Capt. David Dutra, 67, of the 60-foot Eastern Rig dragger Richard & Arnold, fished for fluke for most of this summer out of Menemsha. His 88-year-old fishing boat is an unmistakable old black wooden dragger that smells and looks like something out of another era. It is a handsome boat, the last of its kind, not unlike the captain. Richard & Arnold, out of Provincetown, is but one of a very few working wooden fishing boats left on the East Coast. They make neither the boat, nor the captain like they used to.
Mr. Dutra lives in North Truro. The captain has fished out of Menemsha for at least 30 years, most notably in the summer, when it is fluke fishing season. On Monday of this week, the state closed the fluke fishing season for another year, believing that the state quota had been met.
Captain Dutra and his adventurous life on the waters of Cape Cod are the central story in a recently published book written by his wife, J.J. Dutra: Nautical Twilight, The Story of a Cape Cod Fishing Family. It is her personal tale of a family pursuing better fishing grounds in a world that has gotten less kind and more difficult. There are fewer fish and there are fewer fishermen. Nautical Twilight offers a window into the world of the small family fisherman, not unlike the stories of the last of the one-family farms. It is a window that is getting smaller, along with the industry.
This is an excellent book for anyone who wonders where their local fish comes from and what it was like to fish when times were good. This book belongs with a number of other books written over the years. Draggerman’s Haul, The Personal History of a Connecticut Fishing Captain, by Ellery Thompson, written in 1950, or, Swordfish, Sculpins, and Suds: Memoirs & Adventures by a New England Seaman of Seamen, and other worthy characters, by Robert O. Walsh.
With harsh fisheries regulations, captains on the water sense an end, a period of twilight. The best fishing trips are behind them.
Though this book is principally about one fishing boat from Provincetown, there is plenty of the Vineyard waterfront weaved in. Mrs. Dutra writes about how she and her husband came into Menemsha and watched Gregory Mayhew and his brother Jonathan unload swordfish at the dock. “They have what it takes: knowledge, experience, as well as a certain knack for catching the giants.”
“It is always a pleasure to tie up in Menemsha, where the atmosphere is clean, salty and friendly,” she wrote.
There is mention of fishing boats and captains familiar to these waters. The humor of Capt. Bill (Hokey) Hokanson of the fishing boat Sol e Mar is mentioned. Many Vineyarders will remember the boat and the captain. The boat sank with all hands in March of 1990 just south of Noman’s Land. The tragic loss — the captain and his son were killed — and the circumstances surrounding the radio mayday changed the way the Coast Guard would monitor the waters south of the Vineyard. Radio communication is considerably better today.
Another familiar commercial fisherman, Michael deConinck of the fishing boat Millpoint out of Fairhaven, used to fish from Menemsha for fluke. He, too, is mentioned.
The best part about this book is its authenticity. Mrs. Dutra knows the fisherman’s life. She has lived it. She knows how to open a sea scallop.
In a phone interview while out on Menemsha Bight, Captain Dutra said his wife began the book as a way to tell their story to their grandchildren. She spent eight years writing it. Mrs. Dutra worked for many years as a school nurse for the Provincetown and Truro public schools while her husband fished.
Awaiting the arrival of her husband from one fishing trip during a big storm, Mrs. Dutra recalled in her book: “The howling wind kept me awake all night as well, tossing and turning. ‘We were ‘finest-kind.’ ‘No need to worry,’ Dave said to me as we sipped a cup of tea at the kitchen table.
“How could I not have dismal thoughts when I knew women who had lost husbands and sons on nights such as these? Would I ever learn to let go of the fear that sometimes creeps into my thoughts,” she wrote.
There is a sense of success, too, that is infectious.
“We live surrounded by a gray liquid in winter, dark blue in spring, aqua in summer and green in the fall, where the sea gives up its bounty with little resistance to the men and women who go in search of flapping fish. The water that surrounds our peninsula is as much a part of our home, our lives and our spirits as is the boat, the town and the house on the hill. There’s an old saying among our fishermen: ‘When the fishermen make money there is prosperity everywhere.’”
Mrs. Dutra gives a seldom-told view of the squid season as it used to be in Nantucket Sound. Years ago, tons of squid were caught in the spring of every year by a lot of fishing boats. Loliga squid were a highly-prized commodity and shipped worldwide. It attracted fishermen from all up and down the coast.
“Squid are the joy and the agony of spring,” she writes. “They can lift your heart and give you the impetus to keep fishing or they can leave you broke and depressed. ... Squid provide us with food and they give us the cash to pay the mortgage. Many seasons Dave will unload 3,000 pounds of squid every day, all by himself.”
Mrs. Dutra writes about the demise of the small-town fisherman as though it was entirely the fault of government. There is plenty of blame pointed to the government’s efforts to regulate and prevent further overfishing of stocks that are still in trouble.
But it is a complicated topic. Certainly, the demise of the commercial fishermen of Provincetown and for much of Cape Cod can be blamed on the regulatory system. It is full of error, full of heartless, almost senseless measures. The Dutra family is justified in their emotion, for there is plenty of reason to call the actions of the government flawed.
Yet the real problem can be traced simply to the fact that fish stocks are in rapid decline, and no one is sure exactly what to do about it. Much of the regulatory action has been taken by the New England Fishery Management Council, which is made up primarily of high-profile council members who are in the industry.
The decline of the fishing fleet in Provincetown is a true tragedy, but it is emblematic of an even more unfair regime. It is those with political power who control the resource, not those who live out in small communities with barely a voice.
Curtailing fishing efforts across the region is not a democratic process. Few would vote to give up fishing and adopt more restrictive regulations if it meant losing your house, your livelihood and your way of life. Yet, because the stocks are so depleted, that is where much of the industry seems headed.
This summer, Captain Dutra fished for fluke in Vineyard Sound. For all the faults of fisheries management, the fluke fishery does remain a success story, at least for fishermen throughout this region. Though there will be complaints, the fluke fishery is keeping fishermen on the water. Nonetheless, the Dutras have experienced one of this community’s biggest tragedies. A lot of people have suffered because of the decisions of a few.
For Mr. Dutra and the many fishermen who are fishing in this most uncertain of times, this book is precious. Mr. Dutra spoke of his wife: “She is my hero. She is making this story available to a lot of people.”
Nautical Twilight, The Story of a Cape Cod Fishing Family, by J.J. Dutra. Publisher, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, North Charleston, S.C. $14.95, Sept. 2011. 206 pages.