GUEST POST AND VISUALS BY FRANCISCO CANTÚ, MFA Candidate in Creative Writing, University of Arizona
LOBSTERING IN THE GREY ZONE
The day we spent lobster fishing in the “Grey Zone” south of Grand Manan was, without question, the longest day of our trip, and it also the required the earliest start. We set our alarms at 4AM and while Page and Jan ate a quick breakfast of PB&J, I cooked up a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese (known as “Kraft Dinner” in Canada) in order to “carbo load” for the Grand Manan Half Marathon, which I would foolhardily run later that day.
We arrived at the Seal Cove wharf at 4:45, before the first light had begun to glow on the Eastern horizon. Several days ago Jan had interviewed one of Grand Manan’s most respected fisherman, Laurence Cook, and through charm and good fortune managed to arrange for the three of us to tag along with him for a day of lobster fishing. “Be prepared for a long day,” he advised.
At the docks, a man approached us and asked if we were the students from Arizona. He introduced himself as a member of Laurence’s crew, and we began to pepper him with a slow onslaught of questions. “This is a good boat to be on,” he told us. “Laurence is a smart man. If anyone’s gonna catch ’em, it’s him.”
When Laurence showed up, at 5 o’clock on the dot, his two crew members jumped into action, unmooring the boat and packing bait pouches with rotting herring. “The smellier it is, the more they like it,” one of the men told us, grinning. But even lobsters have standards, we soon found out. One of the herring boxes, left in the sun a few days too many, was writhing with maggots, and to our relief was summarily dumped overboard.
As we sailed out of Seal Cove toward the open sea, we were treated to a remarkable sunrise–our only one of the trip, due to many late nights fueled by long conversations with our island hosts. Laurence explained the particulars of fishing in the “Grey Zone” to us as we sailed south in the early morning light. In Canada, the lobster season runs from November until the end of June, with a strict moratorium on laying traps during the off months. In the US, however, fisherman are allowed to catch lobster year-round.
Because of a still-unresolved jurisdictional dispute over international fishing rights between Canada and the US, a “Grey Zone” has existed along the border between New Brunswick and Maine, where vessels from both countries are allowed to fish the same waters. Canadian boats are allowed to fish lobster within the Grey Zone outside the regular season, as long as they submit to the installation of black box devices that ping their location every 15 minutes via satellite to Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, ensuring that they don’t venture into sovereign American waters.
Laurence, despite having taken advantage of the extra months of lobstering since the opening of the Grey Zone to Canadian fishermen 2002, told us that he’d prefer an “equitable, rational plan” to the hazy status quo of the present. Fishing in crowded and disputed waters ratchets up tensions between competing Canadian and American fisherman–and sometimes even among countrymen. Traps are frequently cut, leaving a multitude of ropes, anchors and countless lobster traps unrecoverable on the bottom of the sea floor at great cost to fisherman. Guns have been pulled. Pursuits through fog and bad weather have ensued. Canadian vessels have been boarded by the U.S. Coast Guard, at risk of causing an “international incident.” “The younger guys come out here and get excited,” Laurence explains, but it is clear that he prefers to operate with a bit more calm and reserve. “I don’t wanna start a war,” he tells us.
As we arrived in the Grey Zone, Laurence pointed out the microwave towers on the coastline of nearby Cutler, Maine. Rising up in the water was the pale lighthouse of Machias Seal Island, where Canada staffs one of the only non-automated lighthouses in the country in order to maintain a claim on the island based on “continual use.”
