John Pappalardo is a hook fisherman in Chatham, Massachusetts.



John, why do you hook fish?

I use a hook and a line. That’s the way I started fishing. I was a recreational fisherman for a long time and I’ve actually only been at the commercial racquet for two years or so. But I think it was the obvious and easy changeover. I knew how to use a hook and a line, so I could make money at it. And living here in Chatham, it’s pretty easy to get on a boat as a crew member.

And after that, I saw that there were some benefits to fishing with a hook and a line that I wasn’t aware of. But I didn’t know about that until I started looking at all the other gears and listening to what fisherman had to say and doing a little research and getting the science of it all. And found out that one of the neat things about fishing with a hook and a line is you can bring the fish up alive and if it’s something you don’t want or you can’t sell, you can just unhook ‘em and release ‘em. And that was sort of a carryover from recreational fishing. That’s something that you can’t really do with other gears.

Is this kind of hook fishing a creative possibility to buck the trend of hard times that fishermen are having?

Well, if you look at the history of George’s Bank I’m talking about going back 350, 400 years and even before that — the Basques fished Georges Bank and other countries would actually travel across the Atlantic Ocean in wooden sailing vessels and dory fish for cod. And then you saw that started happening here. That was the only way people would fish. Out of Provincetown and Gloucester. You hear about the schooners and the dory fishermen — sort of folklore now. But it was a sustaining practice for 350 years and it’s kind of hard to deny that. The facts are in, anyone can find them. The catches back then were prolific — we’re talking tens of millions of pounds a year.

Basically, there has been a demise in fisheries for a number of reasons. How is it that it is still possible to make a living hook and line fishing?

The small group of hook fishermen here in Chatham and Harwich is able to make a living at it. Why are they able to make a living at it? They’re getting top dollar for their product. They’re only responsible for supporting their family — their immediate family. They’re not some larger vessel which is part of a corporation that has a balance sheet or a bottom line and is driven primarily by that. Also, a hook fisherman doesn’t need to bring in 10, 15, 20, or 30 thousand pounds of fish. He’s happy with a 1,000 to 1,500 a day, and on a good day more. But there are also broker days. There are days when you go out and you spend 1,000 dollars to make 500 hundred dollars. So it is a small business. But there seems to be a little bit more leeway in terms of what he can absorb versus a corporation can absorb.

How are you guys going about bucking the trend of the diminishing fishing industry here in New England?

Again, as far as hook fishing goes, right here in Chatham and Harwich we have 12 guys that are at it year-round and they’re making a living at it — supporting their families. And some of them have been at it for 15 years. You know it’s a labor-intensive way to fish. It’s a craft. Gear is baited up on days off or on the way out to the fishing grounds and the day is long. It is an 18-hour day.

But that’s a decision that these people have made. It’s just the way they want to fish. They’re proud of the way they fish. Because they don’t feel that they’re impacting the habitat. They don’t feel that they’re catching unwanted species and throwing them overboard. They’re making the money that they need to make to survive. They’re squirreling away a little bit of cash just like everybody else does in their retirement plan.

And I think they’re called elitists but I think that’s just because other people are afraid to come on down to Chatham and bait up and go hook fishing. And I say come on down. Anybody can hook fish. It may take some time, but like I said: people have been doing it for 300 years and it certainly wasn’t the cause of the problems that we’re seeing today. So, come hook fish.

Overall in New England is the industry shrinking, in your view?

Well 8 years ago the industry took a bit of a hit. Like a lot of these big corporate boats, the draggers, went out of business or sold out to the government and took a buy-out and that reduced the fishing power on the seas.

But as far as down here on Cape Cod, we haven’t really taken a hit and a lot of other ports like New Bedford and Gloucester are quick to point that out. But I think a lot of that has to do with the diversity and the lateral ability — the lateral movement of the small boat fleet. You know, we can jump in and out of fisheries. We can go hook fishing when the prices are right for cod, we can target tuna fish in the summer time, and we can work on striped bass. We happen to have another benefit in that we have a commercial shell-fishery here, which is wild.

The bottom line for a lot of these guys isn’t as high, they don’t have to meet these great goals that a lot of these big boats have to. And maybe it’s time that people slow down the way they fish and maybe it’s time that they take a step back and kind of throw some of that technology out. Maybe we’re chasing the fish too fast; maybe we’re taking too much too quick and killing a lot of things in the process.

I always look at it as an analogy of a hunter in a forest. If I was hunting minks to make a coat or hunting deer I wouldn’t use a bulldozer to hunt these animals and wreck everything in its path. I’d use traps or I’d single one out individually. And that’s kind of like fishing. A hook fisherman uses a baited hook to catch a single fish. This leaves the habitat from which that fish came from completely intact — thus ensuring a place for other fish to grow up, instead of plowing it over and then saying, "ohh, where’s all the fish?" Well, hey man, you wrecked their home. They’ve moved on, if they’re still around.

What plans do you have in marketing your product and the value-added part of it?

Hooked fish is more valuable because it hasn’t been sitting in the water for three days or two days. It hasn’t been smooshed in the end of a dragger bag, the cod end of a bag; it hasn’t been at sea on ice for days on end. These fish are caught and brought to dock and in market within 12 hours from the time they’re caught. It doesn’t get any fresher than that unless you go out and get it yourself.

And we’ve been rewarded for that. People will pay more for our product, especially now with this environmental trend that’s sweeping the nation. People are getting more conscious of what they eat, where it comes from, how it’s caught, how it’s killed, how it’s prepared, and how it’s stored.

