Since New England was first settled, fishing boats and their crews have been unloading freshly caught flounder, cod, and haddock dockside in ports up and down the Eastern Seaboard.
But from Gloucester to Newburyport to the Gulf of Maine, the fishing boats that once dominated the waterfront landscape are disappearing as more and more small-time fishing operations are swamped by regulations imposed by the National Marine Fisheries Service in its attempt to bring fish stocks back from the brink after decades of overfishing.
Though he's been fishing commercially out of Newburyport since the early 1970s, Herbert Crooks feels defeated by the ever-increasing regulations, and at a time when he'd hoped to finish out his long career with the simpler, less strenuous work of scalloping and catching ground fish closer to home.
Instead, he's hanging up his scallop rake and his rod and reel for good.
"NMFS is ruining fishermen's lives with their rules," Brooks said. "They've taken the wind right out of my sail."
After many years of setting his internal clock by the sun's placement in the sky and the direction of the tide, Crooks isn't one to remember dates and times. But the lifelong Newburyport resident recalls in the 1970s playing hooky every Friday from his factory job at Chase Shawmut to go tuna fishing. He remembers that sometime after his bosses caught onto his gone-fishing routine, he walked out of the factory and threw his wristwatch into the Merrimack River, never looking back.
His career from that time on was his passion: fishing on his good friend Joe Hutchins' commercial fishing boat, spending a week out at sea waiting for a big catch and drifting with a line of other commercial fishermen at Cape Ann looking to hook up with one of the monster tuna that were once plentiful just offshore.
Tuna were plentiful back then, as were the ground fish that fleets from as far off as the USSR and Finland would come in search of.
"Most of the fish they get now, they have to measure to make sure it's legal," said Crooks of the changed fishery. "I didn't even bother to get a tuna permit this year."
While Crooks still holds a permit for a 200 hook, rod and reel on the 26-foot I Don't Know, over the years the plentiful cod and flounder he'd catch at Stellwagen or Georges Bank have been replaced by scavenger species like skate and dog fish, and it's grown harder and harder for a small-time fisherman like him to earn his keep.
He blames most of the changes on seiners, or net fishermen, who come into those areas and take the whole school back with them.
"They take a little boat off of a bigger boat, circle the whole school of fish, and they close up the bottom of the net," Crooks said. "They take it all."
Crooks is not the only small-time fisherman feeling the pain of an industry now highly regulated and dominated by fishing factories with deep pockets. Newburyport's fishing fleet has dried up, along with the fish stocks, in somewhat of a domino effect few could have foreseen.
"There used to be tons of fishermen in Newburyport," said Kate Yeomans, who co-owns with her husband, Rob, a marine educational camp called Boat Camp in a waterfront space that once housed a bustling fishing tackle and supply store.
"The fleet even over the past 10 years has diminished," she said of the fishing captains who have moved on to other regions or other lines of work. "For some, it's the lack of fish, and for others, it's the regulations."
Today, the remaining small fleet of boats harbored here diversify in order to "cobble" together a complete income, Yeomans said.
Crooks himself is an artist whose work hangs in many private homes throughout the area, she said. The others catch as catch can.
"Most of them are ground fishing or they diversify what they fish based on the time of year," she said. "When they can go scalloping, they do that. When they can go shrimping, they do that."
Some have side jobs and fish for only part of the year, like her husband's family, who have long-established roots in the commercial fishing industry in Newburyport. Rob's parents launched the original marine educational camp Coastal Discoveries, in part due to their dwindling ability to earn a living from fishing. Rob and Kate worked alongside them for years before branching out into Boat Camp and expanding the educational offerings to different age groups and demographics.
"It's expensive to run a boat," Yeomans said. "Based on what you can catch to pay for it — it starts to be an equation that doesn't always add up."
When the fleet started to move on out of Newburyport, a number of the support services that were there to supply the fishermen moved on as well, Yeomans said.
"Our classroom at Boat Camp used to be a tackle shop," she said. "The tackle shop used to service the whole fleet of fishermen, and that's just not there anymore."
The remaining fleet then moves on to where they can get that support, she said. And in that climate, NMFS continues to add new regulations.
"The current regulations — I'm not up on them all," Yeomans said. "They change practically by the day, so it's quite a matrix of rules and regulations they have to follow."
For a small fisherman like Crooks, who doesn't have money to fight the regulations by launching a legal challenge, it's become too much. He sees the need for regulation given the state of the fish stocks, but he's frustrated that NMFS applies the regulation evenly to fishing operations big and small.
It isn't enough to put a large commercial operation upside down, but it's enough to put guys like him out of business.
Crooks outfitted his boat six years ago to rake for scallops, a work he thought would keep him closer to home in his retirement, as scallops are found within three miles of shore. He liked the fact that he could always see the shore from where he was fishing, which wasn't always the case throughout his decades-long career.
With his 41�Ñ2-foot rake and a permit to gather 400 pounds of scallops a day, he would go out when it suited him, never catching more than 80 pounds, or two bags of scallops, thanks to dwindling stocks of those shellfish.
Then, three years ago, NMFS required him to put a GPS tracking device on his boat to ensure he wasn't fishing in areas recently restricted to fishermen by the NMFS. He went down to a 40-pound quota a day to avoid the requirement, but two years ago, they dropped the hammer on him again, requiring the GPS for merely one bag of scallops.
He begrudgingly gave up scalloping for good, still hoping with his fully outfitted boat that somewhere, someone will change their mind.
"This blows my mind that they would do this to someone who's not hurting the species," Crooks said.