As we approached the first line of traps (known as a trawl), Laurence told us that he expected the worst haul of the year today. “The lobsters are about to shed,” he said, leaving us to wonder if that somehow tempered their appetite for rotting herring. Laurence then positioned his boat beside one of his distinctively-painted balloons and his crew began a process that would be repeated again and again throughout the day–the hauling up of the trawls that had been left sitting on the ocean floor unchecked since the previous week. Since I’d need at least another three paragraphs to describe this process, I’ll let the following videos do some the explaining:
It’s safe to say that Jan, Page, and I spent the better part of the ensuing hours marveling at the strength, efficiency, and hard-working focus of Laurence’s crew as they engaged in the bewildering multi-tasking necessary to safely complete this process time after time. Adrift as we were on flat, sunny waters, we were further baffled by the fact that these men were required to do the same back-breaking work at this pace through all manner of inclement weather–in the freezing cold and during roiling storms. We had all heard that commercial fishing was the most dangerous occupation in the world, and now we understood why: whizzing pullies, the constant looping and unfurling of rope, the fast sinking of anchors and traps–all of it threatening to meet even the most temporary lapse in attention with a quick snap, whip, pull, or drag into the frigid waters of the Bay of Fundy.
After nearly 14 hours aboard the boat, we were in awe of Laurence’s sharp presence of mind and the hardworking perseverance of his crew. Laurence and his men were frustrated with the day’s haul–they suspected that several of their trawls had already been hauled up and picked through by rival fishing vessels during the week. Indeed, there was a palpable air of lawlessness in the Grey Zone, the same lingering threat of disorder and unpredictability that so often pervades along unguarded frontiers. It was obvious that Laurence does his best to stay above it, to temper himself during tense situations as much as possible. Many of Laurence’s trawls had been laid on top of that day, and we watched him painstakingly cut and and knot his ropes to re-make his trawl lines. “I don’t cut other people’s traps and they don’t cut mine,” he told us.
After all, he’s not trying to start a war.
P.S. from Alison:
Paco did run in the half marathon, a benefit for the Grand Manan Boys and Girls Club, at the end of a nearly fourteen-hour lobstering day. He won third place. Talk about stamina. Though there were only three men in the race. Still a mighty day.
GUEST POST AND PHOTOS BY JAN BINDAS-TENNEY, MFA Candidate In Creative Writing, University of Arizona
SQUID, CLAMS AND A FRIENDLY ALPACA
We’ve been fortunate to work with six Grand Manan high school students during our stay on the island: Lawron Ingersoll, Liam Watkins, Michael Brown, Mackenzie Russell, Madison McLaughlin, and Harley Cary.
They’ve all been instrumental in providing a lens for our visit by bringing us on backwoods trails, introducing us to their grandmothers, teaching us how to jig for squid, dig clams, and have kept us laughing the whole time. They are each working on a creative project to document Grand Manan stories and histories. I want to dedicate this post to all six of our students and take this opportunity to share several extraordinary moments we shared with them.
And here’s a photo of Mackenzie with an alpaca just for fun.
Our first weekend on the island, Mackenzie and Liam took Page, Paco and me squid jigging. If you’ve never jigged for squid, it’s best done at night when the squid come out to feed, with a rod and brightly colored plastic lure, two rows of curved metal hooks at the bottom. Jig is the term for the lure and also the jerking motion used to attract the squid.
We walked to the North Head Wharf at 10 p.m. at half-tide. Part of the intricate weave of the wooden wharf covered in algae and kelp was visible below us as the dark of night finally set in about an hour after sunset. We walked past the lobster boats, some long, wide and shiny; others weathered with “for sale” signs. Liam had been out there with his fishing pole and guitar (he’s a talented self-taught musician) since 5 p.m. and hadn’t caught a thing. Mackenzie hung out on the wharf snap-chatting and laughing. A family from Newfoundland a.k.a “Newfies” had a multi-generational squid jigging operation with buckets full of their catch at the top of the wharf. A swarm of smaller children from “Whale Camp” (a summer program attended mostly by young American kids) got a squid jigging lesson from a camp counselor. Several other Grand Manan high school students jigged next to Liam.
