New Bedford has long been known as the nation’s top fishing port by the value of its catch, thanks to the bounty of fish and scallops harvested each year – $206.5 million worth in 2004. But for years, the city didn’t celebrate that achievement, or its fishing industry in general.
Some say physical barriers – among, them Route 18, which separates the waterfront from the rest of the city – contributed to New Bedford’s lack of connection to the fishing industry.
Others point to mental barriers, created to a degree by negative publicity pegging fishermen as “sea pirates” out to strip the waters of marine life.
Laura Orleans said she hopes the Working Waterfront Festival has helped to change those misconceptions and has left more unity in its wake.
Orleans is the founder and director of the two-day festival, now in its third year, which took place last weekend.
Inspired by attending a similar event in Seattle, Orleans said, she created the festival to celebrate New Bedford’s fishing culture and “allow the fishing industry to tell its own story in its own way.”
Nearly 10,000 people have attended each year, to hear fishermen tell stories about their fishing trips and watch them compete in scallop-shucking and net-mending contests, she said. Attendees taste the local seafood, prepared by local vendors; listen to music and to authors’ readings of stories inspired by the sea; and take tours of fishing boats and Coast Guard “cutters,” which are large enough to accommodate a crew that lives aboard.
The fishing industry employs about 3,500 people in New Bedford. About 400 of them are fishermen, who go out on daily, week-long or sometimes month-long fishing trips to harvest the catch processed in New Bedford, said Rodney Avila, marine superintendent for the New Bedford Harbor Development Commission, which manages the city’s port.
The fishermen harvest scallops, lobsters, cod, haddock, flounder, mussels, clams – “you name it,” said Avila, who fished from the port for 40 years himself before accepting his current position.
There are 300 boats registered at the port and about 90 transport boats, which travel from other areas to fish there.
Avila said the best thing about the festival is, “it gives fishermen and people not associated a chance to interact with each other, to see how fishermen live for a week at a time.”
The fishermen have started filming their trips, he said, to show people at the festival what their lives are like. They also tell stories and answer questions.
“One woman thought a machine shucked all the scallops,” said Deb Shrader, executive director of Shore Support, a nonprofit group that advocates for New Bedford’s fishermen and their families. “I told her ‘no, my husband does it.’ ”
Shrader said the idea that fishermen are anti-conservationist is also a myth. “No fisherman wants to catch the last fish in the sea.”
Many fishermen take measures to conserve the resource, she said, including using nets with larger mesh openings to allow juvenile fish to swim through. And they attend science and management seminars, which help them to understand the business side of the industry.
The Working Waterfront Festival is also “sort of a mini-trade show,” Shrader said. It allows vendors from the fishing industry to set up booths. Those exhibitors might bring engines, ocean survival gear or different kinds of netting for fishermen to browse.
“It’s interesting for the layperson,” she said, to watch the survival suit contest for example, because it shows them how quickly fishermen are expected to slip on the gear in the event a boat starts to sink – about 60 seconds.
Shrader said she hopes that, if people come away from the festival with a better understanding of “how our industry affects others, affects the community, maybe they’ll understand why we need more flexibility.”
Orleans said she hopes the festival also makes people aware of the fishing industry’s value to the local economy.
“Banks have liens on boats,” she said. “Crews buy $1,700 work of groceries for one trip. When the fishing industry suffers, the supermarkets suffer. We’re all interconnected.”