100 Years, 100 Stories – May

100 Years, 100 Stories

May: Harvesting the Sea

Islanders have long subsisted off the animals living in the sea, and made a living from them as well – harvesting  creatures from local ponds to feed their families, fishing the waters surrounding the Island to sell their catch for profit, and traveling the world  to hunt whales for oil and baleen. The first European colonizers of the Island marveled at the seemingly limitless bounty of the sea but, as with so many natural resources, that limitlessness was an illusion. The limits became apparent to whalers in the late nineteenth century, and to fishermen in the late twentieth century. They are apparent to all now, spurring conversations about how to harvest the sea without exhausting it.

1. Catching fish 5000 years ago

Title: Harpoon
Date: c.3000 BC – AD 1400
Reference: 2003.012.001

Seafood has been an important part of the Island diet for thousands of years. The ancestors of the Wampanoag people who live here now fished using weirs (underwater fences placed to direct fish into traps) and harpoons such as this one, which was found along the shore in Aquinnah. It would have had a line tied to it and been secured at the end of a spear. The barbed end lodged in the fish’s flesh and the hunter used the line to pull the catch in. The earliest inhabitants of the Island also harvested shellfish such as quahogs, scallops, and oysters.

It is not surprising that native peoples ate so much fish and shellfish. The abundance of fish that literally surrounded Islanders of the past must have seemed limitless, and it definitely seemed so in 1602, when English “gentleman-adventurer” Bartholomew Gosnold visited the area. He famously gave Cape Cod the name we use today after sailing through the area, noting “we took [a] great store of codfish.”

Today on Martha’s Vineyard, the Natural Resources Department of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) is charged with monitoring and protecting fish with the goal of preserving the species that their ancestors fished for thousands of years.

2. Opportunity in the whaling industry

Title: Joseph Belain
Artist: Elizabeth R. Whelan
Date: 2018
Reference: 2019.009.001

The American offshore whaling industry was fiercely meritocratic. Rather than being paid wages like naval and merchant sailors, whalers received an agreed-upon share of the profits when the voyage was over. A successful voyage meant more money in everyone’s pocket, and a sailor’s racial or ethnic identity mattered far less than his skill at the difficult, dangerous work of catching and killing whales.

Whaling crews were often multiethnic, and Black and Native American men had a chance of rising to positions of leadership. One such man was Joseph Belain (1848-1926). Born in Gay Head (Aquinnah) into a family of whalemen, Belain’s first whaling voyage was at the age of 17 and his career at sea lasted more than 50 years. Over the course of 20 whaling voyages, he served as harpooner, second mate, first mate, and twice as a replacement master. After he retired from whaling, Belain went fishing and lobstering between Martha’s Vineyard and New Bedford. 

In this portrait of Joseph Belain, artist Elizabeth Whelan has painted him from a tintype taken when he was a young man. She envisions him in the manner of portraits of sea captains that were made in the first half of the 19th century–on shipboard, with a sailing ship in the background.

3. A most useful animal

Title: Whale and Porpoise Oil Samples
Date: 1944
Reference: 1944.020.007

Whales were hunted for the oil rendered from their blubber. It was a fine oil,ideal for lubricating delicate machinery, and burned cleanly in lamps. Beginning in the mid-19th century, William F. Nye Company of New Bedford refined and processed whale and porpoise oil, specializing in oil for watches and delicate machinery. They were still selling whale and porpoise oil in the 1940s. 

Oil was not the only product of the whale hunt. Spermaceti, a waxy white solid harvested from sperm whales, was made into high-grade candles, and ambergris (found in their digestive tracts) was used in perfumes, Baleen, the long strips of tough, flexible protein that some whales use to strain krill, the microscopic animals on which they feed, from the water, was made into corset stays, buggy whips, and umbrella ribs in the late 19th century.

Declining whale populations, changing fashions, and the discovery of petroleum spelled the end of the whaling industry, but the fine whale oil was still preferred for some specialized uses, such as machine oil. Hunting whales, banned worldwide in 1986, is still practiced legally according to tradition by some Native Alaskan peoples and illegally by poachers.

4. Dried and salted for shipment

Title: Nomansland Codfish Box
Date: c. 1900-1940
Reference: 1999.047

Nomans Land is a small island three miles off the southwestern coast of the Vineyard. From 1943 to 1996 the island was used by US Navy aviators for bombing and gunnery practice, and in 1998 it became a restricted-access wildlife preserve controlled by the federal government’s Fish and Wildlife Service. It is now a restricted federal wildlife refuge, but during the 19th century, Nomans Land was home to a small number of sheep farmers and a seasonal colony of commercial fishermen who arrived from Chilmark in the spring and departed in early fall. This wooden box hints at that story.  

In the center of the box lid is the Nomans Land Boat (which is also featured on the Chilmark town seal). High-sided and double-ended, the vessel was designed for, and widely used in, places where there were no natural harbors. At the end of a day of fishing, they could be pulled onto the beach for the night by a team of oxen, then launched into the surf the next morning without turning around. 

