This article was taken from our archives. It first appeared in The Bermudian in May 1990. It appears here exactly as it did originally.
Bermuda ended an important chapter in the Island’s heritage last month when the Government closed the doors on the last of the commercial pot fishermen. It’s not the first time the Island’s leaders have stopped fishing in one way or another, and it probably won’t be the last.
While fishermen have never really accepted moves to restrict their catch, this move has sparked more debate and opposition than ever before. But the opposition comes only from a small few who have warned they will not abide by the law, and have challenged the Environment Minister’s right to take away a centuries old way of life.
The majority of Bermuda’s 71 pot fishermen agree with what the Minister has done, but will not come out publicly to defend the move. There are few fish left around the Island’s shallow water platform.
It is not an opinion, it is a fact. More important, there are fewer reef fish, particularly the pastel-coloured parrot fish, than ever.
Divers have noticed the sharp decline in reef fish populations over the past decade, along with tour boat operators, conservationists, scientists, and just about anybody who has spent any time on or around the waters.
A 1970’s photograph showing fishermen laying their nets in the clear, shallow waters of Tobacco Bay, St. George’s.
The Environment Ministry has spent the last 20 years trying to slow the decline and monitor the species offish being taken from the sea. Though the real crunch came in the last decade, people involved in protecting the fishery have been imposing rules and regulations since Bermuda was first discovered and one of the only sources of food was along the shores.
Forty year ago, the then curator of the Bermuda Aquarium Louis Mowbray noticed the supply offish in inshore waters was not enough to meet the demand, and declared the industry “hardly worthy ofits name.”
The fishery hasn’t always been in such a state. E.A. McCallan in 1948 recalled early passages about the abundance offish along the shores of Bermuda.
“Sir George Somers in half an hour caught sufficient to feed the Sea Venture’s company for a day. As soon as the business of mooring the ship was over, and all things safe and in order, with hook and line more were caught than could be eaten, and this abundance continued for many years,” he wrote.
William Strachey, Secretary Elect of Virginia, was on the Sea Venture when it was wrecked in Bermuda in 1609 and wrote the following account: “Once ashore, everie man disposed and applyed himselfe to search and to seeke out such releefe and sustentation as the countrie afforded: and Sir George Summers, a man inured to extremities, presently found sufficient of many kind of fishes, and so plentiful thereof, that in half an houre he took so many with hookes, as did suffice the whole company for one day. The fish are so good as these parts of the world afford not the like.”
The sea continued for many years to be the most important food source for Islanders. “Most of whom fished on occasion, a few for sport, others to catch a mess offish for the family table, and many as a day to day occupation,” McCallan noted.
And St. David’s has long been the heart of Bermuda’s fishing industry, and the place where some of the Island’s besttasting and most popular fish and seafood dishes have been created – mussel pie, conch stew, shark hash, fish chowder, and many others.
The first business of turtling, and not so long after whaling, originated in St. David’s. Bermuda’s very first fishing laws came in 1620, just a decade after the Island was settled. The first Assembly stopped the netting of young turtles. The abundance of turtles in shallow waters had not even survived 20 years at the hands of lsland fishermen.
A turtle fisherman in the 1950’s.
Whales, too, were plentiful in spring and fall, and still today can be seen with a careful eye off the South Shore. In the old days, as McCallan says: “The gear included a harpoon bent on a 100 feet or more of warp or line, two spare harpoons, three lances, and a whale gun. It was not the first to be used against whales in Bermuda waters, for on April 17, 1817, a whale wa shot from a boat belonging to Francis Forbes Hinson – who appears to have been one of the most enterprising oflocal whalers – and out from Paget Island. Whale guns were included in the effects offered by Mr. Hinson’s estate in 1832. These guns are not to be confused with the shot-harpoon invented in 1830, and a humane implement with which to kill whales. The old method was cruel in the extreme.”
When kerosene was discovered in the U.S. in 1857, the price of whale oil, used to light lamps, fell significantly. The business of whaling was a dangerous one, and also helped to drive many away.
Age-old fishing methods included hook and line, handmade nets, first made of cotton twine and later seine, and the original pots made of cedar roots, but as early as 1661, bag nets were banned, and netting of any fish that could have been caught by hook and line was stopped.
McCallan recalled 1802 restrictions on netting and potting that prompted the following protest by fishermen:
“The Oath of a Fisherman: I, A.B., do swear by my Old Fishpot that I will not give, barter or sell one grain offish to any person who has had any hand in petitioning, making or contriving the fishpot and seine law, if they were starving, so long as that act is in force. So help me, Fishpot.”
The first wire-mesh fish pots were developed at the turn of this century. Describing the pot fishery, McCallan said: “As a rule bait pots were set from the shore and baited with crushed black-shells. The small fish trapped in them were grunts, shad, bream, slippery-dick, cow-pilot, and so on.”
