Fishermen, sightseers and friends filled the Menemsha docks on Wednesday when the fishing boat Quitsa Strider II came in. The word was out. They had hit the jackpot.
Capt. Jonathan Mayhew, 50, of Chilmark and his crew had 31 harpooned swordfish on ice aboard. It has been years since a local fishing boat did so well. Hours later, his brother Gregory Mayhew and his crew on the fishing boat Unicorn landed 16 of the same.
These were big fish: Their average dressed weight was around 200 pounds. The largest weighed 306 pounds.
"This was a nice run," said Capt. Jonathan Mayhew. And for his crew of three, the trip was tremendous.
"This is the highlight of my life," said crew member Willie Whiting, 28, of West Tisbury. "I am a little bit awestruck. We did better than we dared to hope."
The swordfish fishery has been troubled for years. Stocks were decimated by an unregulated international and national long-lining fishing fleet. Fisheries managers from Florida to New England were unable to respond in time to the decline of the fishery; other nations entirely ignored warnings from scientists that there was trouble ahead.
As a result, the harpooning of swordfish became a moribund industry. Unlike the long-lining industry, which captures fish of all sizes, the harpooning fishery is selective. Harpooners take only mature swordfish, adults that have spawned at least once, as they swim near the surface. The dressed weight of a fish is over 100 pounds. Dressed weight represents about 75 per cent of the fish's original size, after its head and gut have been removed.
The history of swordfishing in Menemsha is sufficiently troubled that no one expected the Quitsa Strider II would have such a good run.
Captain Mayhew said when the Quitsa Strider left the dock on Tuesday, July 10, with 16 tons of ice, crewmembers understood they would probably have a marginal catch at best. Most of the heavy fishing on swordfish takes place far north in Canadian waters or far south in Florida waters. In the last several years, harpooning for swordfish has been abysmal for the few New England fishermen who take the chance to go out.
It took more than a day of motoring before the 72-foot fishing boat reached the fishing ground, the waters of Georges Bank near the Hague Line. "I got a couple of reports that there were fish out there," Captain Mayhew said, and so they spent the first day exploring.
On the second day of fishing, they came upon their first swordfish. Captain Mayhew said he tried to harpoon a fish four times, and four times, he missed. He said he then made the smart decision to leave the harpooning to his mate, Todd Goodell.
Mr. Goodell, 35, West Tisbury, has always been the ship's major striker, with years of experience. He is a quiet but spirited fisherman.
They were about 192 miles east of Squibnocket where they saw fish. "We were at Winkies Canyon," the captain said, using the unofficial name of a fishing spot frequented years ago by Turtle Lawry of Edgartown and his fishing spotter, a man named Winkie.
Swordfish are mavericks of the sea. They don't swim in schools like other fish. The captain said the swordfish swim in what they call a "body of fish." When they are basking, these fish don't like to see each other; still they are in the same general area of the open ocean.
"This is the first body of fish we've seen in 10 years," the captain said.
Brady Goodell, 34, of Middleboro, grew up on the Island. He is a self-employed specialist in wireless telecommunications. He joined his brother on the Quitsa Strider II as a crewman with the idea that he was on vacation, on a voyage that might not occur ever again. "I figured I was seeing the end of an era," he said. Mr. Goodell said: "I thought I saw the end of harpooning in the '80s; this was about seeing it one more time."
But from this trip, Mr. Goodell came home with an unexpected memory: "I harpooned my first fish."
The seas were what fishermen call greasy calm. On only two days did the fishing boat lower the "birds" into the water to act as stabilizers. "There was a good swell, but it was calm," Mr. Goodell said. To fill his time, and to pay tribute to the moment, Mr. Goodell kept a journal of the voyage. They used a video camera to capture some of the excitement.
"The weather was perfect and the fish were wonderful, magnificent. They are a brilliant purple when they are swimming," Mr. Goodell said.
Captain Mayhew said on one of their first days they harpooned five swordfish, a catch unheard of in these times. Yet on another day they harpooned 11. The captain spent a good deal of his time on top of the topmast, 55 feet above the sea, looking for fish. Only adult swordfish are known to surface, allowing their fin to be seen. The crew of the Strider used a spotter airplane to find at least half of the fish they caught.
The fishing boat's pulpit extends 16 feet forward of the bow. Mr. Goodell stood there, harpoon in hand, and like fishermen of generations ago, waited for his moment and threw the harpoon at the living, moving purple target just below the surface.
"We were very excited," the captain said.
Offshore fishing has changed a lot since Captain Mayhew first went to sea, and has become a lot less lonely. He kept in daily contact with his wife, Anne, and their children using a global cellular phone. "I called every night," the captain said.
Captain Mayhew is convinced the reason why they had a good trip has more to do with fisheries management than luck. Federal fisheries managers have imposed more strict limits on the long-lining industry in waters where the swordfish are known to spawn and migrate.
But there is an unpleasant side effect that goes with the landing of so many large fish. The market on the Island and on the mainland has became flooded with fresh swordfish. As of yesterday, Captain Mayhew has been unable to sell all of the fish he caught at a price he wants.
Unfortunately, Captain Mayhew said, he is competing with imported swordfish that are already on the Island market from Canada, Africa and South America. Local markets buy and sell based on demand, and no one could have anticipated that so many harpooned swordfish would hit the market from Menemsha in one day.
"They offered me only $4 a pound in New Bedford. That is what we got 20 years ago," the captain said.
So he has taken his campaign to sell swordfish to radio. He placed an advertisement on WMVY asking that the Island public request locally caught swordfish from Menemsha at their fish market and at restaurants. He is urging seafood lovers to ask specifically for the locally caught fish.
Captain Mayhew is a former Chilmark selectman and he has been active in fisheries management issues from Boston to Washington, D.C. This may be the first time he has tried to promote the marketing of swordfish, but it is not the first time he has come up head to head with an industry that is in need of better management.
Captain Mayhew contends harpooned swordfish caught by a Menemsha fisherman is the best swordfish money can buy. There is no bycatch, there is no waste, no accidental harvesting of juvenile fish and no confusion; this, quite simply, is the best way to catch swordfish. The money earned is kept in the local economy.
On the Menemsha dock on Wednesday, there were generations of Islanders watching as the fish were unloaded. Dick Goodell watched his two sons carrying the swordfish. "Those guys haven't stopped smiling since the boat came in," he said. "This is a big deal."
Thomas Goodell, eight, of West Tisbury watched his father, Todd, talk to other fishermen. "This is cool. I might do it when I grow up if they are still doing it," the boy said.