Sailing from Nomans Land brought fishermen closer to the cod that filled the waters south of the island. They salted and dried their catch on Stony Point, east of the landing, and sold it to Fischer Brothers of Vineyard Haven, who packaged it in wooden boxes like this one and sold it locally as well as shipping it to New Bedford and Providence.

5. Fishing the ponds

Title: Eel Pot
Reference: 2023.003.025

The great ponds on Martha’s Vineyard have long been a source of herring, shellfish, and eels for the Island’s inhabitants to eat and sell. Demand for them has varied over time with changing tastes and markets. Herring, for example, was a favorite food of Vineyarder Charles Macreading Vincent. When he was serving in the Union Army during the Civil War he wrote letters home expressing his longing for this favorite fish. But in the 20th century, many considered it merely a bait fish– a tool for catching the fish you’d actually want to eat.

Another fish with varying appeal was the eel. Eels were caught and eaten in great numbers in the winter by Islanders, who used multi-pronged, long-handled “gigs,” thrust through holes in the ice, to spear them as they lay dormant on the pond floor. Eel pots like the one seen here captured large numbers of the fish from October through December as they tried to leave the ponds to return to the ocean, specifically the Sargasso Sea, where they spawned. The live eels that had been captured were held in crates underwater until they could fetch the best price around the holidays when Jewish and Italian residents of New York City used them in holiday cooking. By the early 20th century it was rare to see eel pots in use along the pond shores.   

6. A vanishing bounty

Title: Menemsha swordfishing fleet
Reference: RU 465 A7 39

In the heyday of Vineyard swordfishing during the first half of the 20th century, there were about 12 boats hunting swordfish out of Menemsha and eight out of Edgartown. Equipped by a tall mast for lookouts and a long narrow platform for the harpooner (called a “pulpit”) that jutted out from the bow, “Sword boats” supplied a market in which swordfish was seen as a delicacy. The abundance of swordfish in Vineyard waters made these fish profitable for the fisherman. Beginning after World War II fishermen were aided by spotters in small aircraft who could locate and identify swordfish from above and indicate their location to harpooners in the boat below.

The glory days of Island swordfishing began to wane in the 1970s, due to health concerns about the buildup of toxic mercury in swordfish flesh. The replacement of harpooning by long-lining in the 1980s made it difficult for the Menemsha fleet to compete with corporate-owned boats from mainland ports like New Bedford. Longlines were also indiscriminate in which fish they snared–females carrying roe, immature swordfish. Within a short period of time, they combined with unregulated competition from foreign vessels to decimate the swordfish population. In 1991 an emergency action by the United States Secretary of Commerce that strictly limited the number of swordfish that could be taken was necessary to protect the species.

7. When fishing isn’t enough

Title: Weathervane
Reference: 2015.042.007

As fish stocks were depleted and government regulators placed restrictions on species,  catch sizes, and sea time, it became more and more difficult for owner-operated local boats to compete with large fishing operations. With fewer permits available and the ones that were carrying fees that were crippling to small operators, fishermen looked for ways to supplement their incomes.

Some began to take sport fishermen out on day trips, and others operated “party boats” for vacationers who wanted a few hours or a day at sea. Still, others shifted from offshore to “day boat” fishing, providing small stocks of just-caught seafood to high-end restaurants and markets. Jimmy Morgan made weathervanes to sell in his small shop in Menemsha. Based on fishing vessels he knew from his long time fishing the waters around Martha’s Vineyard, these decorative objects recorded a way of life that was shrinking and in danger of disappearing altogether.

Despite many challenges, Menemsha is still a working fishing community. One organization helping to sustain the fishing industry here is the Martha’s Vineyard Fishermen’s Preservation Trust, a non-profit organization that purchases fishing permits and leases them to local fishermen at affordable prices.

8. From trap fishing to aquaculture

Reference: RU 465 A7

The nature of fishing near Island shores has had to change constantly to adapt to changing conditions and culinary tastes. Fishermen could once make a good living selling the fish they caught in traps — nets strung from poles driven into the sea floor, to intercept migrating fish — along the northwest shore of the Vineyard and nearby locations. But by the 1930s diminishing catches of weakfish (Cynoscion regalis), the primary fish trapped by this method, signaled the end of trap fishing as a profitable pursuit.  

Now, through a combination of public and private initiatives, the focus of fisheries in the near-shore waters around Martha’s Vineyard has shifted to sustainable aquaculture focusing on shellfish. The Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group, a non-profit in operation since 1976, works with the shellfish departments of the Island’s towns to spawn, raise, and distribute quahogs, bay scallops, and oysters to public beds for recreational and commercial shellfishing.

In addition, oyster farming is now a thriving business, with several companies operating in the warm, shallow waters of Katama Bay on plots leased from the Town of Edgartown.