BAR HARBOR, Maine — The scene bore some similarity to what life on the water may have looked like 150 years ago, according to some scientists.
A wooden schooner sat idle under rainy skies in Frenchman Bay. Two men, one standing by the railing and another kneeling at a basket behind, pulled a quarter-mile length of rope from the water, coiling it on board as they worked. Every 15 to 20 feet, dangling from the rope by a few feet of line, a hook came up out of the water as the fishing line was reeled in from the bottom, more than 100 feet down in the bay.
But on Aug. 3, after three such lines with more than 200 hooks that had been baited were hauled up from the deep, the only creature that was caught was a starfish. In the 1860s, according to academics and scientists participating in the experiment, such fishing methods sometimes resulted in hundreds of cod being caught from the waters off Mount Desert Island.
“I guess there were as many as 300 fishing boats in the [Frenchman Bay] area,” Roger Woodman, captain of the 56-foot schooner Alert, said about the bay’s 19th century commercial fishing fleet. “We’re just trying to see what’s on the grounds now.”
Woodman, who normally is based out of Portland, sailed his boat to Mount Desert Island last week to spend several days working with scientists at MDI Biological Laboratory and the University of New Hampshire to see whether they could catch fish using 19th century fishing methods. The plan was to compare their level of success with logbooks from boats that fished the bay in the 1860s.
According to Bill Leavenworth, a historical ecologist at UNH, from 1792 to 1866 the federal government paid fishermen to catch cod and required them to keep records of what they caught. These records were kept in logbooks, many of which have been kept in storage at the National Archives Regional Administration in Waltham, Mass., among other places.
Using historical, mid-1800s logbooks from boats based in Frenchman Bay, Machias Bay, out of Bath, and other places, researchers from UNH have spent several years compiling the information into a database, Leavenworth said. By delving into the historical records and descriptions of fishing conditions, he said, researchers are hoping to draw comparisons with current commercial fish stocks to find out more about how much, other than the obvious steep decline in overall fish landings, has changed.
“These grounds haven’t been fished for a generation or more,” Leavenworth said on the Alert on Aug. 3 as the boat made its way back to MDI Bio Lab from the eastern side of Long Porcupine Island. “Once we [fish] several of these grounds, we’ll do a comparison.”
Charles Wray, associate director of the lab, said Tuesday that he went out with Woodman and the others two days last week. They did catch one 37-inch halibut in the outer bay of Baker Island on Aug. 4, but had to throw it back because it was 4 inches below the minimum size allowed. They also caught some wrymouth and sculpin off Frenchboro last Friday, he said. Aside from the lone halibut, they didn’t catch any of the historic groundfish species that used to be caught in large quantities in the state’s near-shore waters.
“We didn’t find any fish, and we want to know why,” Wray said. “We didn’t see any juvenile groundfish, which is a serious concern.”
Wray said MDI Bio Lab has focused on biomedical research of marine species since its founding in 1898, but that it also wants to promote conservation of the environment. Sustainable fishing not only has an indirect effect on the species used by the lab for its research, he said, but it is key to maintaining the economy and fishing culture of coastal Maine.
“The Bio Lab has a renewed interest in conservation issues in our local waters,” Wray said. “We want to facilitate conservation fishing. We want to be good members of our community.”
Wray said the lab plans to approach private foundations about contributing money to keep the project going. If some funding can be secured, he said, Woodman and his schooner may return to Frenchman Bay next summer for further research.
“We’re going to go out and find some funding to continue the project,” Wray said. “Not a ton, but enough to keep the boat going.”
Woodman, a former commercial fisherman who now makes a living as an investment adviser, said last week that he was attracted to the project because he loves and cares about fishing. He said the project is a good way for fishermen and scientists to work together to help restore groundfish stocks.
“It’s a curiosity factor of seeing all the old logs,” Woodman said about donating his time and schooner to the study. “This is a good project for everyone to try to get something out of. We’re trying to set an example.”
But for most of the weeklong fishing effort, the main thing Woodman got out of the water was empty hooks. On Aug. 3, almost all of the bait that Woodman and Brian Tarbox, a fisherman and marine studies faculty member at Southern Maine Community College, set on the hooks disappeared after going over the side of the boat without anything taking its place.
Woodman said the hooks had been baited with “primo squid and clams.”
Despite the lack of any meaningful catch, Woodman said sensors on his boat indicated that there were smaller fish higher up in the water column for the larger groundfish to eat. Also, the fact that something appeared to be eating the bait, he said, was promising.
“I’m always hoping to catch something,” Woodman said. “I’m the eternal optimist.”