“Island fishermen set their large pots north and east of St. George’s Island chiefly. Lobster was the usual bait, and rockfish and hamlet (Nassau grouper) the principal quarry, but angelfish and other demersal or bottom fish were potted.”
As the industry progressed over the years, so did the haul increase. While the ups and downs of earning an income in the business discouraged newcomers from entering it, many were eventually driven from fishing during the Second World War, when most young men were conscripted.
The fishermen that remained made a hearty go ofit, and began to make a good living from the industry.
Lobsters became an important part of the catch, and restrictions were soon put on the size that could be hauled, and the time of year they could be trapped. There were few other restrictions in the pot fishing trade and the basic rule was whatever you could catch in as many pots as you wanted was yours to keep. The few controls in place were regulated by the Trade Development Board.
In the final report of the Bermuda Fisheries Research Programme in August, 1958, John Bardach noted the fishery lacked organization and recommended that a Department of Fisheries be set up to regulate and monitor the industry. Three years later, in 1961, a Fisheries division was created under the Department of Agriculture. Two years after that, the first Fisheries regulations were put in place, but it wasn’t until 1972, when the first Fisheries Act was passed, that any real attempts were made to control the industry. The only problem was there was no one to police the waters to make sure fishermen were abiding by the laws. Even today there are only five full-time wardens patrolling the shores.
The Act said only full time fishermen were permitted to use pots to haul their catch, and each fishermen licensed for pots was required to spend at least 100 days at sea. Size restrictions were put on spiny lobsters, which could only be caught between September and March. Spear fishing was prohibited within a one mile radius of the Island. Fishpots had to be a specific size and had to have surface buoys with identification numbers attached to them. The doors of the pots had to be secured with deteriorating sisal cord, and fishermen had to haul their pots at least once every seven days.
Line fishermen had to be licensed, could not use more than six lines from the boat, and no more than 500 hooks at a time.
Areas in the southwest and northeast were closed between May and September, and later in 1978,the capture of turtles,all water mammals, including whalesand dolphins,corals, conchs,scallops, oysters, and calico clams was made illegal. In 1983, nets were prohibited in the catching of grey snappers. In 1988, the Southwest Breaker and the wreck of the Constellation were closed year round.
The real crack down came with the Fisheries Management Plan of 1984 which halved the number of pots in the water to 1,600. But even then, many of the species traditionally caught by Bermuda’s fishermen continued a steady decline.
In 1987, with the release of the Fisheries catch statistics, parrot fish was named the number one eating fish. The year saw an alarming 203,000 pounds of parrot fish being hauled by pots. Similar trends were seen with other low-grade eating fish like breams and grunts, while at the other end of the scale, the reports showed fishermen were catching fewer and fewer of the Island’s top quality fish.
It was when former Health Minister the Hon. Ann Cartwright DeCouto took over the post of Environment Minister last year that the state of the Island’s fish stocks became a top priority for Government. Almost as soon as she took on her new job DeCouto said she intended to take drastic measures to stop the decline. She said any further reductions in fish populations around the reefs could result in ecological and irreversible damage to Bermuda.
DeCouto announced her ban on pots with the 1990 Fisheries Management Plan, and offered ex-gratia payments up to $75,000 for the surrender of the fishermen’s gear.
Fishermen have complained the money would never amount to what they could earn in the industry, but the payments aren’t meant to compensate their income. The Minister explained the payments would help pot fishermen readjust to another business, set up an alternative fishing trade without traps, or act as a pension for the old-timers still in the industry. DeCouto said it was necessary to provide something for a group of men who have been displaced not only from a job, but from a way of life that has been an important part of Bermuda for several hundred years.
Fishermen have always been a different breed of people. There has never been any real co-operation between them – each one is an individual out for himself. While there have been several attempts to get the men to work together, each has failed. Perhaps that is one of the reasons the state of the reef stocks has become so critical.
DeCouto has maintained through it all that there was no other choice but to end the pot fishing industry. No further protective measures would significantly turn around the pattern of decline.
The only answer is to ban the pots, at least for now. There is no telling how long it will take for the stocks to replenish themselves or even if they will be able to. Some fishermen have said it has been more than a decade since they have seen red rockfish or Nassau grouper. They could be gone for good.
Whatever the reasons for the decline, the only answer is to drastically reduce the fishing effort. That is the only way to bring immediate relief to the stocks.
There has been a lot of debate over the Minister’s decision to ban the pots and whether the move needed to be taken, but any old-timer will tell you the waters aren’t what they used to be. If she didn’t move now, Bermuda would run the risk of losing its fishery.
Pot fishing will likely return to Bermuda some day, but there’s no telling when. When it does, the trade must be strictly monitored if Bermuda is to continue to have a viable fishery, or any fishery at all.