For Fishing Familes, Hard Work, Hard Choices
Often what gets left out in discussions of fishing are the families that fishermen leave onshore. The spouse and children, as much as the fishermen themselves, are shaped by an all-consuming job that abounds in uncertainty and risk. Shannon Eldredge grew up with a fisherman father. She now is the co-proprietor of the Cape Cod Community Supported Fishery, serves on the Board of Directors of Women of Fishing Families, is the current Presiding Chair of the Northwest Atlantic marine Alliance board of Trustees, and is the full‐time educator at the Cape Cod Maritime Museum in Hyannis. We asked her how her father, and his industry shaped who she is today.
Where did you grow up?
What is your earliest memory of the ocean and or fish?
My earliest memory of the water is riding on my dad’s shoulders as he waded through a tidal channel on Monomoy, during a typical family outing to the island. There was a sea of horseshoe crabs, what seemed like hundreds of them, parading through the exact spot we needed to cross to get to the other side. My sister and I were afraid of them…what little kid wouldn’t be. Horseshoe crabs are like tiny tankers, with creepy crawly legs and a super spine of a tail. Now we harvest them in our fish weirs, and I can handle them without a flinch. But I’ll always remember that first encounter with the blockade of horseshoe crabs on Monomoy.
What sort of fisherman was your father?
My father has been a weir fisherman for nearly 50 years. That’s his primary fishery, but he’s done it all: quahogging in the summer, bay scalloping the fall, Scottish seining in the winter, long lining for cod. He’s harvested mussels & steamers, and last year he was crewing on a sea scallop boat. He is a man of many fisheries, but the weirs are at his core.
What are the best parts and worst parts of being a fisherman’s daughter?
The best part of being a fisherman’s daughter is that my dad is the strongest man in the world and can build or fix anything. He’s an engineering genius, which is a result of years & years of boat engine & machine maintenance, and building fish weirs, twine haulers, other gear technologies, and fixing everything necessary for off-loading fish on our dock. He’s also a master mariner and meteorologist, without all the schooling. If I was stranded on a deserted island, I’d want my father there with me because he’d make it so we’d not only survive, but a build a boat and make it home.
The worst part of being a fisherman’s daughter: Well, that has changed over time. First, as a little kid, it was the smell. I hated the smell that followed my dad…whenever we visited him down at the dock, yuck! Then, as a teenager, my parents had daily conversations about the struggles they were facing with regulations. It would have been perfectly fine with me then if I never heard about fishing again. Now at age 30 working alongside my father everyday, the worst part of being a fisherman’s daughter is that I’ve realized I will never be able to attain the fishing knowledge that my father has accumulated throughout his life. I don’t think he had a choice, so his education began at a very early, impressionable age when he would fish with his father on the traps. My dad never intended me to take over the business, so I started learning later in the life. I’m behind, and he’s getting older, so somehow it seems too late to learn enough to be where he was when he was my age. In the same breath, I’m endlessly grateful that we have this experience together. Not many women get to say they work side-by-side with their dad, learning an ancient dying art of a fishery.
How did his influence on you guide your career choices?
My parents wanted me to go to college, but they made it clear that their dollar could only go so far. That’s the reality of a fishing family’s earnings. So, I clammed my way through college every day of every summer. My father bartered for a boat, taught me how to use a compass, and I was off on my own. At that stage I had no intention of entering the fishing business on a serious level. But I learned incredible self-discipline in my first self-employed venture, and that absolutely translated into how I operated in college; I studied very hard, rarely missed a class, barely partied, and made the most of my own dollar. It all started with my parents who set the example: my mom was a clammer on her own for some time, showing me that I didn’t need anyone to get me there but me. And my dad has a herculean work ethic. They both have an incredible will.
After clamming, and between college & grad school, red tide hit Chatham and shellfishing was shut down. My dad gave me a job packing fish and crewing on the trap boat for the spring. I was hooked! From then on, I fished with my dad any time off I could find, and that held true for several years. Day trips, or month-long stints here and there. I fell in love with weir fishing.
I believe that my father’s influence on my current career choice—fisherman—is almost genetic. Trapping runs in our blood, and I can’t deny that.
What is the most important issue facing fishing families in your opinion?
Fishing families are essential to community food systems, yet they are an endangered species. As a result of fisheries regulations, the New England fishing fleet is consolidating into fewer boats, owned by industrial-scale operations that are exporting fish overseas. Fishing families are being put out of business, and the local seafood source is becoming scarce. One of the solutions to this problem is market transformation: Consumers need to demand locally-caught, in season fish from sustainably-scaled fisheries. Fishermen need to demand fair prices for their products from those who broker, wholesale and distribute them. Both parties can work together in Community Supported Fisheries, and create a direct sales relationship thus building transparency in the supply chain and a fair price for fish on both sides.
The bottom line is that Who Fishes Matters, and consumers should recognize that very notion each & every time they sit down to a good old traditional Cape Cod seafood dinner!