I looked down to see the swirling rise and fall of a school of brown squid. They swarmed just below the surface in a group of several hundred, moving up, down, back and forth as if tied together on an invisible dancing net. Soon after we arrived, a seal rushed close to the wharf, scattering the squid. The floodlight above gave everyone’s faces a yellow hue and cast light at the perfect angle to illuminate the strange tentacled creatures underwater. A high school student named Vaughn quickly caught eight squid in about ten minutes. I asked Vaughn to give us some tips: cast out far and low; drag the jig in giving it slight jerks (or “jigs”) so the squid think your lure is a shiny fish. To my and Page’s dismay, Paco quickly caught two squid. As he brought one up to our bucket, he inadvertently squirted dark ink all over himself and his hipster jacket. Paco repeated, “I got inked. I got inked!” excitedly in his falsetto I’m-totally-surprised voice. Liam handled the squid as we all stared at its large googly eyes, its translucent speckled brown body, and squirmy tentacles at its end. Liam explained that we had to remove the ink in the process of cleaning it. As he showed us, he squirted stinky ink all over his hands and shirt, more on Paco’s jacket. The Whale Camp kids squealed.
Mackenzie said he likes to catch the squid with his bare hands when they are particularly thick around the wharf, refusing a rod or jig. He clambered to lie belly-down on a lobster car (a wooden raft for storing live lobsters in underwater compartments before transfer to market or tank house storage facilities). With his arms in the water up to his elbows, Mackenzie tried to grab the squid by the body when a group swarmed by. He didn’t catch a single one.
Before we knew it, it was nearly 1 a.m.; the elusive squid teased us, evading our lures right in front of our eyes. Only having caught two, we gave our bounty to the Newfie family. The father showed us how to clean the squid with several quick swipes of a small sharp knife.
Another afternoon, Michael Brown invited me to go clamming on Ingalls Head down Fisherman’s Haven Lane. I arrived and Michael handed me a clam hack (like a bent pitchfork) to dig for clams in the sand. With two of Michael’s friends, we headed down to the ebb tide flats where the surface of the sand bubbled with clam air holes. Bent down, I raked back the sand about a foot below the surface. As clams tumbled out, they shot salt water in the air, what Michael called “clam pee.”
Here’s a short video clip of Michael digging for clams, a bit shy in front of the video camera.
Michael lives with the ebb and flow of the tide by digging clams, picking dulse (edible seaweed), and working on his grandfather’s lobster boat. He buzzes around in a skiff he calls “The Little Tipsy.” Michael speaks in abrupt truths that often strike me with their vulnerability and sharp social and emotional analysis.
That afternoon after digging clams for about an hour, several others joined us on the flats: two older gentlemen, Gordy and Walter, and a family “digging for a feed.” Michael told me Gordy is the best clam digger on Grand Manan. Gordy is short and sturdy, wears a bandana with two eyes on his forehead, makes his living off digging clams by working two low tides per day. Once he digs a critical mass, he takes the ferry to the mainland where he sells the clams to market. When I asked what he likes about digging clams, Gordy told me, “The only boss I have is the tide. She’s the only boss I got. When Mother Nature says its time to go home, I go home.”
Michael dug about $100 worth of clams that day. I helped a little. As we dug, Gordy and Michael gossiped back and forth, talked about Michael’s family, the recent passing of his grandmother and guardian Rilla Greene who was described in her obituary as “never afraid of hard days work.” Someone I wish I could have met, Rilla worked in the fishing industry boning herring, in the sardine factory, and most recently as a dockside monitor for local fishing companies. Michael explained that she drove herself to the hospital in the final days of her life. I had the sense that Gordy keeps an eye on Michael. Although Michael feigned a competitive tone when Gordy first arrived, it became clear the longer we dug, how much the two respected each other.
I feel enormous gratitude for the generosity of these students and all the other Grand Mananers who invited us into their homes, onto their boats, who fed us delicious seafood chowder, and let us take notes while they lobster fished. I will remember these two weeks on the island for the rest of my life.
