200 years of cod fishing in Provincetown
By Doreen Leggett
Commercial fishing transformed Provincetown generations ago, close to 700 boats filling the port, salted cod covering flat surfaces all along the waterfront.
“It is hard for most people to imagine that Provincetown was completely overtaken by the commercial fishing industry,” said Mary Everett Patriquin, public programs coordinator at Cape Cod Maritime Museum in Hyannis. “The number of cold storage facilities, piers and wharves, shipbuilders, coopers, sail makers, fish oil processing plants, iron mongers … all speaks to a town that was economically driven by the fishing industry and saw its boom years as a result of the fishing industry.”
While many people would say tourism has now overtaken the town’s economy, Provincetown’s commercial fishing tradition remains a strong economic driver, though the scale has changed as have the types of fish now brought to market.
The museum’s new exhibit, “Quest for Cod: Two Hundred Years of Fishing in Provincetown,” details one of many sagas in the town’s long fishy history: the cod years.
“The story in some ways is emblematic of boom-bust stories in so many industries, all across the country. But this specific story is about Provincetown and cod,” Everett-Patriquin said.
The exhibit follows a fishing trajectory from the beginning of the cod craze to contemporary times when fishing vessels targeting cod, as well as pollock, haddock, flounder and other groundfish, dropped to five and then one. Since the exhibit was created, renewed interest in groundfishing has seen a few more boats join in, and those who know the town understand that the loss of codfish did not mean the end of the fleet; fishermen have a long history of diversifying to meet new challenges.
It's a story that in the end underscores adaptability: Today Provincetown is the seventh most valuable port in the state for total landings, in large part because of lobsters and scallop.
In 1871 it was in the top spot, per capita the richest community in the state because of fishing.
Commercial fishing got a bit of a slow start in town. One could argue the town itself got a slow start; it wasn’t much to speak of until after the Revolutionary War.
From a maritime perspective the community at the tip was positioned well, being relatively close to Georges Bank's extremely productive fishing grounds.
Georges, as the exhibit points out, killed more fishermen and wrecked more boats than any other area fished by New Englanders. So initially the fleet in Provincetown stayed away until the 1830s, when Gloucester fishermen came back with huge hauls and found it worth the risk.
Provincetown fishermen were traveling to Stellwagen Bank, an underwater finger pointing to Gloucester in the middle of Massachusetts Bay, then bringing their catch to Boston.
But with the addition of Georges and the Grand Banks, there were nearly 700 fishing schooners from the town by the mid-1800s.
Around the end of the Civil War, dory trawling was introduced. Schooners built for speed would get to the grounds and launch six to eight dories, two men each, who would then longline for cod.
There is a reproduction of a dory, and a tub trawl, in the museum’s exhibit. Each tub had 3,000 feet of line with 500 hooks. Into the 1980s small-boat fishermen could fish eight tubs a day.
“You really have to admire, one, the courage, and two, the physicality of the work, rowing, hauling in the lines, loading the catch from the dory up onto the schooner, what it takes to bait a longline,” Everett-Patriquin said. “I must say I am made of weaker of stuff.”
When the boats returned from a Grand Banks trip, a five-month, 1,100-mile voyage, they put salted cod fish out to dry on racks, or flakes as they were called.
Everett-Patriquin said the team who put the exhibit together, led by guest curator Dr. Keith Richards (who has connections in Provincetown), had a wealth of historic photos to choose from, many of flaking.
Before refrigeration, salt cod was near-perfect food, as cod contains no fat so didn’t turn rancid.
Everett-Patriquin said she, like many, knew there were salt works on the Cape. She just was unaware of the extent.
“You really get a sense of what a tremendous industry that was, acres and acres taken over by salt making,” she said. “Ptown alone had 78 salt works.”
The town generated in excess of three million pounds of salt a year.
“These numbers are staggering,” said Everett-Patriquin.
The salt industry went hand in hand with commercial fishing, which had grown so big that many fishermen were housed in low-slung dormitories.
“They were not appetizing accommodations,” she said.
In 1892, the first cold storage plant was built in Provincetown. And in the early 1900s, internal combustion engines began replacing sail. By the 1920s, the exhibit says the engines were powerful enough to drag a net behind the boat. Enter the otter trawl, which eliminated the need for hooks or bait.
With the advent of draggers, as they were called, eastern and western rigs became common in town. With the eastern rig, the nets could be set from the starboard or port side. The western (which was safer) set the net from the stern. Both types, as well as a schooner, are represented by models built by Richards.
The 1950s and ‘60s were good times for Provincetown fishermen, boats were owned by local families and enough was earned to support three or four fishing families each.
They were tied up three to four deep at Macmillan Wharf. But good cod fishing did not last. In 1982 there were 45,000 metric tons of cod landed. In 1995 that dropped to 10,000. By 2008, the exhibit says, only five groundfish boats remained, and soon after, the Donna Marie was the only boat that belonged to a groundfish “sector,” set up by federal regulations to manage fishing quota by region.
This didn’t mean there weren’t other commercial fishermen hard at work, but groundfish was no longer their primary target. Fishermen still possess permits that allow them to land groundfish like cod, or haddock – which has increased in abundance.
Still, there is no arguing that the cod fishery has declined. State records show the catch dropped 90 percent between 2009 and 2018.
“Part of the exhibit looks at the great decline. It’s a complex and sobering situation,” Everett-Patriquin said.
But, as typical of history, it is rewriting itself.
The fisheries continue to evolve, and other boats are looking to drag and groundfish once again.
One, the F/V Ernest and Michael, working mainly out of New Bedford for now, combining scalloping and groundfishing, is named after the grandfathers of the boat’s captain, Provincetown native Scott Rorro, both of whom played big roles in Provincetown’s fishing history.