Catch of the Day

Chatham’s municipal pier offers a gull’s
eye view of the fishing life.

By Jennifer Sexton | Photographs by Jay Elliott

It’s five-thirty in the morning, and I know two things for certain.
One is that the sky looks completely different in this pre-dawn hour than the night sky I am used to. The blackness is somehow blacker, the stars more plentiful, dazzling, brighter. Another is that it’s a good thing I am not a fisherman. Handling things like hooks and knives and electrical equipment in close proximity to water would be a bad move for me, because I have just learned that at five-thirty in the morning, I am utterly incapable of operating even my car’s cup holder.

Dieter Ganshaw is up at this hour, well before his two small daughters are even close to awakening. His work on fishing boats began at age fifteen. Now 33, Ganshaw is a crewmember on a boat called the Johanna. Like most fishing vessels, the Johanna’s intended quarry changes dramatically with the seasons, as does the gear used, the method of capture, and the location of the optimal fishing grounds. A typical day’s work ranges from gill netting for skates six miles off Chatham in the summertime to trekking one hundred miles into the open Atlantic in March, long-line fishing for haddock near the Hague Line, which separates United States waters from Canadian. “It’s no place for a thirty-five foot boat to be,” says Ganshaw. “But you’ve got to push the limits sometimes.”

IMG_4260At this time of morning, with the faintest of glows just beginning beyond the strip of Cape Cod National Seashore opposite Chatham Harbor, the fishermen go about their preparations with minimal talk. Clad in variations of the same work pants, rubber boots, hooded sweatshirt, and baseball cap against the chilly morning, they scrub down their equipment and slosh fresh water over the decks. Boats idle at the dock, their antennas piercing the unlit sky. Everything is in shades of gray at this hour save clusters of brightly colored floats that to mark gear in the water look like birthday balloons—pink and orange and yellow. The salt air takes on a taste of industry as the boats’ exhaust forms soft clouds and disappears.

The herring gulls are also arriving for work, filling the air with their calls. They float, oblivious to the spotted harbor seals with their enormous black eyes and cartoon character whiskers. The larger gray seals, also known as “horse heads,” have got the so-homely-it’s-cute thing down to an art form. They are charcoal-dark in color, with mulish, convex snouts. They pop up with inborn comic timing to see what’s going on topside, then disappear again. Both species of seal laze in the water next to the fish pier, turning circles and waiting for the bounty of fish scraps that they know from experience will arrive with the first boat’s successful return.

Three men leave the pier, standing upright in the tiniest motorboat imaginable. Just when it seems they might motor all the way out to the horizon, they finally stop at one of the black, sleeping boats and climb onto it. Another is standing on the pier with an insulated lunch box and a gigantic thermos, which must be full of hot coffee, waiting for his boat to pick him up.

The Sea Chase is a handsome red and white vessel. The white-bearded fisherman standing on board drinking coffee in the half-light, looking back at the Pier as the boat gets under way, could be gazing across thirty yards of water or across three hundred years of fishing history. “Save some for the rest of us,” calls someone from the dock. He nods and raises his coffee cup in silent response. The Sea Chase grows smaller and prepares to negotiate the sand bar on her way out of the harbor, bound for hours of work in the expansive sea.

In the afternoon, a green vessel appears with the telltale swirl of gulls in attendance, signifying a fresh catch. The dizzying cloud of gulls whirls counterclockwise like an avian tornado. There are other boats moving, but only this one interests the gulls.

The vessel, Perry’s Pride II, is laden with a catch of skates, large kite-shaped creatures with handsome leopard-spotted skins and bluish-white bellies. The catch is divided into bins of valuable skate wings, ready to be washed and iced for export, and bins of the unusable portion of the fish, which may be discarded or used as bait. Gulls land in the water and screech, vying with seals for handouts. The gulls with most bravado, or perhaps the largest appetites, land right in the bins, standing on the heaped scraps and feasting uninterrupted.

IMG_5743Men wearing orange rubber overalls load the skate wings into a mechanized metal container, which lifts the catch to the top of a metal chute. The skate wings then slide down to the processing area, out of sight beneath the balcony. The fishermen rinse away the remnants of the day’s haul with giant rubber hoses. In impossibly short order, the boat is in a state of wet cleanliness for tomorrow’s chase. One fisherman takes time out to toss skates to the seals, who catch and shake them like exuberant dogs, as the fisherman shouts, “Get it, boy! Get it!”

More boats arrive, carrying codfish and hake, the silver and red-orange of the fish gleaming like treasure from the ice in which they lay. Men unload lobsters, their shells shining in shades of green and bronze. Their colors bring to mind the monument at the entrance to the pier, with its bronze shellfish, squid, cod and haddock and its dedication: “To the Chatham Fishing Industry—Ever Changing to Remain the Same.”

The visitors’ balcony gives laypeople a chance to observe the activity at the pier without getting in the way of the work to be done. In the summer it is a popular attraction for tourists. The fishermen are friendly. They answer the questions of interested observers with grace and good humor, even if they haven’t had the greatest day out on the water.

As the late afternoon light paints boats in shades of yellow and orange, double-crested cormorants rise from nearby Tern Island and form softly changing lines against the swiftly coloring sky, flying south, perhaps to Monomoy Island, for the night. A young gull, its feathers a barred pattern of silver and gray, chooses a slippery, inclined surface on the deck of the Perry’s Pride II to land on. Able to neither stand nor take flight, it flails and scrabbles to escape. What will the tired fishermen do with this bird, which they consider a pest? A fisherman approaches and gingerly, almost tenderly, avoiding the snapping beak, picks the bird up as naturally as one might a naughty cat. With a deft swing of his upper body, he places the gull back into the sky.