GUEST POST AND PHOTOS FROM PAGE BUONO, MFA Candidate, University of Arizona Creative Writing Program
Leading up to our Grand Manan visit we read of weirs and tried to understand their complicated structure and function, their ingenious design. They’re difficult to comprehend, so when we got the opportunity to witness a weir being seined, we were thrilled.
The day before we went to fish the weir I visited one being repaired from damage done last winter. A pile driver was used to replace stakes – the towering hardwood poles that make up the skeleton of the weir shape and structure. The stakes were tied together in a floating raft and dragged out to the site by a skiff. The pile driver, installed on a dock-like platform, was hauled out by a larger boat. Once inside the weir, the men boarded the driver and set to work pounding the stakes into the ocean floor.
Over the murmur I heard the men discussing, in brief sentences and nods and a language I’m not privy to, the prospects of herring this season. The overall outlook is grim, but there was mention of one weir soon to be seined.
I asked who was planning on seining? Could we see it from the sea wall at Dark Harbour? Before the day was up, the man I asked told me to be at Dark Harbor by 1:45 p.m., and that Captain Stacy Brown would take us on his boat so we could see them seine the herring from inside the weir. These opportunities are made possible often and only by the generosity of people we have met here.
Stacy, his wife Annise and his son Dawson, along with the rest of the crew, invited us aboard. They’d been out early that morning “feeling” for herring. In a skiff they motored out, dropped a lead weight attached to a copper wire until it hovered just above the floor and drove circles around the weir. Based on the number of taps on the wire and the force of them, Stacy guessed how many fish were below, using his estimates to predict the size of carrier ship needed to haul the harvest to processing plants off the island. Stacy guessed the weir contained 22-hogshead (1 hogshead = 1250 lbs) of herring roughly 7” long.
Observing the seining of the weir brought into focus a process I before understood hazily at best. It’s a process I am still struggling to explain, though I have no doubt that if I manage to describe it adequately in future writing, I can do so only because I had the opportunity to witness it: to witness the setting of the net, the way it circles around the herring already captured in the weir; the way the process responds and waits and rushes depending on the tide; the role of the diver who swims beneath, ensuring the fish are secured within the net, the purse. And then to watch as the net is hauled up until the herring spiral just beneath the surface. And then up another couple of inches until they are flopping about, vacuumed up by a giant tube dangling off the carrier on the outside of the weir, deposited into a giant storage tank on board. Their scales drift away in the process, leaving first just glitter in the water surrounding the seine, then frothing into thick white foam. The men above the carrier measure the fish: 22 hogshead of herring approximately 6.5 inches long.
The crew is pleased; the catch puts them on the book. Though it is nothing like the heyday of years past, it is better than last year when they seined only four times throughout the entire season and didn’t even recover the money spent on repairs from the winter before. Stacy’s wife, Annise, was instrumental in engaging Paco and me in the process. Without her explanations we would have been lost—excited and engaged, but confused. The crew answered our incessant questions graciously, made sure we understood what was happening, and offered us front row seats.
A quick post here to add a link to a gorgeous album of photos taken by Peter Cunningham on our Kent Island trip. Please enjoy and share!
Days 4, 5, 6
There is nothing to do on Grand Manan. No mall, movie theater, no pub. Still we have been busier than bees in a clover field for the past few days exploring the place and getting to know people. Squid jigging at midnight at the fisherman’s wharf, hiking to Hay Point with the Monday Morning Hikers, sitting around a beach fire watching fireworks pop from several spots along the shore including our own, riding out with the pile driver to observe repairs on the Intruder weir and to Dark Harbour to watch the seining of that weir have all been part of the orientation for our visitors to island life.
We are so grateful for the great generosity of islanders who’ve been sharing their stories and educating us about the state of the fishery and concerns about its future.
