourne, into the canal. The granite blocks on the canal borders hindered the coming of the alewives and injured the fisheries. A correspondence opened in 1917, led to the joint action of the Canal Company, of the Town of Bourne, and of the State Commission of Fisheries and Game, by which a suitable fishway was constructed between the canal and the river, thus restoring favorable conditions.

The freshwater fish of the Cape, while in no sense affording an industry, have since Daniel Webster’s day, and no doubt long before, given ample sport to lovers of the rod and line. Trout and bass still love the pure waters of the Old Colony lakes and streams, and some stocking of the ponds is said to be undertaken by the Fish Commission at Woods Hole, and there is a hatchery in Sandwich for stocking with brook trout and the landlocked salmon.

Something more may be added concerning that kind of fishery which so far as New England is concerned has gone into the past, and is already by most forgotten. Tower, in his history of New England Whaling, quotes Thatcher’s history of Plymouth regarding the early settlers’ doubts about staying on the Cape. One of the main reasons for staying was the opportunity to fish, for “large whales of the best kind for oil and bone came daily alongside and played about the ship.”

Secretary Randolph, in 1688, sent a letter to England in which he said, ” Now Plymouth Colony have great profit by whale killing. I believe it will be one of our best returns, now beaver and peltry fayle us. Down to 1700 no town outside of the Old Colony, except Nantucket, was taking whales, and Nantucket was a disciple of the Cape in this industry. The whaling always began with drift whales, and this led to boat whaling, a fact true of the Massachusetts settlements, of Nantucket, and of the eastern end of Long Island. A Nantucket whaler, blown out to sea in 1727, en-countered sperm whales, and this event broadened the industry from drift and boat whaling and sent the whalers to the deep. The Boston News Letter of 1727 refers to the change from shore to open sea as having now come to the Cape towns, thus following in a few years the new example of Nantucket.

By 1737 Provincetown was fitting a dozen ships for the far northern waters of Davis Strait. This enterprise took from the end town of the Cape all but about a dozen of its men. Whaling continued on the Cape to the Revolution, at whose beginning Wellfleet, Barnstable and Falmouth had thirty-six vessels, mostly in northern waters. New Bedford appeared in the industry not more than fifteen years before the Revolution.

The business was about destroyed as was other fishing at the end of the war, and the towns were well-nigh bereft of vessels and of all other equipment. The whales, however, had had a rest, had grown more numerous and more tame, and there was some revival in which Wellfleet and Plymouth had a share. There was, however, no complete recovery until the War of 1812 had passed. Then growth began, coming to its height in the forties, with about six hundred vessels in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans.

After 183o regular fleets went out from Falmouth and Plymouth, Provincetown coming in strongly somewhat later. Since 1895 Boston, New Bedford and Provincetown have been the only ports at which even a remnant of whaling survived. Some readers would like to know the years of last sailings for whales from the various Cape towns. Here they are—Barnstable, 1846; Truro, 1852; Falmouth, 1859; Sandwich, 1862; Wellfleet, 1867. In a short quarter of a century the Cape lost all its whaling except from Provincetown.

In 1906, New Bedford had twenty-four ships, San Francisco fourteen, and Province-town three. Six whalers are even at the present time assessed in Provincetown, but they fit out and land at New Bedford. The Civil War, like the wars of 1776 and 1812, broke up the whaling in destructive fashion and the mineral oil of Pennsylvania assured the end.

The seas are vast, and they so abound in life that we stop with our conservation ideas at their borders. Yet we have seen how even the whales profited by something like a closed season, widely as they roam and feed and multiply. But conservation is needed at the shore-line, and this is the burden and cry of those who report each year to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on the state of the mollusk. It is all summed up in the phrase, “the fast-declining shellfish industries.”

Cape Cod is the dividing line between the northern and southern types of marine life. Here the two faunas mingle, and hence it is that on the Cape the northern or soft clam and the southern hardshell clam or quahaug overlap. The bays and estuaries of the Cape, like those of the rest of Massachusetts, are favorable for these edible shellfish, but thou-sands of once productive acres are now barren.

The official writer thinks that the forefathers who evinced such comfortable satisfaction in “sucking the abundance of the seas” were extremely wasteful. The production, indeed, was twice as much in 1907 as in 1879, but this does not mean an increased natural supply. It does mean that high prices took more men and more money into the work, conditions which can but hasten the process of destruction.

One writer cites specific cases of decline on the Cape, as of the oyster at Wellfleet, the sea clam at Dennis and Chatham, the scallop in Buzzards Bay and at Barnstable, and the clam and quahaug on many Old Colony shores from Duxbury around to Buzzards Bay. The order of shellfish departure is simple, and unless ample things are done, inevitable. It is heavy demand, then over-fishing and decline. A further means of destruction is the pollution of shore waters with sewage and factory waste.

