Fisheries report from 1970s tells tales

Feb 28, 2024 | Charting the Past


A 900-pound tuna, hoisted up to the Fishermen’s Cooperative packing house on McMillan Wharf in 1979. Helping handle the lines are Larry Meads in cap and Jay Lanzillo, right. Lanzillo served as the project coordinator for “An Economic Profile of the Cape & Islands Fisheries. Cape Cod Times photo.

By Doreen Leggett

“The good ole days weren’t always good. And tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.”

We thought of that line by pop star Billy Joel when we came across a copy of a fisheries report from 1978 that has observations about the industry as well as descriptions and landings of Cape ports.

“An Economic Profile of the Cape & Islands Fisheries” was prepared by the Cape Cod Planning and Economic Development Commission (precursor of the Cape Cod Commission).

Landings in some ports have gone down (Sandwich and Provincetown) in 40-odd years, while others have gone up considerably (Chatham and Barnstable). In total, the Cape’s landings reported in the state’s most recent port study, 2022, are significantly higher than in 1977 – 73 million to 47.5 million.

The 1978 project coordinator was Jay Lanzillo, hired about a decade later by a group of fishermen to attend regional and national regulatory fisheries meetings. In 1991, those fishermen coalesced into the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association which became the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance.

The impetus behind the report was the emerging New England Fishery Management Council, one of eight councils created under the Fishery and Conservation Act of 1976, commonly referred to as Magnuson-Stevens.

The authors of the economic profile report said the new council would rely on biological, social and economic data to develop management plans. On the Cape there was a dearth of economic data – fishermen weren’t particularly forthcoming about their businesses. One unnamed fisherman is quoted: “The silent pig gets the most swill.”

The authors felt the time for anonymity was over.

“Silence will only lead to ill-conceived management,” they wrote.

The report was published for other reasons as well:

“At the present time many decisions that directly or indirectly impact the fishing industry are made with little or no knowledge of the role played by commercial fishing in the area economy,” the report stated.

That reason still resonates today and was a driving force behind the state’s port profile project, Port by PortProfiles and Analysis of the Massachusetts Commercial Fishery, which the Fishermen’s Alliance partnered with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and UMass Urban Harbors Institute to create.

In the 1970s, the catch of finfish dwarfed the catch of sea scallops. Today that’s reversed. The total catch of scallops was listed in the report as 2.7 million. By 2021, Chatham alone brought in 2.5 million pounds, Provincetown was almost twice that. There are also more lobster and shellfish landed in the present day.

Two towns, Brewster and Truro, have a small commercial footprint now but had no commercial fisheries in the late 1970s. Here is how Truro was described:

“The early prosperous days for Truro were in the mid-1830s. Mackerel fisheries were well suited to a harbor restricted to shallow draft vessels.

“The heyday of fishing in Truro is over. This land … offers no full-time commercial fishing.”

The story is different in Provincetown and Sandwich, then the most successful ports on the Cape. One difference between today is that there were two Provincetown fish companies that leased space on MacMillan Wharf. One building was occupied by Seafood Packers, which had an office for the Provincetown Fishermen’s Cooperative.

Fishing boats tied up and rafted together, four to five deep; during the season, tuna boats tied up 10 or more deep. There were also 300 moorings in the harbor available at no charge – larger fishing vessels would anchor and come ashore in tenders. There was no dockage fee for commercial vessels on the pier.

In the 1970s there were hydraulic and winch systems that unloaded up to 14,000 pounds of fish in an hour or two. Fish were packed and sent primarily off Cape by eight to 16 packers.

Provincetown recently secured a grant to replace a boom so groundfish can be unloaded quickly and easily – something the pier has gone without for awhile.

As an interesting aside, four grocery stores in town were named and each supplied a group of boats.

Sandwich landed a lot of flounder in the 1970s; 1.3 million pounds of blackback (winter flounder), 817,000 pounds of yellowtail, 239,000 pounds of witch (grey sole), and 177,000 pounds of summer flounder (fluke).

The most recent port numbers in Sandwich tell a different story: Jonah Crab is the top catch at 1.5 million pounds, followed by lobster.

There were four businesses on the canal that bought and processed seafood: Canal Marine focused on herring, hake, mackerel, menhaden and squid; Atlantic Fillet took in finfish and scallops; Hyannis Seafood specialized in swordfish in the summer; and Joe’s Lobster.

Chatham, then as now, was an impressive port with a diverse catch. The 1970 study noted 40 vessels engaged in longlining, jigging, sea scalloping, and inshore lobstering. The municipal fish pier was leased to Old Harbor Fish Company and Chatham Seafood Coop.

“Services include archaic, but mechanized, unloading of fish at rate of 600 pounds of fish per lift,” the study read.

About 6.8 million pounds of fish landed, compared to 26 million in the state’s most recent port profile. Tile fish and halibut are still packed in more expensive wooden boxes. All other species, dogfish and skate for example, are packed in waxed corrugated cartons.

At the time there were 14 bait shanties to serve longline fishing boats. Stage Harbor was also a bustling commercial port, still active today. In the 1970s it supported three weir fishing companies.

The historic report also delved into the economic impact of the Chatham Bar, stating that storms, shoaling and fog have been responsible for tens of thousands of dollars in losses — and loss of lives.

Other tidbits of note:

  • There were eight commercial eeling boats in Barnstable.
  • Cod was the largest volume catch in Chatham at 2.5 million pounds, sea scallop was the most valuable at $1 million. Sturgeon, seldom seen now, was also landed.
  • Almost half of the fish landed on the Cape was landed by transient or off-Cape boats. That fish was worth close to $9 million.
  • From the late 1960s to the late 1970s the volume of shellfish and finfish landed at Cape ports increased by 14 percent.
  • An estimated 300 people worked year-round in seafood retail and wholesale establishments and during the summer that more than doubled.


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