Saturday, August 18, 2012

Fish Flakes and Trap Boats are Part of Provincetown's Rich Fishing History

This photo of fish flakes is in the collection of
Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum
This old photo shows the fish laid out to dry on one of the 118 wharves that, at one time or another, lined Provincetown's shore, just off of Commercial Street, along the beaches of the harbor. In the early days here the fishing industry employed several hundred fishermen, and hundreds on the land as well. In fact, at one time Provincetown was the wealthiest town on the cape, and, arguably, the wealthiest town in the entire Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Cod and other species were caught and brought to shore in great numbers, being caught in various ways over the years. Mackerel is a "schooler," a fish traveling in great numbers of its kind, or in schools of fish that could be hauled out of the water in sizable amounts. Mackerel helped to fuel the early economy here.
Another fish flake photo in the PMPM collection
Cod was also caught in great numbers in the early days of the PTown fishing industry. Once the cod was cleaned it was salted and laid out to dry on "fish flakes," large open-air racks on the wharves. This was the method of preserving the fish when these photos were taken. The fish had to be carried indoors each night and carried out again the next day so the dew wouldn't collect on it overnight and spoil the fish. Nearly everyone in Provincetown in those days somehow owed their living to the fishing industry, whether they were out in the boats bringing it in, or on the land looking after the fish once it was unloaded on the wharves.
Photo of trap fishing found on the
Library of Congress website
By the 1930s and 40s, the cold storage operations were in full swing, employing people in a variety of jobs as these companies caught, processed, froze, packaged and distributed enormous amounts of fish. Atlantic Coast Fisheries Company owned the Cape Cod Cold Storage, located where the U.S. Coast Guard Station stands today, at the sharp bend of Commercial Street in the West End. This plant alone operated three trap boats, each with a crew of five men who went out in the wee hours of the morning to scoop up the hapless fish who had made their way into the "purse." There was a net attached to tall, upright hickory posts pounded into the floor of the harbor in a straight line out from the shore and curving into a circle with a "gate" left open so the fish could swim in, guided by the straight line of netting that led the fish from the shoreline out to the purse. The fishermen would then come out in small boats and enter the purse, closing the gate behind them, and scoop the fish into the boats. This was one of the greatest methods of fishing ever devised, because it had virtually no impact on the environment. It didn't tear up the ocean floor the way dragging a net behind a boat does, for example.
In 1935, Provincetown fishermen landed 30 million pounds of fish, with 20 million pounds being brought in by trap boats. At that time there were seven "cold storages," as they were called, with the Cape Cod Cold Storage in the West End employing 50 to 100 workers in the cold storage itself, along with the crews operating their three trap boats. The site also had a wharf, power house, pump house, machine shop, blacksmith shop, fillet plant, freezer and cannery.
Trap fishing here ended around the 1960s or 70s, and today we have just a handful of Provincetown boats still fishing in other ways.

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