Plymouth is the northern limit of the hard-shell clam or quahaug. The largest fisheries on the Old Colony coast are at Wellfleet, Or-leans, Eastham and in Buzzards Bay, but there is a decline almost everywhere. An evidence of the waning of the industry is the employment of sixty-foot rakes, to raise the bivalves from that depth of water. The small sizes, or “little necks” are taken because the market demands them, the big ones are not left for spawning, and so the destruction goes on.

The adoption of cultural methods, or “quahaug farming” is urged as the remedy, and the town laws in the quahaug centers now look in this direction. High-power seine boats are now used off Orleans in the deep water quahaug fishing that prevails in that shore. The main season runs from April to November, and fits itself to the winter season of taking scallops.

Those who are devoted to some special corner of the Cape will find in the reports of the game commission the hard-clam story in de-tail for every town, including a half-dozen pages on Wellfleet, the “seat of the finest quahaug industry in Massachusetts,” there being twenty-five hundred acres, nearly the whole harbor, save where there are oyster grants. Here the laying out of the plots is said to have aroused the usual hostility between the oystermen and the quahaugers.

Scalloping is a ‘southshore industry on the Cape, centering mainly in Chatham, Harwich, Dennis and in Hyannis Bay, and Cotuit in the town of Barnstable. Buzzards Bay, Monument Beach and Cataumet are other haunts of this graceful bivalve. Dennis has over two thousand acres of scallop ground, a field which is likely to produce in one year and be barren the next.

In 1904—05 Dennis had, so one reporter says, one of the largest beds of scallops ever known in Massachusetts. Profits ran high and expectation likewise, but the next spring all the leftovers of this short-lived creature were dead and the catch of that season had to be dredged from deeper waters.

The oyster business is carried on with more system and greater success than the other shellfish ventures. It is also a southshore industry on the Cape and, indeed, in the State of Massachusetts. Exceptions on Cape Cod are the oyster grants of Wellfleet, Eastham and Orleans.

In early days there were many natural oyster beds, as at Wellfleet, where the primitive settlers found enough for themselves and for some outside trade. A few native oysters are still found in Harwich, at Centerville and in Falmouth. No natural oysters, however, are in these days secured for market use. The destruction of these beds was due to overfishing and the pollution of the waters. The natural bed at Wellfleet was exterminated by the year 1775. The early oystermen took all the large oysters, leaving none for spawning, and they did not restore to the beds the empty shells, which furnish the best surfaces for oyster “spat.” The few natural beds which are still in existence, are preserved through spawn from oyster grants, and hence it is confidently believed that the adoption of a farming system has saved the creature from absolute extinction in Massachusetts waters.

Following the period of natural oysters which lasted from 1620 to 1840, there was an interval of thirty years of bedding small oysters brought from the South, but the grant system has prevailed since 1870. One of the chief Cape centers is at Wellfleet, yet even here the industry is on the decline. The quahauger, it is claimed, is busy in town affairs, and is opposed to renewing the oyster leases when they run out. Indeed Wellfleet supports a quahaug club, enrolling about all the diggers of this mollusk. Poor, quiescent oysters and clams—they are set against each other by that higher order of being who in his ascent has lost their gentle art of minding their own business.

Chatham goes considerably into oyster raising, but the great oyster town of Massachusetts is Barnstable, whose oyster grounds are at Cotuit, Marston’s Mills, and Osterville, Cotuit being first in importance. Here the Bay is said to have remarkably pure waters, and a clean sand bottom, producing a specially bright and clear shell. There are small grants in Falmouth, in Waquoit Bay. This town does not, however, go far in any of the shell-fish industries.

Unlike the oyster, or quahaug, the soft-shell clam, or “long neck,” dwells along the northern shores of Massachusetts, and is found all the way from Salisbury and Newburyport to Salem, Hingham, Duxbury, and Plymouth, and around the Bay to Provincetown. It also occurs in Buzzards Bay and on some south shores of the Cape. Its story is likewise one of decline, although immense fields of tidal flat invite an industry that has almost ceased. Much the same is true of Kingston and Plymouth, where in early days the sea food saved the colonists from perishing.

The Virginian cannot forever raise tobacco on the same bit of coastal plain, and the prairie farmer finds an end of wheat and corn from unrequited soil. Even the vast and elusive sea must be treated with discretion. No doubt the Cape Codder will continue to dig a pail of clams for his supper, and the picnicker will for long be able to buy, down by the harbor, a basket of oysters in the shell for a roasting bout by some lake in the Wellfleet woods. But when he goes in for business, the Cape fisherman, like the Cape fanner, must put his wits into the game and work and forecast in the long range.

Conserve and be mindful in good conscience of future generations. They will want oysters and quahaugs, mackerel and cod, and they may need even whales. The Mayflower fathers could suck the abundance of the seas but their children proudly looking over their genealogies in the eighth and ninth generations must mind their soils and their sea bottoms. It is a delicate task to live well in relation to the earth mother and in due regard for all her children.