So we’re going to kind of take it a step further and starting next spring we’re going to start trucking our own fish. We’re going to all get together and put all our fish on a truck and bring it up to the display auction, because when you put it side by side with these other methods of fishing, there’s no comparison. We hope to market our own fish for ourselves and bring the return back home and not pay pennies to the pound to all the middlemen in between. And again: we think that’ll be an incentive for other people to start fishing that way.

What more can you say about individual transferable quotas?

The individual quota concept scares a lot of the small boat guys, because I think they feel they’ve been unjustly treated, unfairly treated, by the government. Whenever the government introduces a new management plan it usually doesn’t bode well for the family fisherman.

The concept of an individual transferable quota is not palatable here in New England. We’re mostly small community-based fishermen, regardless of gear type. There’s a feeling that, and we saw it in the surf clam fishery here, that now you have eight boats that basically own this resource. It’s common property and here we have 5 or 6 people that have the rights to take this resource. I know the positive sides of the argument but as far as we’re concerned, we won’t win out and we won’t even be able to keep what we have, which is our individuality, our right to go fishing, our right to choose to stay home. All of these things change when you go into an individual transferable quota system.

Another thing with the individual transferable quota system, if it does come into New England, on a personal note: I won’t be able to get a boat, and I won’t be able to go fishing. This is what I want to do. That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing right now. I’m trying to clean up this fishery so I can get into it and live in it. It just doesn’t look good right now.

Why do you say that? Does it have to do with the fact that allocation is based on a catch history?

Actually I have zero catch history right now because I’m a crew member. The catch history stays with the permit. So I could have been a crew member here for 15 years and brought in tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of pounds and my name is not associated with that work or with that knowledge. And there’s a big fear that the big boats have the staying power but the small boat can’t live through all these regulations and these shifts. The bigger boats have opportunities to stay at sea longer, and fish on several different species that we can’t catch with a hook.

We’re cod fishermen, and that’s all we can catch. So when they talk about cod — that’s our life. When they talk about cod and a dragger is listening, he’s concerned because that represents a small portion of his catch, you know. That’s money that he might not be able to make. But he has the ability to go catch mid-water fish like a herring, or a mackerel or even squid or shrimp. He can chase other fish on the bottom like flounders and gray sole — we can’t do that. All we can catch is cod.

So when they start talking about a quota system for cod fish or for ground fish we just don’t think we can stay in the industry long enough with the small allotment that we’re assuming we’re going to get because of our small catch history to make it worthwhile. And eventually what’s going to happen is these big boats are just going to be lurking in the shadows and they’re going to buy up our quota. And you’re going to have 6 boats catching all the cod in a manner that’s reprehensible.

You guys seem kind of proud of the fact that you are hook fishermen. There must be some reason there.

It’s kind of two fold.

There’s a tradition involved with hook fishing – something that dates back four hundred years. And especially here in my community – in Chatham, and in the neighboring town of Harwich, and even up in Provincetown, guys that have hook fishing with jigs or long lines, you know, for generations. So it’s something that’s really held on here. It hasn’t held on in other communities, but here on the Cape, we’re pretty proud of hook fishing.

But also, when you dig a little deeper and you start looking at hook fishing verses other methods of fishing, such as a gill net, or an auto trawler – a big dragger – which is the predominant method of fishing for ground fish here in new england, you start to notice very obvious differences. Speaking specifically about habitat and the effects of fishing gear on a habitat.

Quite simply, if you drop a hook overboard, and catch your cod, you’ve taking that fish out of the water, but you haven’t left behind destruction. You haven’t destroyed the bottom the way an auto trawler has. Also if you drop that hook over, and you catch your cod, you’ve caught that cod. But if you throw a net over, a gil net over, ah, there’s a good chance you are going to catch a lot of things you’re not looking for. And you don’t have the opportunity to return that species, that animal, to the water the way you do with a hook, alive.

There must be some by-catch involved in long lining. What’s your take on bycatch?

We do have bycatch. You know, there is no clean way to fish. The cleanest way to fish is not to fish. With hook fishing, we do have the ability to return these fish to the water a lot–with a higher degree of certainty that they are living, compared to other types of gear.

How did the culture develop around this manner of sustainable fishing?

New England has had a cod fishery for almost four hundred years. If you go to our state house, there’s a big cod fish over the door. New England was built on cod dollars, on the salted cod, on the cod trade. Hook fishing has been here the longest. Hook fishing has the best track record. It wasn’t until thirty or forty years ago when heavy duty, industrialized fishing came to New England, first with the foreign fleets, and then when we kicked the foreign fleets out in 1976, our government made it easy for corporations and fishermen to build similar boats that were plying the waters and it was then that we started to see a decline in stocks.

Hook fisheremen started to notice a decline in habitat areas because that’s what a hook fisherman depends on. A hook fisherman needs hard bottom — needs habitat, needs structure to find fish, that’s what he depends upon. And he’s returned to those spots year in and year out for generations. Those spots are safely guarded. They’re secrets. We pass ‘em down, from father to son, from grandfather to grandson. Those areas have disappeared. That’s a fact, we know this.

What do you love about fishing?

For me, it’s getting to know another part of the world. I think that’s what the ocean is – another part of the world. And the idea that you’re out there with your line and your pulling it up and you don’t know what you’re going to pull up; there’s some excitement in that. And the chance to make an honest day’s pay and come into the dock, throw your fish up on the dock and have a tangible result from your day’s work. Those are all some of the things that I really enjoy about fishing.