A Captain’s Calling: As the Weather Worsens and Prices Improve, Scallopers Make one Last Haul.
By Kate Yeomans | Boston Globe
When Captain Ewa Liput and her six-man crew cast off from Fairhaven for Georges Bank, the fishing grounds east of Cape Cod and south of the Gulf of Maine, she steers the 98-foot scallop boat Quincy II through the harbor’s hurricane barrier and into Buzzards Bay. The boat rounds Gay Head and steams past Nomans Land before setting a course that will take them 175 miles east in about 18 hours.
Under federal regulations, in the 2007 season, the Quincy II was allowed just 52 fishing days, and Liput used those up in eight trips, including the one to Georges Bank. (The season opens March 1 and lasts 12 months.) In so-called closed areas – which are actually open to commercial scallop fishing, though the catch is limited – the boat is allowed to take 18,000 pounds per trip. In “open” areas, the catch is limited only by what the seven people and their boat can catch and handle. The price of scallops, of course, fluctuates according to supply and can range from $3.50 per pound wholesale to more than $7.50; this time of year, an 18,000-pound haul could bring in more than $120,000 in New Bedford. Throughout the season, Liput and the boat’s owner try to make smart decisions about where and when to fish. Should they use up the days in spring, when the weather is better and the work of trawling, sorting, and shucking scallops easier, or save some days for later in the season, when the seas will be rougher and weather colder but the market price for the catch almost double? Trying to time trips to coincide with better fuel prices is yet another part of the complicated equation.
The risks of commercial fishing, one of the nation’s most dangerous professions, according to the US Department of Labor, are ever present in New Bedford. In December 2003, the scallop boat Atlanta was lost at sea. Three men died and four were rescued. In December 2004, another scallop boat, the Northern Edge, was lost. Five men died and one was rescued. In January 2007, the fishing trawler Lady of Grace was lost and all four men aboard died.
New Bedford, about 50 miles south of Boston, is an important port. The dollar value of seafood landed by the 350-boat fleet there (including Fairhaven, across the harbor) in 2006 totaled $281.2 million, with $217 million of that coming from the scallop trade. For seven years in a row, the city has held onto its claim as the most valuable port in the country: While Dutch Harbor, Alaska, lands more pounds of seafood, the catch in New Bedford is worth more. According to the city’s economic development council, the scallop industry generates $1 billion for the local economy.
Liput, who started sailing when she was 7 years old, is now 50. She immigrated to the United States in 1986 from the port city of Szczecin, Poland, where she worked as a captain of sailing vessels while also studying fine-art painting. A friend from Poland owned a New Bedford scallop boat, so Liput took a trip in 1987 and discovered she liked the work. She decided to stay in the area and, a year later, advanced to first mate. In February 1994, when the captain of the Michigan needed a replacement for one trip, he handed the helm to Liput. Despite cold weather and high seas, she says, it was “one of the best one-week trips of the season.” Liput continued her work studying art, too, and earned an MFA from Boston University in 2002. The following year, when New Bedford businessman Francis Patenaude needed a captain for his new Quincy II, he hired Liput. The value of the boat, with its permits, is about $4 million, he says.
On a cold day in late fall, with land far behind, Liput drops two 13-foot-wide steel scallop dredges to the seafloor and tows them, their 4-inch-ring chain bags dragging behind. The duration of the tow depends on the catch, but can be as short as 15 minutes or as long as an hour. A giant winch whines as two steel cables coil over their drums and bring the dredges to the surface and up onto the steel deck, where the chain bags clink and rattle. A cargo winch inverts the bags, and hundreds of rose-and-sand-colored shells click onto the deck. Two deck-hands reconnect the tow wires and prepare to redeploy the dredges before joining other crew members as they stand wide-legged, bent at the waist, picking through the piles by hand and tossing the scallops into orange plastic bushel baskets. The remaining bycatch – anything else that winds up in the dredges – is shoveled overboard through wide scupper gates while a crew member carries the bushels forward into a shucking house. A few bushels go onto the forklift and are sent to the upper deck for Liput – and then they all begin to shuck. Scallop by scallop, each crew member stands before a stainless-steel “cutting box,” which looks like a sink, sticks a knife between the shells, removes the scallop, and drops it into a bucket while tossing the shells into a stainless gutter that leads back to the sea. The shucked scallops are washed carefully and packed into ivory-colored cotton bags. Liput figures that a full bag, about 18 by 24 inches, weighs 50 pounds. When they’re using their limited fishing days, the crew works 24 hours a day. Two groups of three crew members each work in six-hour watches, with the seventh crew member working half of each watch as the day passes into night and then to dawn. When the fishing is good, as it was in 2005 and 2006, the crew can reach 18,000 pounds in about 180 tows. “It also happens,” Liput says, “that you can’t get your limit.”
Liput’s last trip this year was a “Christmas trip,” a New Bedford tradition – one last trip out, usually in late November or December, to make extra money for the holidays. The weather is rougher and the work less pleasant, she explains, but because there are usually fewer scallops on the market, prices – and profits – can go up. “Fishermen take a chance because they’re thinking about their families,” she says. “The Christmas trip is special.” But since the Quincy II used up its days back in September, she went out as captain of the Sharon K instead.
Though many women work in the scallop industry ashore and a few at sea, Liput is unique as an experienced female captain in the New Bedford fleet – and modest about her status. “Eskimo women have been fishing for centuries,” she says. “What I do think is special is that women in this industry have the same skills and earn the same salary as the men. In many shore-side professions, women may have the same skills, but they continue to get paid less. I am very lucky. I unload the catch, and they pay me what it’s worth. They don’t pay less because a woman caught them.”
Kate Yeomans is a writer in Byfield. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company