AGAINST THE TIDE
The Fate of the New England Fisherman
By Richard Adams Carey
Houghton Mifflin. 381 pp. $23
DOWN IN BRISTOL BAY
High Times, Hangovers, and Harrowing Experiences on Alaska's Last Frontier
By Bob Durr
St. Martin's. 219 pp. $23.95
Reviewed by Nathaniel Tripp
A favorite summer ritual at the boys camp I attended was the screening of the classic film "Captains Courageous." It set the tone for the summer to come, as boys felt their way toward manhood, and it was also a thrillingly accurate documentation of the last days of the Grand Banks fishing-schooner fleet. In the magnificent screen adaptation of Kipling's novel, when a rather spoiled, neglected boy falls over the rail of a posh ocean liner and is rescued by a doryman, he enters a world totally different from anything he has experienced before and is transformed by it. A number of recent books have also immersed us in what remains of the fisherman's way of life, and here are two more good ones.
In Against the Tide: The Fate of the New England Fisherman, we ply the waters off Cape Cod, often within hailing distance of the summer beach crowd and "the American Golden Arches, white lines and car payment culture." Most of the time, we are ashore and at sea with four fishermen, their friends and their families as they struggle against a diminishing resource, a malevolent industry and the sea itself. "The wind, the tide, the weather, and every man is against ya" is the often-quoted line of a legendary fisherman, and so it seems as Richard Adams Carey's tale unfolds. He witnesses lobster traps being hauled, clams being dredged, nets and lines being set, and vividly portrays the sort of dirty and dangerous work that built our nation and is now almost forgotten.
A remarkably diversified fishery still manages to survive in the shadow of megalopolis, and the profession demands more than mere strength and courage. "Hunter-gathering depends upon continuous conceptualization, thousands of microanalyses going on in your head all day every day," writes Brian, a lobsterman who, like the others, adapts to other fisheries as the market and resource demands. The men we get to know are not such simple souls as Manuel, played by Spencer Tracy in "Captains Courageous." They are tough, versatile and intelligent survivors, much like the small farmer, and they are also willing to put in endless hours after the day's work is done enduring ponderous public hearings and government planning sessions, trying to be heard, waiting to see who will be put out of business by the latest regulation.
This book should be read for its balanced portrayal of a New England fishery, but more than that it exemplifies the classic conflict between natural and human resources. Yes, it is true that certain kinds of fishing are very destructive. And it is true that the fishermen, and the rest of us, face "the tragedy of the commons," in which a diminishing resource faces increasing exploitation. But Carey is also a humanist and a journalist of considerable depth, who weaves the fate of men and fish together into a whole story. He explains the science of fishery management and the technology of catching them, and establishes the natural setting and history by quoting Thoreau, Henry Beston and others.
"In a sense," writes Carey, "the waters off Cape Cod, besides providing the amniotic fluid for America's birth, are the nation's last frontier. More than any other regional fishery, they remain a place, albeit diminished now, where anyone without the advantages of a lot of start-up money or a graduate degree can venture into open territory to build an independent livelihood." Carey finds common ground for both fishermen and Greenpeace activists, and offers some hope in the form of self-regulation and aquaculture. This is a struggle to keep the hope of a Jeffersonian ideal alive, in which "family values" is more than a political slogan and government is shaped by citizens, while food-processing giants threaten the extinction of both the fishermen and their quarry, turning well-intended government programs in their own favor.
Just how this story continues to play out will help set our course on the earth. But with fishing, as with prospecting for gold, it is often the seldom-fulfilled promise of riches that draws men to the sea, and nowhere does that promise beckon more loudly, nor are the extremes of both riches and hardship more pronounced, than in the waters off Alaska. Bob Durr's Down in Bristol Bay is the memoir of a man now in his seventies of a time 30 years ago, when he left his job as a tenured college professor in the East to join the rough crowd in a remote Alaskan fishing village, where they catch salmon for two short weeks in order to sustain themselves for a year.
It is rugged country and they are rugged people, mostly Native Americans, yet somehow the "Professor" managed to find his way among them, returning for several summers and then finally settling in permanently with his family. Fishing from a homemade boat with an automobile roof for a cockpit, he gradually learned to navigate both the waters and the occasional murderous rages of his fellow fishermen. He portrays the place well, but it is not always a pretty picture, for this is a place of extremes (weather, people, fish), a brutal and also beautiful frontier that runs on booze and gasoline. Although he sets out to write mostly about his friend Pope, some of his best passages are about fishing with his son, such as the night they go far offshore together in seas so gigantic they can see schools of salmon swimming silhouetted against the sky.
Durr's book is made more poignant by the knowledge that this way of life, too, is all but gone now, gone with the fish. But it is not a study of responsible behavior, and when his writing should plunge ahead, exploring the bigger troughs and swells of men and fish, he lets the helm fall off, saying "but that's another story." He gives us a rollicking good adventure, but it should have been more.
Nathaniel Tripp is the author of "Father Soldier Son."