Occupation: fisherman. Queue up mental images of The Old Man and the Sea, Discovery Channel’s The Deadliest Catch and Jaws. Either that or visions of golden skies, dolphins frolicking in the distance and nets brimming with threshing fish. Except for a Rhode Island fisherman, it’s not at all like any of that – or at least not most of the time.
Most days are like the day I meet up with Mike Foley at the Rhode Island Clam Company. He crunches across an empty lot carpeted with white fragmented shells to sit beside me on the dock. He hands me a Heineken to match his own. He has just exchanged his quahog load of the day for cash. “I’m a transplant, just like a quahog. That’s what they call me,” says Foley. He grew up on Long Island where he would go fishing with his father. The first money he ever made was by selling bluefish for five cents a pound while his father sold the stripers from the day’s catch. Nowadays, Foley is lobstering during summer months on his 40-footer, Staunch, built in 1999, and digging quahogs on winter days like today on his 22-foot, red-bottom skiff. I ask him what an ideal day on the water is like and he tells me, “I haven’t seen a bad day yet because I keep coming home. There are no bad days. I’m grinning.”
Foley believes that this is a good life, a lucky life even. He tells me that he never really thought of fishing as work, but more of a hobby; yet he is raising a family in this business. And when I ask him why he does what he does, he gives me a one-word answer: “Freedom.” But he doesn’t only wear his fishing waders, so to speak; Foley is a graduate of the University of Rhode Island with a degree in Agriculture and Fisheries, a father (“The old timers always have two pieces of advice, ‘Be around when your kids are in school and always pay your taxes,’” he tells me.), the boys’ varsity lacrosse coach at Chariho High School and a deer hunter in season.
Never mind the 4am alarm clocks during summer months, the regulations, gas prices... Foley doesn’t ever want to stop fishing, “I’ll never retire,” he says, “So long as I can still walk down to the boat.” He keeps things simple; his boats are mod- est, he lobsters with only his son and one other fisherman, he looks up to the old timers and listens to their advice.
“My idol is Bill Kelsey, a man I knew in Long Island as a kid. He made a good living dredging clams in a 15-foot flat-bottom, wooden Sharpie. He built it for $400 and would burn one six-gallon gas tank a week. He had land upstate. That’s the dream,” Foley says, “When this is all over, if I’m Bill Kelsey, I’m grinning.”
Jerry Carvalho and I are talking over sandwiches and soup (there will be apple crisp too, but that comes later); he’s telling me about his primary source of income in high school: trapping. He sold skins and furs for extra cash, but, “I never told the high school girls that there were a bunch of dead animals in the trunk,” he laughs. “Being brought up on a farm, you understand that your purpose is to be productive, whether or not you’re getting paid.” Carvalho is a reaper of both land and sea, a farmer turned fisherman. He knows that fishing is a lot like farming, except you don’t have to plant. Growing up in a potato farming family on Aquidneck Island, at age 26, he bought 138 acres of potatoes for himself in South Kingstown and kept it up until the ‘80s, when he bought a small in-shore dragger and, always a part-time fisherman, switched over to fishing full-time.
He sits up straight as he talks with me, a checkered, collared shirt. Carvalho is 70 now, and has a lot to say about the business. “I never thought about being somebody, I wanted to do something. I never thought about being a fisherman, but fishing,” he explains. He has followed time-honored concepts throughout his fishing career: fish everyday as long as it’s profitable, and if it’s not making profit, you know you need to take a day off. He knows that shellfishing is steadier work because it’s more or less a position of getting out what you put into it. He knows that there are many factors involved in getting a good catch: the moon, the weather, species types. And he knows that fishermen must also be engineers, they must be persistent, they must be, “Stupid enough to drag a net around all day.” It is a simple life, but really, it is not.
There was the day when Carvalho found a wallet in his catch with an engagement ring in the side zipper. He returned it to its owner, a woman in Boston who had thought the ring was gone forever. There was another day and another wallet, found in his catch with six $100 bills inside. It had been under water for three years. He returned it to its owner. A third day, a final wallet, this one caught in Narragansett Bay and coincidentally owned by a man Carvalho had known for 20 years. Inside, an undamaged photo of the man’s daughter.
With so many years logged in at sea, Carvalho feels protective about keeping the fruits of the sea fruits for all to harvest. Fishing regulations in the state are constantly changing, and many fishermen have taken action. Carvalho has studied fisheries law in Rhode Island, including all the court cases recorded on the issue. He also served on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission from 2006-2010 as proxy for Representative Naughton. He believes that it is part of a fisherman’s duty to do so, to know and understand the rights of your profession. He tells me that if you do not know your rights, you are in danger of losing them, and for Carvalho, losing the right to fish would be losing the right to reap what the sea has sowed.
I meet up with Al Christopher at his home because there is no boat to receive us. He sold it. Miss Stacie was built in 1997, a 42-foot Wesmac, back when gas was a dollar and change per gallon. Christopher tells me that the beautiful Miss Stacie was no longer being used for what she was built for, and that although gas prices have gone up, the price of lobster has not increased accordingly to offset the cost. He had to sell the boat in Maine because no one in Rhode Island could afford it. Times are tough in our little state, he tells me, and he will miss Miss Stacie.
Christopher grew up near the water in Jerusalem, Rhode Island, fishing on a skiff during summer months. He got a job as a school teacher in Narragansett but kept up his summer fishing schedule. Back in the day, in the town of Narragansett, teachers could take one year off to do whatever they pined for. Christopher took a year off to try out lobstering full-time. “It’s hard to explain. To just be on the boat on a beautiful, calm day, watching the sea birds, the porpoises, all the different fish, it’s like therapy, the best medicine in the world,” Christopher says.
After a bit of back and forth, teaching then taking time off to fish full-time, he decided to start selling his own lobsters. Christopher bought J&L Shellfish beside the state pier. He maintained the business for five years then had Miss Stacie built and went back to full-time fishing. Now, at age 73, Christopher still runs a boat in spring and fall, his son-in-law taking it out during the summer months. He is in the market for a more modest version of Miss Stacie. “Fishing is a certain way of life that is so satisfying and gratifying,” he tells me, “I’m still doing it and I don’t have to.”
Rhode Island fishermen are lots of things. They are persistent, and some are stubborn. They are also freedom-loving, sovereignty-craving individuals. They are returners of lost goods, and gatherers of aquatic goods. They look to the past for guidance and squint into the horizon for direction. We peer in at their lives with a little bit of envy, a little bit of gratefulness that they fish our waters and put food on our plates. They come in their waders, with their sunburned noses, with their nets and boats they love named after people they love, and from the shores of our Ocean State, we squint and see them out on the water and we feel proud.
Our Mount Hope Bay, our little tidal estuary, has been playing a vital role in the history of Rhode Island since pre-colonial days. As a method of transport, as a major fishing resource, the waterway is indispensable but delicate; only 13 square miles in size. The quality of its waters has been severely degraded over decades of industrial pollution and sewage and the fish that call the bay home have consequently suffered.
The Rhode Island Fishermen’s Alliance consists of a group of dedicated volunteers, fishermen who feel a shared sense of responsibility to protect their livelihood; the waters in which their fish dwell. Lead by President Richard Fuka and Vice President Jerry Carvalho, the group helps to create sustainable fisheries without putting licensed fishermen out of business. Their motto: “for the people, by the people,” holds true. They have become a major effort in the movement to defend Rhode Island waters and fishermen alike.