Page and I took a walk at the Anchorage Park and into the Bog Trail where we found orchids and pitcher plants blooming, and tassels of wild cotton topping their stalks. We were up to our ankles in wet peat, but that was no price to pay for the strange beauty of the plants adapted to this habitat.
The Grand Manan students have been great ambassadors for the island, as they work on projects about the places that mean something to them and the stories that come out of those places: Dark Harbour, Cheney’s Passage, Stanley’s Beach, Eel Lake, Seal Cove, out on the water and more.
Today we all made a field trip to the Bowdoin College Scientific Station on Kent Island, thanks to Russell Ingalls who ran us over from Seal Cove through thick fog.
Damon Gannon, Director of the station, told us about research being done on the 40 -50,000 Leach’s Storm Petrels, oceanic birds that nest in forest burrows on this small island. Here’s the link to the Bowdoin College Kent Island Scientific Station:
Peter Cunningham took us to Fog Heaven where we learned about the work his father Robert Cunningham did here for 60 years or so studying fog. “A pure scientist,” Peter calls him, just as Peter is “a pure photographer,” both of them moved by a genuine curiosity to know. The weather station is gearing up to begin again sending out data, so this site will continue to make a contribution to understandings about climate change, building on decades of data already gathered.
Stay tuned for guest posts here from Jan, Page and Paco, along with some of their photographs from their travels. Harley Cary and Page Buono have also posted very poetic photos on their Facebook pages. Check them out!
July 11, 2015
Our pilot program of Field Studies on Grand Manan has begun with Page Buono, Paco Cantu and Jan Bindas-Tenney arriving from Arizona on July 8. Supported by the Agnes Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice at the University of Arizona, the project plans to bring students from the Creative Writing Program to the island over the next five summers. They will work during a two-week stay on their own writing projects and with island youth to help them to tell their stories of coming of age in this place where sustainability of the local culture is deeply tied to the sustainability of marine life.
The goal is to spur documentary arts projects that will explore the story of Grand Manan Island (population 2500) and its 200-year history of traditional fisheries. We will explore how the arts and culture can contribute to our understanding of climate change and sustainability. Island culture is undergoing dramatic change with the decline of fish in the North Atlantic and the rise of corporate aquaculture. But climate change has also meant a boom for the lobster fishery, as lobsters move north for colder waters and new markets have developed in Asia.
Page caught this iconic view of Swallowtail Lighthouse with the Grand Manan V rounding the bend on its way to North Head.
Day 1 and 2
We began Thursday with an early breakfast with the Grand Manan Rotary Club, where our group was joined by Carly Fleet who has been our able liaison with school and community.
Grand Manan high school teacher, chef and tour guide Robbie Griffin gave us a full day’s tour beginning with the first Anglo settlement at Bonney Brook in 1779, and running all the way from Southwest Head to Swallowtail. We were especially interested to see the new lobster tank storage facility and learn a bit about how lobsters find their way to market. We experienced true island hospitality throughout the day, but Robbie’s lunch was epic. Seafood chowder, lobster rolls and strawberry shortcake. What a welcome. Liam Watkins joined us for the day, a talented Grand Manan student (just graduated!) who had recently built himself a mahogany electric guitar.
McLaughlin’s Wharf in Seal Cove
We planned to do independent research on Friday (Paco contemplating border issues and island life, Jan exploring Dark Harbour and setting up interviews with fishermen, Page writing and making watercolors), but that plan was interrupted when I spotted from my second floor deck that the pile driver had been towed out to the herring weir known as Intruder. This was a rare opportunity for us to get out to Swallowtail and perch on the cliff above the weir to watch construction as the bottom stakes were driven into the seabed and top poles attached.
Here is the Intruder in previous summer, all strung up with twine and ready to capture herring that venture near shore.
We ended the day with a beach fire and had a chance to see Liam’s amazing guitar–well, a few of them–and hear a few tunes from him, Mackenzie Russell and Harley Cary on a warm summer evening by the sea. Writers call such moments research. It’s a tough life.