New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press/Avalon Publishing Group, 2005
255 pages.

This is a very readable and often local account of commercial fishing, focusing primarily on fisheries of the northwest Atlantic, specifically on the groundfish fishery of midcoast Maine. The true scope of the story goes far beyond our cold waters, however, and in projecting an image of the coastal fisherman, fishing in a wooden boat he built with his own hands, hauling in iconic New England codfish (which was America’s first large-scale fishery and is perhaps now one of it’s most threatened stocks), it is perhaps a parable for stressed and depleted industrialized fisheries the world over.

Author Paul Molyneaux writes from his own wide-ranging experiences, as he was for many years a commercial fisherman himself, and has truly “been there and done that” in all kinds of weather and on many different decks. He fished from Cape May, New Jersey to Moss Landing, California to Seldovia, Alaska, coming finally to Rockland, Maine, working along the way as an albacore tuna troller, a scallop lumper and a halibut longliner. While he does write most of the book from a first person perspective, his writings are greatly enhanced by his humble ability to bring out the personalities and stories of the people he worked with over the years. Mr. Molyneaux does himself credit as both a fisherman and a writer by letting Bernard Raynes, groundfish fisherman of Owl’s Head, do most of the talking.

One of the striking points about some of the recollections contained in this book is that they are not really all that old. The inshore Maine groundfish fisheries that lasted for hundreds of years were reduced in the course of one or two generations. This change is enough to make one reflect on the shrinking time scale of human memory and human economics, and to realize that some of the changes in the ocean ecosystem are actually abrupt, significant and perhaps irreversible. Many of today’s lobstermen can remember inshore fisheries that simply no longer exist, and while it often seems that these recollections are dismissed as distant, “good-old-days” memories, as events and activities lost in the normal passage of time and development, these are in fact very rapid and remarkably sudden ecological changes, with long-term environmental and social effects not yet understood. Another striking point in reading this book is that much of this fishing was done remarkably close to the coast, in places that do not support a viable groundfish population today. One log entry in particular stands out for those who know the waters of the mouth of Penobscot Bay: “Today set on Green Island ridge, got six hundred cod, went to Vinalhaven, and took in the movies.” This area has no working groundfish boats now.

The book is all about fishing, but does not all take place out on sparkling seas with screaming gulls overhead. The latter third of the book focuses mainly on the seemingly even more treacherous political world of fisheries management, and exposes unflinchingly the inefficiencies and short-term and even personal interests of some of those setting the course for our marine resource management. One is left at the end with a sadness for the consolidation of a historically small-boat industry in the hands of a few large corporate boats, an empathy for the anger and frustration of some of those left fishing for groundfish on the Maine coast, and a sense of the possibly irrevocable passing of a set of skills and way of life that nourished New England for 400 years.

There are currently some encouraging signs of recovery of groundfish populations in some parts of the Gulf of Maine, and conservation efforts by managers do appear to be stiffening up. However, even if these populations recover, there is still the hanging issue as to who will be allowed to catch them, with most of the Maine-based licenses having been bought out or taken out of the state. Under current regulations many Maine fishermen may simply not be able to get back into this fishery, even at a reduced level. The IRENE & ALTON, the central vessel in much of the narrative, is still catching groundfish today, however – a testament to sound construction and care, and one gets a sense that the boat and the men who fish her may just weather this storm. With a little help from man, perhaps the fish will as well. This marine inheritance is at the root of our coastal New England culture, and this book, within its well crafted portrayal of a man and a boat, not only documents a single compelling story of our time and place, but also provides a larger lesson for the future, a healthy image of marine productivity based on prudent harvesting, local access and stewardship, and skilled fishermen.

Fisherman Bernard Raynes and author Paul Molyneaux will be at a book signing and sale at the Second Read Bookstore in Rockland, ME, at 1:00 PM on Saturday, June 4th. For more information call 594-4123.

Ben Neal is program officer for marine resources at the Island Institute.